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How to play guitar chords and songs

Updated on February 25, 2012

How to play guitar songs

I'll try to provide some advice on learning guitar songs here, without making it too generalized or too technical. If we were learning to paint in oils, we would be studying the work of artists from several different eras, and trying to understand their approach and modus operandi. In doing so, we could have a better idea of what will work for us too, and even appreciate painting more fully.

We might also discover that brilliant artists like Vermeer and Canaletto had more than a little help from a secret device such as the camera obscura, which is kind of cheating! Perhaps multitracking is the guitar equivalent of sneaky technology.

Playing guitar songs is like this - if you study The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell and other greats you can get a very good idea of what will work best, just by listening very closely. It will be easier if you listen to a stripped-down version of a song, where the guitar part is clearly heard and not buried in the mix in a big production. For this reason, The Beatles Anthology CDs are good, as you can hear the songs taking shape and changing in the studio. The Joni Mitchell album Blue has lots of great guitar and dulcimer parts, which are very exposed - again, so much can be gained by listening carefully.

Hendrix songs like The Wind Cries Mary and Little Wing are full of great guitar parts.

One thing that is essential is the understanding of structure in guitar songs. If you can identify the verse and the chorus it will really help in the learning process, as parts of a song are usually repeated, so you only need to learn each section and then bolt them together a certain number of times. Some songs will also have a middle 8, an 8-bar section that is only used once.


You could start by learning some 12-Bar blues songs. To play these you will only need three chords: E7, A7 and B7. Most blues, rockabilly and early rock n' roll tunes such as those by Chuck Berry, Elvis and Little Richard can be played with just these three chords, often referred to as 1, 4 and 5 chords. Play each chord four times for each bar. The basic chord sequence is:

E7 E7 E7 E7 A7 A7 E7 E7 B7 A7 E7 B7 - but there are variations on this pattern. Here's a tip- remember this sequence as E7 x4 A7 x2 E7 x2 then B, A, E, B all with sevenths.

Easy country songs also use three or four chords - at the most basic level, here are two well-known songs that only use 2 chords:

Dance The Night Away (Mavericks) Achy-Breaky Heart ( Billy Ray Cyrus) I think E7 and B7 will get you through those!

Hank Williams songs will use G, C, D7 and maybe A7 if it's really complicated! They are great songs though - Hey Good Lookin', Your Cheatin'Heart, You Win Again, Cold, Cold, Heart are all songs you could learn. Always memorise them rather than reading them.

There is now another hub called How To Play Guitar Songs 2 which has lots more examples and chord pictures.

Grunge, metal, rock

Most of these songs just use power chords or 5 chords (see my hub) so if you know these chords (one shape only) you'll be well prepared to play them. Typical rhythm is 8th note pattern: 12345678,12345678 etc, all on downstrokes with a pick, and right-hand muting. Plus some amp distortion if you have it.

Dylan and folk

Early Dylan songs are not at all hard to play, and this is one of the best places to start, with some of the greatest lyrics ever and some of the worst harmonica ever!

Songs like Mr Tambourine Man, Blowin' in the Wind, She Belongs to Me only require 3 or 4 chords. Try using D, G, A7, Em and use a capo to brighten up the tone of an acoustic guitar.

You should definitely use a pick (73mm is good) for strumming steel string guitars.

And sing too - the guitar part is only half the song!

Guitar tab

Learn to read guitar tab - there are hubs on this too. Much better than internet tab, which is often just plain wrong, invest in some decent songbooks by your favourite bands or artists - a lot of detail can be picked up this way. The Guitar magazines such as Guitar Player and Guitar Techniques are full of great tab versions of guitar songs, usually with a CD audio track to help - they are invaluable for learning to play guitar songs quickly and accurately. Both these magazines are excellent in every way. Acoustic Guitar is also very good for tab material.

If you need guitar songs, both in tab and chord chart form, is an excellent resource. I've put in a link below. There are thousands of songs, and the text-based search engine helps you find things quickly.

Country Songs

Assuming you like both types of music, Country and Western, songs by Johnny Cash and especially Hank Williams are very easy to play. Try using G, C, D7, A7 to get through most of them. To copy the country sound, connect the chords with a bassline - moving from G to C by means of A,B bass notes, and hitting a root and fifth bassline with the chords.

Basic theory

Every song uses the harmonised scale in some way or another- in the key of C this means that you can use the chords C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am together. If the first chord is a C, you could bet on finding the other chords in the song, or at least some of them, the 1,4 and 5 chords from the list.

Understanding this simple thing will make learning guitar songs so much easier.

Let's take Stand By Me as an example. This is a 1-6-4-5-1 progression. Just find the number of the chord in the harmonised scale - now if you want to play the same thing in the key of G, just use the list of chords for G - which is:

G   /   Am  /   Bm  /   C   /  D  /   Em  /   Fm7b5  / G

This time, I've listed all the chords.

Guitar tunings

Check out my other hubs on guitar tunings - if you are trying to learn a song written in an open G tuning on a guitar in standard EADGBE tuning, you are going to have trouble. Example - many Rolling Stones tunes, which will never sound as good in standard tuning, but sound great in open G as that is the way Keef played them. So, whenever possible, find out through research or by listening if a different tuning is being used in a guitar song. With Joni Mitchell, for instance, it's virtually certain that the guitar is in a different tuning, so look for info on a great website such as the jmdl which could save you a lot of time.

If you're learning a Hendrix song, be aware that the guitar was usually detuned by one semi-tone to Eb.

Most folk, blues and rock tunes will use either open G, open D or DADGAD tuning.

