In this lesson I’ll be answering the question in the title. Which guitar chords should i learn first? Learning any instrument or anything new for that matter can seem extremely daunting at first. Everything seems very alien and without guidance, a newbie may have trouble figuring out where to start. If you’re about to climb a mountain, you may stand at the bottom and think “how am I going to get to the top?” The answer is one step at a time. In this beginner guitar lesson I’m going to share with you how I introduce guitar chords to beginner guitar players. Perhaps that’s you and you’re just starting out on your musical journey. Or maybe you’re a potential guitar teacher looking for ideas. Either way I find that the material found here serves as a great introduction to chords.
In this beginner guitar lesson you’ll be taught the following. How to read guitar chord charts, how to play 9 essential open guitar chords and how to practice them. Before continuing, it’s important that any guitar player taking on the material here must know how to hold a guitar pick, how to hold their guitar and the note names of each string. It would also be extremely beneficial to have experience of picking single notes and to have an understanding of the parts on a guitar. Be sure that you meet those requirements before moving on.
Which chords should I learn first? Must know – What is a chord?
In music, a chord is the layering of multiple notes played simultaneously. There’s more to it than that but that short sentence tells us what a chord is in essence. If you were to play the thickest string on your guitar, you’d be playing an E note. If you were to play an E at the same time as a G# and B, you’d be playing an E chord, an E major chord to be specific. The notes within the chord define to us what the chord is but that’s a music theory rabbit hole that we don’t really need to go into at this stage. Just remember, a chord is a group of notes played simultaneously.
How to read guitar chord charts
A guitar chord chart is simply a visual instruction on how to play a guitar chord, kind of like a diagram and reading them is very simple. Below you’ll see a guitar chord chart for an E major chord.
Explaining the chord chart
Perhaps this image looks confusing to some at first but let’s break it down into small parts so you can understand what’s going on. At the very top you have the title of the chord. E major, very simple. Sometimes the title is displayed at the bottom of the chart but it is always clearly visible. Sometimes the title uses symbols like sharp or flat signs or abbreviations. For example Em for E minor. You can normally use common sense to figure the titles out. If there’s ever a symbol that you’ve not come across before, you will be able to find out what it is with a bit of simple research.
You can also see a series of vertical and horizontal lines on the chord chart. The vertical lines are simple. Each vertical line represents a string on the guitar. These lines represent the strings thickest to thinnest from left to right. In other words, the furthest left line is the thickest string. The horizontal lines represent the frets. The thick black line at the top tells us that we are at the top of the fretboard and that the first thin line below it is fret 1.
What if the chord is higher on the fretboard?
Sometimes chords can be higher on the neck. If this happens, you’ll see an indication to the side of a vertical line stating “fret 7” or “fr 9” for example and the thick black bar will no longer be present. All the chords we’re looking at in this lesson are located at that low end though so you don’t need to worry about that today. Just remember that the thick black line means the line below is fret 1. All will become more clear in the future when you see more chords.
In this chart you can also see filled and hollow dots. The filled dots represent the guitar player’s fingers and where they are placed to play the chord. The hollow dots above the chart tell the guitar player that the string in question is played without placing a finger on a string in other words, the string is played open. Sometimes you will see an “X” instead of a 0 at the top of the chart. An X is telling you that the string in question should not be played at all.
The final part of the chart is the series of numbers that you see at the bottom. These numbers tell you which finger to use on each string. These numbers are often displayed inside the dos. 1 = index finger 2 = middle finger 3 = ring finger 4 = little finger.
How to read a guitar chord chart – breaking it down
The instructions above mean that the chord chart is telling us to play the following.
E – Play it open (not pressing down on the string).
A – Press down on the string between the first and second fret with your middle finger.
D – Press down on the string between the first and second fret with your ring finger.
G – Press down on the string before the first fret with your index finger.
B – Play it open.
E – Play it open.
The space between the frets are notes, as are the open strings. If you know the notes on the fretboard then you can see that all 6 notes in this E major chart are either Es, G#s or Bs.
How to play a guitar chord
The chord charts themselves do technically tell a guitar player how to play a chord. As you saw with the example above, the instructions are telling you what to do. You’re instructed by the chart to play 3 of the strings open and to place 3 of your fingers in different places on the fretboard at the same time which when combined makes a 6 string open E major chord when played.
1 thing that the chord charts don’t tell you is where EXACTLY your fingers are placed between the frets. There’s a lot of space there after all right? There’s no instruction on this because the answer is standardised. You should aim to get your finger as physically close to the higher fret as possible for example in the E major chart, you’re told that your middle finger is placed between frets 1 and 2 on the A string.
This means that your middle finger should be as close to fret 2 as possible. Same for every other finger on every string on every guitar chord chart you see. Doing this will help the notes ring out more clearly so always follow this guidance. You will find when making these shapes that some fingers can get closer to the fret than others in different chords. That’s fine, it’s just physics. For example, you will find that in the E major shape, your ring finger is closer to the fret than your middle. That’s normal don’t worry about it.
The picking hand
The charts tell you what to do with your fretting hand but not what to do with your picking hand. There’re infinite ways of playing chords so it wouldn’t be practical to have instructions on this in a chord chart. For the time being, you should be focusing on getting your fingers into the positions correctly and applying 1 simple slow downward strum ensuring that all the notes ring out clearly.
