How Guitar Chords Work

Guitarists play chords. It is perhaps the most common role of guitarists, across genres, levels of experience, and styles. A beginner can start making meaningful music with just two chords, while a jazz nerd can explore chords in search for unique and interesting harmonies and sounds.

All of this is to say that chords form a very important part of every guitarist’s arsenal.

Before we go on, let me give you a bit of an introduction as to what this lesson is about. This lesson is actually the first lesson in a series of lessons. In this series of lessons, we’re going to explore chords, from the absolute basics of what chords are an`d how they’re used, to some quite advanced concepts, such as playing jazz chords and constructing your own voicings. Here is a list of the lessons in this series. Links will be updated as the lessons are posted:

Who Is This Series Of Lessons Aimed At?

These lessons are designed to guide you from the absolute basics of chords to quite advanced concepts, therefore, no matter where you are at with your chord playing and knowledge, you will be able to jump straight in at the level that suits you best. As you can see from the above list, there is something for everyone. You will also find links to other supplementary lessons within each individual lesson.

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What Are Chords?

Before we jump into the practical side of playing chords, it’s worth briefly defining what chords are. Simply put, a chord is just a combination of three or more notes. Every time we play three or more notes in combination, we’re playing a chord. We give chords specific labels, based on the notes contained within. These labels tell us about the properties of each chord and help us recall them quickly.

Why Are Guitar Chords So Important?

From a very general and practical point of view, chords are important because they often form the backbone of songs. If you take any pop song, rock song or any piece of music from most well-known genres, there will most likely be a melody and harmony. The melody refers to the main part of the song that is often sung (or played by the lead instrument etc.). The harmony (usually involving chords) is the supporting role. This is an overly simplified summary, and we’ll explore this in more detail shortly, but it will suffice for now.

One of the great things about chords, is that with just a few of them, you can start making music. You have probably heard that with just three chords, you can play thousands of songs. This is not an exaggeration. In fact, you can probably play thousands of songs with just two chords. Many singer-songwriters for example, only ever learn a handful of chords, because with just a few chords, it is theoretically possible to compose an infinite number of songs.

Chord theory can be analysed extensively. You can learn about how they’re constructed, and why certain chords function the way they do. We’ll cover some chord theory in future lessons, but for now we’re going to stick (mainly) to the practical side of actually learning and playing chords. Learning about chord theory is all well and good, but it can be a challenging and unnecessary distraction if you have never played chords before. A good approach is to learn to play some chords and use them in a musical context. Then when you’re ready to dive deeper into the theory behind the chords, the concepts will be a lot more accessible.

Using Chord Diagrams To Learn Chords

As I mentioned before, chords involve playing more than one note at the same time. On the guitar, this usually involves holding down multiple notes at once with different fingers. Doing so creates an observable ‘shape’, which is why we often refer to ‘chord shapes’ when talking about guitar chords. The most common way of documenting these chord shapes is to use ‘chord diagrams’. Let’s do an example.

Here is the D major chord (don’t worry about what the chord labels mean just yet), written as a chord diagram:

D Major Chord

In this diagram, the vertical lines represent the 6 strings of the guitar, while the horizontal lines represent the frets. The circles with numbers represent fingers.

Chord diagrams do not usually come with annotations, but for the sake of making the above diagram easier to understand, here is the same chord diagram, with markings indicating where the strings and frets are.

D Chord Annotation

Each left hand finger (circled number) is sitting on a specific string (vertical lines) and on a specific fret (horizontal lines). Therefore, to play the above shape (chord), you simply need to place each finger on the corresponding string and fret. For strings that do not have fingers assigned to them, you only play the string if there is a circle next to it. If instead there is a cross next to it, you don’t play the string.

Knowing how to read chord diagrams is vital if you want to develop your chord playing. There’s a good chance that you already knew how to do this before reading this lesson. If not, hopefully the brief guide above is all you need. However, I have actually already written a very detailed guide on how to read chord diagrams, so if you need a more extensive explanation, please read the following lesson on how to read chord diagrams.

Using Two Chords To Make Music

What we’re going to do now is look at two chords and demonstrate how they can be used to make music in a variety of ways. The chords we will use are A Major and E Major, which we refer to simply as A and E (we’ll discuss labels shortly).

Observe the chord diagrams for A and E:

A Major Chord

E Major Chord

Here are the notes/tabs for each chord, just in case you want to make sure that you’re playing the right notes:

E Major Chord

A Minor Chord

Here is how each chord sounds when strummed once.

