If you are a beginner guitarist, and you would like to play your favourite songs, then it is key that you learn about chords and how they are structured. Most players play by ear, that is they listen and copy what they hear. Some guitarists are able to find chords without knowing what they are, but most players will find their abilities are enhanced if they learn about chords.
Basic Chord Structure
The key chords to learn are either major or minor and you must be able to hear the difference. There are many sites online where you can find and print chord (or fingerboard) charts for your favourite songs. This is a very useful tool but you still need to understand chords. In this post, I will give a basic introduction to chords.
Scales (The Keys to Chords)
The key to understanding chords is to learn about scales. A scale is a group of eight notes. For instance, the C major scale has seven different notes; C D E F G A B. To understand scales, the beginner guitarist should study some music theory to be able to read this:
C D E F G A B C
The first note at bottom left is the C note. All major scales will have the identical pattern of whole steps (or tones) and half steps (or half tones). The second note on this scale is a D, which is a whole step up from C. The fourth note on the scale is an F which is a half step up from E.
What is a Chord?
A chord is a group of two or more notes that produce a melodic sound when played together. The most common major chords are made up of three notes; the root or first note, the third note and the fifth note. For example, a C major chord has C as its root note, E which is the third note of the scale, and G which is the fifth note. In this image the guitar player is playing what is referred to as an open C chord. With an open chord, some strings are played without a finger pressing the string to the neck.
I stated previously that you need to be able to distinguish between major and minor chords. The difference between them is defined by the third notes. In minor chords the third note is a half step lower than in a major chord, so a C minor chord’s third would be an E flat. I tend to think of major chords as being strong and hard sounding, and minor chords as being mellow and soft.
Chord Charts (For 6 Strings)
The next key I want to give is chord charts. These show the player how to position your fingers for a specific chord. Here is an example of a chart for an open C major chord.
The vertical lines represent the 6 strings of a guitar. The horizontal lines indicate the frets (the spaces between the shiny things on the neck). The X indicates the nut (the plastic thing) which is at the first fret indicated by the 1. The faded numbers at the bottom of the chart are the notes that each string is tuned to. The black and white numbers show the player that the ring finger is on the 5th string 3rd fret, the middle finger is on the 4th string 2nd fret, and the index finger is on the 2nd string 1st fret.
Please keep in mind that I am offering a very broad introduction to chords, scales and notes. To learn and understand how this information translates to playing guitar, the beginner guitarist should find a qualified guitar instructor.
Also, I have a comment to make regarding music theory. Most beginner guitarists are interested in learning how to play songs that they like. To do this doesn’t require extensive training on how to read music. Most likely you want to strum chords and possibly sing along to your playing, so you should learn about chords and how to read chord charts. You can be a great guitar player without learning music theory, but learning a bit of theory will broaden your understanding of the chords you’re playing.
So far I have talked about open chords. Another common chord is called a barre chord. These chords are played using the first finger to press all of the strings down on a single fret. What this does is to theoretically move the nut (plastic thing) so that when you play open chord shapes you are moving up the scale. In this image, the player is barring across the first fret and using the chord formation for an open E chord. Everything is moved up a half step so the chord is an F major.
The simple definition of a chord progression is the alternation between a series of 2, 3 or 4 chords. For example, a chord progression in the key of C would look like this:
C/C/C/C F/F/C/C G/F/C/C
Chords (Sources of Inspiration)
The next topic may seem a bit out there for the beginner guitarist, but these ideas fall under the headings of inspiration and infinite possibilities. I’ve stated several times in my blog that once you start playing guitar the directions you can go are endless. This theory also applies to chords and that is why knowledge of chords is an important key to possess.
I first learned about colour chords in a You Tube video by my friend Darrell Braun. It is a simple idea, but brilliant and inspirational even for an experienced guitarist. This technique involves modifying basic chords by adding or taking away notes, or playing the chords at different positions on the neck of the guitar. To play some of these chords requires using only 2 fingers.
These chords will have very fancy looking names like Dadd11 or Fmaj7sus2. The letters and numbers are just an indication of notes added or taken away from a basic chord formation. The chord tones open up the sound of the chord and trigger new emotions. Many of these colour chord positions lend themselves to creating chord progressions by just sliding the chord formation up and down the neck. Chord progressions can also be created by playing one chord and then lifting one finger to form another in the progression.
Open F Chords are Difficult
The open F major chord is a difficult formation to play, especially for beginner guitarists. A few years ago I suffered a significant injury to the middle finger on my left hand. Since then I have not been able to play an open F chord so I have always played an F barre chord. I discovered a colour chord to remedy this, an Fmaj7sus2 which can be played with only 2 or 3 fingers.
A guitarist will end up with a whole new set of keys by learning this technique. The results are amazing when the guitarist substitutes a colour chord for a conventional one. Check out Darrell’s video on colour chords.
Open tuning is a technique that involves tuning a guitar to a specific chord. This can be done for any chord. For example, a basic G chord is comprised of a G, a D and a B (see chart above). To tune a guitar to an open G, the strings are tuned to a G or a D. One string, the second string is already tuned to B, but this can also be tuned to a G.
Now, if you strum the guitar with no fingers on the neck, you are playing an open G chord. If you bar across the second fret, that is an A chord. By moving up the neck in whole or half steps, you will find the chords B, C, etc. all played with one finger. Most other chords can be played using only 2 fingers. One thing about this is that anything you have learned about playing basic chord formations is now thrown out the window. All of the chord structures are completely different.
The sound that this creates is incredible. Every chord has a full and rich droning quality. Once you start moving your hand around the neck, inspiration will take over. Eddie Vedder of the band Pearl Jam sang a song called Better Days on the soundtrack of a movie called Eat, Pray, Love. As soon as I heard that song I knew that it could be played using open tuning. I listened to it and found out that it was in the key of G, so I tuned my guitar to an open G. The original music for this song included some exotic sounding instruments and that’s the sound that I got from my guitar. I could play a D and C chord using only 2 fingers and I could play a G chord in several positions.
Chords (Endless Possibilities)
These are just some of the endless possibilities the guitarist can explore with chords. There are alternate tunings like “drop D” that many musicians use. For Fleetwood Mac’s song “Never Going Back” Lindsey Buckingham uses “drop D” tuning. Many songs have a unique sound that can be credited to the way a guitar is tuned. For many of the Rolling Stone’s songs such as “Honky Tonk Woman” Keith Richards has his guitar tuned to open G. That song would never sound like it does with standard tuning.
Recently I wrote a song in the key of D and I played it over and over for several days. There was just something about the sound that I wasn’t satisfied with, but I couldn’t figure it out. I played the song for my friend Ryan and he liked it. When I told him my dilemma with the sound his suggestion was to try open D tuning. So, we began to rehearse the song with one guitar tuned to open D and another tuned to standard tuning. It was amazing how the tone of the song changed. We tried playing the chords in different positions until we found what we were looking for. We knew right away that we had found the sound.
Keys to Chords
I couldn’t wait to write this post. The idea at first was to provide a basic understanding of chords but then I was inspired by the colour chords video and my personal fascination with open tuning. This is a perfect example of how a simple idea can blossom into an inspirational journey. I hope that you enjoyed this and that you will try out the different chord techniques.
I would appreciate it if you could leave a comment below. Also, please ask questions if there is something that I could explain better. Thanks.