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Playing Guitar Chords and Songs

Updated on March 8, 2021
Jon Green profile image

For many years I taught guitar and music theory in college, here are some tips that may prove helpful.

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.

In the key of A, use the same pattern with the three chords A7, D7, E7.

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 an open 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. Alternatively, try the Joni Mitchell Complete - So Far songbook from Hal Leonard.

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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