E Major:

A Major:

By themselves, these chords sound quite simple. The endless possibilities become apparent when you start combining chords together to form what’s known as ‘chord progressions’. Listen to the following examples of E Major and A Major being played in different ways. Only the chords E and A will be used, but they will be played using different styles, tempos and rhythms.

E to A – Example 1:

E to A – Example 2:

E to A – Example 3:

As you can hear, quite a lot of variety is possible with just two chords.

Keep in mind that with these examples, the chords were isolated. Usually, chords are used as the backdrop of a song (harmony), while something else is the focus point (melody), such as vocals, or another instrument. This means that not only can we use two chords in an endless variety of ways, but two identical chord progressions can actually be used in two (or more) completely different songs. This is because while the chords might stay the same from song to song, the melody can be different, and therefore the songs themselves sound different.

All this is to underline the fact that you don’t need many chords to make meaningful music. Chords are most often the glue that holds the music together. With just two chords, you can literally play or compose thousands of songs.

How Many Guitar Chords Should You Learn?

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I’m glad you asked. You can do quite a lot with just two chords. With three, the possibilities are exponentially greater. With four, even more so. In fact, it’s quite amazing how many pop songs have been written with only three or four songs (just google 3-chord songs, or 4-chord songs if you want an idea).

Although you can get away with not knowing very many chords, the more you learn, the greater the possibilities are, so you should learn as many as you can.

“You only need a few, but you should learn as many as you can” – this of course is a vague, and unhelpful statement. That’s why this series of lessons has been written. While it is theoretically possible to learn thousands of chords, there is a natural kind of hierarchy of chords that exists, based on different categories of chords. While these categories are approximate, they are based on frequency of use and technical requirements, which will allow you to approach chords in a logical, step-wise progression.

There is a correlation between how common a chord is, and how easy it is to play, generally speaking. This is not a hard and fast rule, it’s really just a casual observation, but this gives us a pathway to learning chords – start with the easy (and common) chords, and add in more categories of chords, as you develop your chord playing.

Here is the (rough) hierarchy of chords:

  • Open chords
  • Barre chords
  • Basic jazz chords
  • Pretty much everything else

Again, this is a rough way of categorising chords based on frequency and difficulty, but it provides a logical and clear pathway to approaching chord development. What we’re going to do in this lesson is focus on what’s known as open chords:

Open Chords

Open chords are simply chords that contain at least one open string. An open string is a string that is played without any notes being fretted (on that particular string) with the left-hand. The chords A Major and E Major, which we looked at before, both contain open strings, therefore they are considered ‘open chords’. They also contain fretted notes, but the inclusion of at least one open string means that they come under the category of open chords.

Open chords are a category of their own, for a few reasons. The fact that they contain open strings is not just an arbitrary distinction. The open strings give the chords a certain resonant quality, which makes them very effective for strumming. Another reason why open chords get a special mention, is because they are generally easier to play than other chords. Any string that is fretted requires a left-hand finger to do some work to make it sound. When you play an open string, your left hand fingers just need to stay out of the way (although sometimes that can be a challenge itself, when trying to fret notes on other strings). This combination of ease and quality makes open chords an obvious category to start with, when jumping into the world of chords.

So how many open chords are there to learn? Technically, any chord that contains an open string is an open chord, therefore there are many theoretical possibilities. However, there are 15 chords that are used much more often than any others, and have become established as the core group of open chords.

15 Open Chords You Should Learn

The 15 open chords that we use the most (and therefore you should set a goal of getting to know these first) are the following:

As a side note – F Major is technically not an open chord, because it doesn’t contain any open strings, but it is used so often with the other open chords on the above list, that it basically belongs in this group of 15.

These 15 chords are the most commonly used open chords that are played on the guitar. If you learn these chords, you will go a long way to being able to play many popular songs. Anytime you want to learn a song that has open chords, you can bet that you will already be familiar with the chords required, if you know the above chords.

How should you go about learning these 15 chords? A good approach is to simply start with three chords and get comfortable moving from one to another. Ideally, you would play songs and exercises that use only the three chords that you are working on.

Let’s say for example, that you start with the chords E, D and A. You should spend time getting comfortable with the chords individually, and then practise moving freely from one chord to another, without applying any specific rhythm. Memorising the chords is imperative. You can’t expect to be able to move freely from one chord to another if you’re trying to read the chords from a page (or screen) as you go. Once you start becoming comfortable with the chords, try applying them to a piece of music, or an exercise that requires you to use rhythm (it can be as simple as you need, the main thing is that you’re playing the chords in time).

