Having Trouble Finding and Learning Guitar Chords? Use My Relatively Simple, All-in-One Diagram to Create Your Own
Let's Learn How to Naturally Create Chords on the Guitar
If you have ever picked up a guitar and struggled to make sense of how the whole thing works, many, including myself, have been there too. Just the idea of beginning to learn the guitar had always intimidated me, and so I always seemed to avoid putting any serious effort toward the endeavor. Also, the piano always just seemed so much more intuitive, though that instrument comes with its own set of difficulties, particularly in relation to the expectations of complexity that come with any keyboard instrument because of their mechanically straightforward nature.
Based on my style of learning, I have always needed to break things down to a very fundamental level to completely understand it, sometimes going so far as to reinvent the wheel. With this diagram that I have created and plan to explain, I hope that my deconstruction of the guitar and list of types of chords will allow you to take melodies, find their corresponding "root" notes on the guitar, and construct chords just by looking at a single picture. Any memorization that you'll have to do here will only come with understanding why you are playing a particular set of notes and strings and not others; ultimately, you'll learn new chords that will fit the melodies that you want to have accompanied by your guitar. This will keep things interesting because you'll be able to start creating early on. The rest is up to you.
Let's get started by first breaking down the structure of the diagram below.
My All-in-One Build-a-Chord Chart
How This Diagram Works
At first glance, this diagram may appear to be some kind of enigma, but it will make more sense as we go on.
The first thing to notice is the chart on the left side of the image. This shows you how all of the notes on any chosen string relate to other notes on various other strings and frets, where the "1st string" is the low-E string and the "6th string" is the high-E string. Furthermore, this chart is split into nine columns that are labeled "-4" through "4," each representing a different fret relative to your root that is located in the middle column under "FIND ROOT;" this column has a red-highlighted "0" below the "FIND ROOT" because this is your "reference fret" where your root is located, and all other frets are considered above or below this one.
The intersections of the rows and columns, which I'll call cells, are split into 6 differently colored squares. These squares are ordered according to the diagram below the left-most chart. If your root is located on the first string, then you will only be referring to the top-left square in each of these cells. Likewise, if your root is located on the fourth string, then you will be referring to the middle-right square in each of these cells when constructing your chords. Notice that the first and sixth squares are always the same color; this is because the first and sixth strings are the same note in standard tuning.
To begin using this diagram, find the root note of a part of the melody that you have in mind. This note can be found using any string and fret on the guitar. From there, notice the red column on the chart that says "FIND ROOT." This is used as a kind of "You are here" reference location on the chart. That column represents the fret that you are at; columns to the left are given negative numbers and represent frets below (lower notes toward the headstock) where your root is, and columns to the right are given positive numbers and represent frets above (higher notes toward the body) where your root is.
The middle chart is just there to show you what colors are associated with various notes relative to your root. Notice that the notes found in the major scale are shades of red or yellow (bright colors) while the minor notes are shades of blue or purple, and the shared notes are more of a mixture; this is just an additional way of making the chart easier to navigate via color association. Finally, the chart on the far right shows you what notes/colors are needed to build various chords.
Notice that the color of the squares in various cells that are associated with the root is the color black. Therefore, if we look at the middle, "FIND ROOT" column, you'll notice that the first square in the "1st string" row of that column is black, that the second square in the "2nd string" row of the same column is black, and so on.
Many of the possible chords listed on the far-right chart are rarely used. You'll primarily be using basic major and minor chords, 7th chords, 5th chords (a.k.a. power chords), and perhaps diminished and augmented chords. The other, rarer chords are listed there for you to explore and see if you like them and might be able to use them. Another thing to keep in mind is that you don't always have to play every string when playing a chord. As long as you are playing the colors that a chord requires, that's all you need.