Song Structure

Understanding song structure will really help you learn songs quickly, and also to start songwriting yourself. Most songs are in 4/4 time, that is, four beats to the bar. Parts of a song tend to be in 8-bar sections. here are some common forms of song structure - notice that they are always in multiples of 4, never an odd length like 13,17 or 12.5!

8 Bar

12 bar (most Blues and rock n' roll)

16 Bar

32 bar (most Jazz)

Beatles songs usually break down like this, or similar to this:


Verse 1

Verse 2


Middle 8

Verse 3



Pick/Plectrum or fingerpicking?

Definitely try both. Don't strum chords with heavy picks, 73 mm and below are fine. They should not be used on nylon string guitars however.

Travis picking is a good thing to try, but it's hard. Leonard Cohen and James Taylor can both teach us all a lot about finger-picking styles.


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    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 6 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Thanks - most Dylan songs with 4 chords!

    • hobbitinspiration profile image

      hobbitinspiration 6 years ago from Monmouth, OR

      Great hub! You can play so many songs with just a few chords. I love folk music!

    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 6 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Thanks a lot Acousticlady

    • profile image

      Acusticlady 6 years ago

      Very thourough hub you are doing a great infromative work and there are no hold backs. keep up the spirit.

    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 7 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Thanks barbergirl. 15mins every day is the way to go.

    • barbergirl28 profile image

      Stacy Harris 7 years ago from Hemet, Ca

      Great information! I definately learned a few things!

    • profile image

      How To Play Guitar 7 years ago

      Thanks for the great article. It's not easy finding easy songs for beginners to learn. Learning the guitar is hard enough as it is. I know it's been for me. Thanks again for your tips.

    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 7 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Thanks guys - got to agree about the ear training, it's really useful as a skill.

    • bsscorpio8 profile image

      bsscorpio8 7 years ago

      Although there are some internet tabs that are wrong, it is never a bad idea to put in some good old ear training. Tabs can give you a good jumping off platform.

      Great hub.

    • BennyTheWriter profile image

      BennyTheWriter 7 years ago from Northeastern U.S.A.

      Excellent resource! I'm firmly in the realm of what I call "intermediate" guitar playing, so I know most of the basic stuff, but it's always helpful to revisit the foundations. It also shows me how little I know...I didn't know that many Rolling Stones and Joni Mitchell songs were in alternate tunings. Actually, it's a good reminder for me to start studying alternate tunings, something which I haven't focused on much.

      Again, very good stuff! Rated up.

    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 7 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Thanks Vintage and Pamela. Buy him a nice guitar, you know it makes sense!

    • Joyful Pamela profile image

      Joyful Pamela 7 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      Thanks for the helpful information. I love the way that you present it. I am a woodwind & piano teacher, but my son has been fooling around on guitar. I'll have him read your advice and guide him where he'll let me. : )

    • profile image

      Vintage Gibson guitar 7 years ago

      Again.Another great post ,Jon.Thanks.

    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 7 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Hi Steve - it's definitely not Glastonbury weather. That freak hailstorm must be on its way.

    • wilbury steve profile image

      Steve Webb 7 years ago from Great Wakering, England

      Hi John! yes, I think Love in vain is on youtube as well. Got a feeling there must be a 'stripped' DVD somewhere. Hope you're enjoying this lovely weather, in spite of wimbledon & Glastonbury ! All the best, steve :-)

    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 8 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Hi Steve -Love in Vain is a great track. Wild Horses is on youtube (acoustic version)and it's the Stones at their best.

    • wilbury steve profile image

      Steve Webb 8 years ago from Great Wakering, England

      Hi Jon! really enjoyed this hub. you never stop learning with guitar. I've always found it good to listen to as many different styles as possible & weld them into your own. Keef does indeed use open G a lot. I really like 'wild Horses' & 'love in vain' from the 'stripped' album.

      Keep on strumming n plucking!

    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 8 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Hi Steve - after rock comes jazz - it's the next challenge. Listen to Robben Ford and Mike Stern, two of the greats. Cheers, Jon

    • SteveRockGuitar profile image

      SteveRockGuitar 8 years ago from Ireland

      Jon you have a really good introduction hub for all types of music. Although I love rock, I do know some blues, folk and pop riffs for variety. Need to keep an open mind when learning and playing guitar.

    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 8 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Thanks Gary. All the best with your playing.

    • profile image

      Gary 8 years ago

      Excellent info, thanks Jon!

      You covered pretty much everything:)

    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 8 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      THANKS mhuze and borge. Feel free to ask any questions.

    • borge_009 profile image

      borge_009 8 years ago from Philippines

      I always want to be the best guitar player. But maybe someday I will be able to manage and improve my guitar skills. Thanks Jon for this wonderful and informative hub of yours.

    • mhuze profile image

      mhuze 8 years ago from USA

      This was very helpful


    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 8 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Thanks guitarriff. All the best with your playing.

    • guitarriff profile image

      guitarriff 8 years ago

      Really great hub. Thanks John

    • Jen's Solitude profile image

      Jen's Solitude 8 years ago from Delaware

      I signed up on the site but haven't had the chance to actually learn much yet, but I'm thrilled I have it just waiting for me.

      LOL, Hawaiian shirts are very comfortable, hope you find one soon. :-)

    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 8 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Thanks Jen - how's that uke going? I haven't found the right one yet, also need to find a hawaiian shirt!

    • Jen's Solitude profile image

      Jen's Solitude 8 years ago from Delaware

      I always learn so much from you John. Your hubs are always thorough and easy to understand. Thanks for all your hard work, I really appreciate your being here on hubpages!Thanks for the basic country chords especially.


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