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Here is an example of a 12 bar blues in the key of A.

12 Bar Blues In A

What you can see is a written chord progression, which is simply a series of chords, written in the order that you play them. The second part is a rhythm and strumming guide. Have a listen to the following examples.

12 Bar Blues – Example 1:

12 Bar Blues – Example 2:

There are two examples of the chord progression being played. The first involves strumming each chord of the chord progression four times (A four times, D four times, A four times, A four times). The second example is the same chord progression but the rhythm and strumming being used is the one that you see written above.

Have a listen, and then give it a go yourself.

If you’re not sure how to interpret/execute the rhythm and strumming, you can read the following lessons:

Rhythm and strumming are crucial components of chord playing, but this lesson (and series of lessons) is focused more on chords themselves – what they are, the order in which they should be learned, the properties of each chord etc. There is obviously a lot more that could be written about refining technique, changing between chords quickly, strumming patterns and much more. But those things are not the focus of this lesson.

I have already written extensively about the fundamentals of playing chords (strumming, rhythm, changing etc), so if you are new to chord playing, and would like more lessons on these basic topics, check out the following lessons:

A Few Chords Lead To Many

Once you start becoming confident with a few chords, you should learn more, and then apply the new chords to songs and exercises, in combination with the chords that are already in your repertoire. It’s important to remember that by working on a few chords, you will be developing skills and technique that are transferable to other chords. This is why it often takes students quite a while to master three chords, but not too long to go from three chords to fifteen chords in a relatively short amount of time. Again, if you would like to explore the technical side of chord playing more, use the above links!

Major Chords Vs Minor Chords

We’re going to finish this lesson by having a brief look at chord labels – what they are and what they mean.

Most of the chords in the above list, are either ‘Major’ chords or ‘minor chords’. These two types of chords are by far the most common chord types and in fact, most other chords are derived in someway from Major and minor chords.

In order to play chords, especially at a basic level, you don’t actually need to understand the theory behind the chords. You can get away with simply knowing how to play different chords, and knowing what they’re called.

Arguably even more important than knowing the theory behind the chords, is forming an interpretation of how they sound. Music is an aural experience, and everything can and should be related back to the experience of the listener.

So let’s start with the sound of the Major chord vs the minor chord. Have a listen to the two audio samples below. The first is an A major chord being strummed once. The second example is an A minor chord being strummed once.

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A Major:

A minor:

As you can hear, they sound different, but they also elicit a different emotional response. The Major chord could be described as ‘happy’, or ‘bright’, while the minor chord could be described as ‘sad’, or ‘moody’. This is a somewhat subjective distinction, so don’t be afraid to come up with your own descriptions (in fact you should!), but there is a certain commonality in the way that music is perceived by many people, and this basic description of how the chords sound is a pretty standard one.

Let’s listen to E major and E minor:

E Major:

E minor:

As with A Major and A minor, E Major and E minor produce the same sort of happy vs sad colour, or mood. It’s important to observe this difference, so that when you are learning chords, there is context to the labels that you are learning, as opposed to learning seemingly random shapes with arbitrary names.

Now that you’ve compared the Major and minor chords from an aural perspective, let’s look at the theory behind what is going on when we play these two chord types.

Chords Are Built From Scales

To understand where chords come from, you need to understand a bit about scales – specifically major scales. Don’t worry if the following explanation does not sink in completely. If this is your first experience with chords, or you’re adverse to a bit of theory, you can stop at this point, and take the chords you’ve learnt with you. You don’t need to understand the theory behind how chords are built to be able to play them and use them effectively in music. You can still go onto the next few lessons (barre chords etc). However, having some knowledge of the basic theory behind chords can’t hurt, and it can help you dive deeper and deeper into the world of chords, so that eventually, you can not only play a wide range of chords from memory, but you can construct your own voicings and understand how different chords fit together.