As a final example to show you how to use this diagram, let's say that you found your root note on the 2nd string. The first thing to do is remember that the second string will be all of the colors in the top-right square of each of the cells. We can ignore all of the other squares in each cell except those ones. Now, let's say we want to play a plain minor chord associated with a root being played on the 2nd string. The chart on the far right tells us that a minor chord is composed of the root, the minor 3rd, and the perfect 5th. So, we are looking for all of the dark blue, minor 3rd squares and all of the orange, perfect 5th squares on every string except the 2nd string (because that's where our root is).
Looking at the chart to the left, we see that there is perfect 5th on the 1st string on the same fret as our root. There is also a minor 3rd on the 1st string, four frets below the fret of our root, but that can be a bit of a stretch for one's fingers. Now that we've found a perfect 5th on the 1st string, all we need is a minor 3rd. This can be found on the 3rd string, and it is two frets below (-2) the root-fret. So, we can create a minor chord just by playing the top three strings--specifically, the fret of the root on the 1st and 2nd strings and two frets below that on the 3rd string. You don't need any more strings than that to create the chord based on a root on the 2nd string, but you'll probably want to play more strings along with it to give the chord a fuller sound. To do that, you could play the perfect 5th located on the 4th string, four frets below the root. Keep in mind that your fingers are already "below" the root for the fret of the 3rd string, so it will be easier to play other notes located on frets at or below the root. There's also a root located on the 5th string, two frets below our root on the 2nd string. Finally, we can play the perfect 5th found on the 6th string on the same fret as our root; this is the same note (though two octaves higher) and fret as the one on the 1st string because they are both E-strings. On a side note, because our lowest note is not the root, this chord is considered inverted, but it is still the same chord but in a different order than "normal."
Finally, you may notice that we would need six fingers if we were to use one on each string for this chord. Often times, if you want to play all of the strings but few or none of the strings are open (i.e., they require you to hold the string at a particular fret) or you don't want or can't use a capo to hold down the strings for you, you can barre a fret using your index finger across all or part of the neck; your index finger acts as a capo in this case. This is also why so many chords tend to be played with open strings toward the top of the neck, as the nut at the top of the neck acts as a kind of natural capo/barre. However, if we intend to barre an entire fret, we can only barre a fret that is lower than (toward the headstock) all of the other frets we intend to play. With the minor chord that we just mentioned, we can't really use the barre technique, since the lowest fret being played only has one string using it. Using barre chords is best when the lowest fret has multiple strings held down on it.
While we are discussing the nut and the top of the neck, it may take some getting used to when using the chart in relation to open strings, as you can only go so far up the neck. Just keep in mind that an open string is theoretically the fret above the 1st fret.
This brings up a great point about how to use this chart effectively. We've already talked about not needing to play all of the strings to create a chord if you are already playing the necessary notes for the chord. Here, we physically can't play all of the notes without some strange manipulation of our hand that would be difficult to use during an actual song; we are forced to do something differently. Thus, we can play the first three strings as previously mentioned, or we can play the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th strings or even the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th strings, using the frets we previously mentioned. However, because we might want to barre this chord in order to play more strings, it might be better to find different frets to play that are above our root instead of below it. We might even decide to find our root on a different string (if possible).
If we were to find different frets while using the same root location, we might choose to fully barre the fret of our root; then, we can play the two frets above our root for the 3rd and 4th strings, as they are a perfect 5th and root, respectively. Finally, we can play one fret above for the fifth string, which would be our minor 3rd. Now, we can play all of the strings to create a minor chord, though we still may only want to play some because of how it will sound. This positioning of our hand while creating this chord is typically referred to as the "A-minor shape." You can barre any fret and create this shape to play a minor chord for a root note found on the second string.
For our last possible option, if we were to choose a different string for our root, then we would start this process over again, looking for possible roots, minor 3rds, and perfect 5ths to play.
I hope you find my chart and my explanation of it useful. Let me know if you have any questions, as I can always edit this blog post to better explain something. Also, please feel free to tell me if you notice any errors or things like that. The chart has a lot of content and small details, so I may have overlooked something.