On the subject of getting the fingers into the right positions, avoid the trap of placing 1 finger down at a time. That will cause more work later. It’s hard but try and place all fingers down in their indicated positions at the same time.
To summarise this little section. Fingers as close to the frets as possible, place the fingers into position at the same time and 1 slow downward strum ensuring all the notes ring out.
Also take into account the tip tip. When pressing down notes, use the very tip of your finger.
Remember earlier when I mentioned that chord charts can contain Xs which inform you not to play the indicated string? When you see a string with a X, you’ll need to either not play them or “mute” them. Here’re 2 more examples. An A major chord and a C major chord.
The A major chord and C major chord
The X string in the A major chord can easily be avoided while strumming without doing anything other than simply not strumming it. Some people like to reach the fretting hand thumb over the top of the neck and gently touch the E string which will mute it. I personally just don’t strum it but each to their own, which ever you prefer. The same can be said for the C major but I find it easier to lightly touch that top string with the third finger which is playing the note on the A string. This has the same effect as the thumb with less effort. If you’re lightly touching a string, it won’t ring out.
If a chord has a fretted note below an open string that’s not played, gently touch the X marked string with the finger that’s pushing down on the string below and you’ll find that you’re now muting the string above. It won’t ring out when hit with the pick.
You’ll also see chords that have multiple strings that aren’t played which will require a combination of don’t play the string and mute the string. Common sense is king here. In your guitar playing journey you may even see chords that have X strings in the middle of the chord which will require some careful muting but you won’t see any of those in this lesson so don’t worry about that just yet.
Which guitar chords should I learn first? Here are the 9 chords that you should learn first
I’ve already shown you 3 of the chords so you’re already a third of the way there. These 9 guitar chords are the first 9 chords that I show to any new guitarist that’s experiencing chords for the first time. I’ve split them into 3 groups of 3. The chords in each group are in key and sound good together so you don’t need to worry about any of that stuff. You can just focus on the chords themselves.
Which guitar chords should I learn first group 1
Which guitar chords should I learn first group 2
Which guitar chords should I learn first group 3
You may have spotted a new part of the chord chart on the F major chord that wasn’t mentioned earlier. The longer thick black line spanning multiple horizontal lines is a barre. This tells you that the same finger presses down across multiple strings at the same fret. The index finger is flattened more instead of using the tip to ensure the whole area is covered but the idea of playing as close to the fret as possible still remains. I’ve left this part until now so I can mention separately that this is the part you’ll have most trouble with. You’ll find it tricky getting those barred notes to ring out. Just stick at it and stick at it for a while because it’s going to suck at first.
Which chords should I learn first continued – Problems you’ll run in to when first learning to play guitar chords
When first introduced to chords, every new guitar player encounters the exact same issues. Hurting fingers, an inability in getting all the notes to ring out cleanly, issues with placing their fingers in positions and changing between chords.
The way to overcome all of those issues is the magic P word. No, not practice. Practice goes without saying. The P word is perseverance. This is a huge milestone to overcome when learning to play guitar at first and the magnitude of the task should not be underestimated. It can take weeks of real hard practice to start getting a grasp of this stuff so new guitar players, please stick with it. I promise you that you’ll come out the other end eventually.
Some of these charts look a little bit different to examples I’ve seen elsewhere
You may find that for example, there are different ways to perform an open G major chord or an open A major chord. These two chord shapes I’ve given you in this lesson aren’t necessarily the conventional way but trust me, these shapes will work better for you. They are based on efficiently of movement. A tiny bit of research will show you a more traditional way of playing a G major chord. Try it if you like. Hopefully you’ll see that my shape allows for a much smoother chord change to the C major. The same can be said for the A major chord. My chord chart is actually more difficult to play than others you’ll see online but mine will make more sense later on. Trust me.
Why not power chords?
Power chords are easy to play I hear you say. Power chords use the same shape all over the neck I hear you say. I’m well aware. The answer to the question “why note power chords” is simple. Power chords are a subject on their own and require a dedicated introduction lesson. I know that many would include power chords in there version of which chords should I learn first but not me.
The question of which guitar chords should I learn first is now answered. Once you have memorised all of the above guitar chords and can play them competently with all the correct notes ringing out and you can change from shape to shape at a reasonable pace, you should move on to strumming. This will be your first step in using the chords in a more musical way.
You wouldn’t believe the amount of songs you can play and the amount of music you can make just by using combinations of these 9 guitar chords. You also wouldn’t believe the amount of people who give up because they can’t get this down. Don’t be that person. If you feel like giving up, send me a message and once I’ve done shouting at you, I’ll give you some help.
I’ll leave you with a couple of other guitar lessons which may prove useful. The chord that you’re going to have the most trouble with is the F major chord. The reason for this is because of that barre. These articles may prove beneficial to you.
Introduction to barre chords on guitar
Hello. My name is Ryan J Mellor and I play the guitar. I’m also the creator of Eat Sleep Guitar Repeat. I’ve ben a guitarist for many years and my guitar playing has been described as “above average”. My guitar and music knowledge is somewhat impressive but most importantly, I have a passion for creating great guitar and music related content.