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To build chords from the ground up, we need to use Major scales. The Major scale is simply a set of seven notes, separated by intervals, starting from a root note (think of it like a ‘home’ note). These seven notes also tell us the notes in a given key. For example:

The notes in the C major scale (and therefore, the 7 notes in the key of C) are:

  • C – D – E – F – G – A – B

Here’s an audio sample of the C Major scale (note that in the audio example, the note C has been added to the end of the scale to make it sound complete):

The 7 notes in the D major scale (and therefore, the 7 notes in the key of D) are:

  • D – E – F# – G – A – B – C#

There are 12 possible root notes. Therefore, there are 12 possible Major scales. Here they are:

Major Scales Table

This is a very brief summary of Major scales. At the moment, it’s not critically important that you understand how to construct Major scales, especially since all 12 are provided above. However, if you would like to go deeper, read up on the following lessons:

We will actually look at major scales in more detail in an upcoming lesson, but the important thing to understand at the moment is that we use these Major scales to construct chords.

Let’s look at the Major chord. The Major chord (the happy one) is by far the most common and most important chord. To form the Major chord, we simply take the 1st note, 3rd note and 5th note from the scale. These notes are what we call ‘chord tones’.

Also, it’s probably a bit clumsy to refer the ‘1st’ instead of the ‘root’, as the first note of any given scale should be referred to as the ‘root’. However, for this lesson, I’m going to keep using the ‘1st’ to refer to the root, as it makes the examples used a bit clearer, from a numerical perspective.

Let’s use the two major scales that we looked at before – C Major and D Major.

C Major:

C Major Scale circled

By taking the 1st (root note), 3rd and 5th notes of the C Major scale, we get the following:

  • C – E – G

Therefore, the C Major chord contains C, E and G.

Let’s do the same with D Major.

D Major Scale Circled

The 1st (root), 3rd and 5th of the D Major scale is D, F# and A, therefore, the D Major chord contains the following three notes:

  • D – F# – A

Remember, you don’t need to know this when you’re actually playing chords. We learn shapes so that we don’t have to remember the individual notes inside them, but it’s good to have a basic understanding of the theory behind what you’re playing. It’s good to be able to analyse what you’re playing whenever you want to. Understanding this basic concept of building Major chords using Major scales will also help you down the track when you want to dive deeper into more advanced chord formations.

You may be thinking, if Major chords only contain three notes, why do these shapes contain more than three notes? For example, the E major chord, based on the open chord shape that is used in this lesson, uses all six strings. That’s six notes, right? This occurs because when we play chords, we often double up on notes. Every Major chord contains three chord tones (1, 3, 5). But for the most part, it doesn’t matter in which order these notes are, or how many times each note is repeated inside the chord.

For example, the E Major chord contains the notes E (1), G# (3) and B (5).

Let’s look at the E Major chord diagram that we used before, only this time each note will have markings indicating which notes are being played.

E Major Chord Annotated

As you can see, the notes do not seem to form any logical order, and some notes are doubled up. The note ‘E’, occurs 3 times, the note B occurs 2 times and the G# only occurs once.

There are other (harder) ways of playing the E Major chord, which use other combinations of the notes E, G# and B, but the thing you need to understand is that the order of the notes and the amount of times you play each note within a chord does not really matter. As long as you are including the right chord tones (1st, 3rd and 5th) of the Major scale, you have your Major chord.

Minor Chord

The Major chord contains ‘1’, ‘3’ and ‘5’ of the Major scale. The minor scale contains the ‘1’, ‘b3’ (said like flat 3) and ‘5’ of the major scale. If you’ve played scales before, this might be confusing. Minor scales exist, so why use the Major scale to figure out a minor chord? This is because in music, the Major scale is really the master scale. Even when exploring minor chords (and other chords) we can still use the Major scale, and simply alter its notes to produce other chords.

The minor chord contains the following notes:

  • 1 – b3 – 5

As you can see, the minor chord is almost identical to the Major chord, but instead of a ‘natural’ 3rd, it contains a ‘flat’ third. This simply means that the third note of the Major is scale lowered by a semitone. For example, with the C Major chord, the third note of the scale (‘E’), is lowered by a semitone to become ‘Eb’.

With the A Major chord, the third note (C#) is lowered by a semitone to become ‘C’.

Remember, you don’t necessarily need to be thinking about all of this theory when playing chords, but it’s worth having a general understanding, to give the chords you play a little more context, and to make it easier to explore chords further, when you are ready.

Get Playing

That covers our first lesson in the chord series. If you’ve played chords before, perhaps most of the material in this lesson will have been nothing more than revision for you, and you can move along to the next lesson. If however, you’re new to chords, you’ll probably want some extra lessons related to the practical side of playing chords (strumming, chord changes, songs etc). You might find the following lessons helpful.

In the next lesson, we’re going to look at bar chords.

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