Chords are the foundation for everything in music.
From Baroque Concertos to Wonderwall, chords play a huge role. And if you learn how to play chords on guitar, then you’ll quickly be able to play most songs ever written.
In fact, entire genres like Jazz, Blues, Rock and Pop revolve around chords.
In this post I’ll go over all the essential chords that you need to know, and share some tricks for getting good at them…
Ask any guitarist what you should learn first and they will always say to learn chords.
Your first guitar lesson? Chords! Writing a song? Chords! Got no friends? Chords! Hopefully you can begin to see how important they are to music and to life. Even if you think they’re as boring as an unseasoned Brussel sprout (which they aren’t) then you should still learn them.
Thankfully, they’re pretty easy to learn. That’s one of the reasons why everyone tells you to learn them. You can actually start playing and writing music really quickly if you learn how to play chords on guitar.
So let’s start with the ones that you should learn first…
The Basic Chords You Should Know
There are a handful of chords that are essential. Learn them and you’ll be able to play loads of songs straight away.
In my opinion, these are the most important chords that you should know:
Major: E, G, A, D, C, F
Minor: Em, Am, Dm, Fm
And the Dominant and Minor 7th variants for each of these chords. Click here to view the post I have on the must-know 7th chords.
It may sound like a lot but most of the chord shapes are really similar so it doesn’t take that long to learn them all. Get the major versions down, and the minor versions won’t take long to learn at all.
Luckily for you, I’ve added some diagrams down below of how to play these chords…
How to Play Major Chords
Major chords are like the ready salted crisps of the chord world. Basic, simple and tasteless.
Just joking, major chords aren’t really tasteless, I just wanted to see how many people got annoyed when I insulted ready salted crisps…
Anyway, these are the major chords that I suggest you learn to play on guitar:
This is an E chord. It’s one of the most fundamental and useful chords in the book.
The diagrams shows the fretboard from top down so that you can see exactly where to place your fingers.
Each black dot indicates which frets and strings you should place your fingers on.
The numbers on them indicate which finger you should play those particular notes with: 1 – index finger, 2 – middle finger, 3 – ring finger and 4 – pinkie finger.
The six vertical lines indicate the six strings on the guitar. The lowest/thickest string is on the left and the highest/thinnest string is on the right.
TIP: The three hollow white circles at the top indicate the strings that you should play open. In other words, you don’t have to put any fingers down on those strings for the notes to be correct.
This is a G chord. It might feel a bit fiddly to begin with but you will soon get used to it.
You may also have seen people playing a G chord another way, but this is the most commonly used shape and it sounds the best.
This is an A chord.
The X above the lowest string indicates that you shouldn’t play that string.
Either don’t strum it or mute it with your left hand thumb to ensure it doesn’t ring out. You just want to hear those 5 highest strings.
Also, the reason why you place your index finger here is so that you can switch to other chords easier. Particularly when switching to D – which we will look at next – you can save a lot of effort.
This is a D chord. Like the G chord, it may feel a bit fiddly at first, but it’ll soon feel natural.
Be sure to also mute/avoid playing the Low E and A strings. You only want to hear the highest 4 strings.
TIP: When switching from A to D, you don’t have to move your index finger, meaning you can use it as a pivot point to make chord changes easier.
OMG, ANOTHER TIP: When switching from G to D, your ring finger doesn’t have to move either, so you can use as a pivot point too, woohoo!
Be sure to look out for more chord changes where you can use fingers as pivot points…
This is a C chord. Make sure that you don’t mute the G and high E strings by accident. You want to hear those but not the low E string.
This is an F chord. You’ll notice that your first finger holds down two notes at once. To do this, you want to use the pad of your index finger, and flatten it across the two strings.
It should look like this:
It may feel a little clumsy or difficult to begin with but it’s super helpful in the long run. When you learn to play chords on guitar, getting good at “barring” multiple notes down with one finger is a skill that will help you, like, A LOT.
You will thank me for it later when you learn to play bar chords.
Oh yeah, speaking of bar chords, you might have seen people play this quite differently.
There’s also an F shape that allows you to play all 6 strings, but requires you to bar/barre down more notes, which means you need more strength.
Anyway, that’s all the major ones for now. Get those down and you’ll be the chick-magnet in town before you know it.
How to Play Minor Chords
Now let’s look at the minor chords…
These are very similar to the major chords except that – wait for it – you have to alter entire note.
WOAH!!! Sam I’m not sure I can do that…
Well, with hard work and determination, anything is possible.
Wow, you’re so inspiring…
Yeah, yeah, I am pretty awesome.
Anyway, we basically need to take the major 3rd from the major chord and lower it by a fret to get a minor 3rd.
As a result, we get a darker and more melancholy sound.
These are the minor chords that I suggest you learn to play on guitar:
This is the Em chord.
It feels natural and is one of the easiest chords in the book.
You will notice that you don’t need your index finger anymore.
This is because the note it was playing has been lowered by a fret (from fret 1 to fret 0) to give a minor 3rd and that minor feel.
This is an Am chord. The shape is exactly the same as the E shape we saw earlier, except it’s been shifted up a string.
TIP: When switching to C you can keep your 1st and 2nd finger in the same place. In other words, you only have to move your ring finger to the 3rd fret of the A string to make a C chord from Am.
This is a Dm chord. It’s a different shape to the others so it’ll be a wee bit more difficult to switch to mid-song.
Just make sure you practice switching to and from a Dm chord a few times and all will be good.
This is an Fm chord. Similar to the major variant, you have to bar notes with your index finger.
This time though, you have to bar three notes down.
Dun, DUN, DUNNNN.
This is a little bit tougher and will require more strength but I have faith in you to manage.
It’ll get easier in time anyway.
How to Practice Chords for Fast Progress
So, I’ve said already that if you get good at these chords then you’ll be able to play at least 59.1% of songs ever written.
But how do you actually get good at these chords?
One way that you can get good at these chord shapes fast is by using something I call “The switch method”:
- Find 2 chords that you are trying to learn. E.g. E and A
- Then switch between them continuously for a few minutes. E.g. E to A to E to A to E
- Have a break and do it again until these changes begin to feel comfortable.
- Add an extra chord to the mix. E.g. C
- Then switch from E to C to A to E to C to A for a few minutes
- Once this feels more comfortable, add another chord. E.g. G
Once you have a set of 4 chords that you are comfortable switching between, make a new set with 2 new chords.
You can then repeat the process until you have another 4 chords in the bag.
Within a couple of weeks, your chord playing game will be a whole new level.
(I wouldn’t have more than 4 chords in a set though. Otherwise, you don’t get enough reps of each new chord you add.)
But this is so great because it kills two birds with one stone.
You are learning new chords AND practicing switching to them at the same time.
This means that when you’re playing a song, you’ll be able to spin off all these chords on command.
Now how cool is that?
Wrapping It Up
Basically, all these chords are super important for guitar and you won’t look back on learning to play them.
However, you should not try to learn all of them at once.
It’s just gonna get overwhelming and you gonna want to flush your guitar down the toilet or something.
Start with the major chords and use “The switch method” to learn them quickly until they feel like second nature.
Then move onto the minor chords. Once all of these are a breeze, then you can learn these 7th chords to complete your arsenal if you want to.
And all the chords are pretty similar anyway, so once you have one down, you’ve actually kind of learnt three.
Before you know it, they’ll all feel easy and playing your favourite songs will be a walk in the park.