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Guitar chords 101

Updated on April 2, 2016

Chords introduction


I'm a guitar teacher and part-time college lecturer. As a result of many years of teaching guitar I can save you some time. See also the new hub, Guitar chords 101 part 2, which contains more info on improving these basic chord shapes.

In the chord pictures below I've tried to identify the essential chords, and these are probably the most used across all forms of popular music.

Chords in the key of C : C Dm Em F G7 Am (and Bm7b5)

Most songs will use these chords in combination, so it makes sense to learn them together.

C F G7 are the major chords, Am Em and Dm are the minor chords. You might notice that the root note of each chord is from the C major scale: C D E F G A B C. You will find this scale and these chords used together all the time.

Work on changing from C to Am (called the relative minor) and then changing from C to F. In both cases finger 1 stays down on the fretboard, and don't play string 6, the thickest string.

NB: Chord grids - the 6 vertical lines are the strings, the horizontal lines are the frets.

Easy acoustic guitar songs is another hub you might find useful.

Cleaning up chords

The easiest way to really improve the sound of chords is to eliminate unwanted strings. In general, the lowest sounding note of a chord should be the same as the chord name: so for Am or A minor we want an A at the bottom, open string 5. Don't play string 6. In the same way, the easy F chord shown needs an F bass note, found on string 4 - so we leave out strings 6 and 5, the thickest and the lowest sounding strings. Using this method you'll get cleaner and more distinct chords with a much better tone.

Chords in the key of D

Chords in D: D, Em, F#m, G, A7, Bm, C#m7b5.

Most simple songs will use D G A7, plus Em and Bm sometimes. Most Dylan songs, especially the early ones can be played with a very limited choice of chords.

The chords in this key follow the same pattern as those in the key of C listed above - that is, a chord is built on each note of the major scale, and the major and minor chords follow the same sequence.

As Bm is a barre chord it can present problems for the beginner. Check out my solution - Bm7. Just play the middle 4 strings and this will work well, and be quite easy to change to. A fix for F#m is to play fret 2 on strings 6,4,3, leaving string 5 (A) open. Ideally, mute this string by slanting your first finger over a bit.

Generally, the lowest note or bass note of a chord wants to be the same as the name of the chord. So Am has an open 5th (A) at the bottom and you don't play string 6 (E). Same applies to A and A7, or any variant of A such as A maj7.

In a similar way, D has open D (string 4) at the bottom, don't play strings 6 and 5.

C, or any of the variants such as C7 - don't play string 6. You want a C at the bottom of the chord, fret 3 on string 5. Having a low 6th buzzing away is probably the most common beginner mistake, but one that is very easy to fix!

When you can put this into practice it will really make things sound better, and clearer.

The guitar is tuned (low to high, thickest to thinnest string) E A D G B E.

7th Chords

If you need help in understanding music theory, such as why both letters and numbers are used in naming chords, see my new hub entitled Music Theory Basics.

Look at A7. It's just the same as A, with the middle note removed.

Look at E7. It's just the same as E with the middle note removed.

The 7 note actually means flat 7th, in musical code. In C: CDEFGABC is the major scale.

Count down from high C, note 8

B= maj 7th

Bb= 7th

A=6th.

So C maj 7 is CEG (the notes in a C chord) plus B

C7 is CEG plus Bb

C6= CEG plus A

Now let's look at D chords. Starting with common-or-garden D, if you move down the middle note in half-steps,or one fret at at time, we get D maj7, D7 - all strongly related chords.

Now try doing the same thing with an A chord. Moving the middle note down one gives you Amaj7, then moving down again gives you A7.

Very commonly a 7th chord, also known as dominant 7th, resolves to the tonic or home chord in any key. So practice going from A7 to D, G7 to C, B7 to E and you will be doing some useful preparation for learning songs quickly and easily. If you really concentrate on this it will help in ear-training, which might well happen anyway without any effort.

Practical uses

Most simple songs, by which I mean folk,blues,nursery rhymes,most 1950s-era pop songs will use just three chords, which are chords 1,4,5 from the harmonised scale sequence. In the key of C these would be C, F, G7.

in the key of D: D, G, A7

in the key of G: G, C, D7

These are the basic building blocks used to create a song. Sometimes one of the minor chords is also used, often the relative minor - Am in the key of C. So a typical doo-wop Why must I be a Teenager? -type lament might go

C Am F G7 - endlessly!

If you play these chords in different keys you'll see that the sound is the same, the chord relationships and distances are the same too. It's only the pitch that has changed.

My new hub Guitar-advanced and jazz has info on more interesting chords, and pictures of the most important types.

Blues chords

My new hub Guitar- easy blues has chord pictures and chord charts, and will probably help with this section.

Blues is a form of music based on 7th chords. So a typical easy 12-bar sequence would go:

Play each chord four times for every bar.

E7 (4 bars) Count 1,2,3,4 for each bar

A7 (2 Bars)

E7 (2 bars)

B7 (1 Bar)

A7 (1 bar)

E7 (1 bar)

B7 (1 Bar)

Once this is sounding good, you could substitute 9th or 13th chords for any of the 7ths and it will sound more jazz or funky.

It's worth noting that early rock n'roll and rockabilly is basically a speeded-up version of the 12-bar blues - so most Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, Elvis songs from this era are just variations on a theme. A good theme though.

Learning the blues chords will enable you to play literally hundreds of songs like Blue Suede Shoes, Houndog, Sweet Little Sixteen, Johnny B Goode.

Playing in other keys: try using a capo. For instance, in fret 1 this would put you in the key of F, beloved by sax players, fret 3 would be G, fret 5 would be A. If you're singing, it might help you find a more comfortable key to play a song in. Personally, I'll always try out a few different keys until I find one that sounds good.

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    • Jon Green profile image
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      Jon Green 5 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Fair point - it was a bit too brief.

    • frankiefingers profile image

      frankiefingers 5 years ago from Oregon

      Great Hub! A lot of good information. The 12 bar blues part is a little confusing though. Stating that "each chord should be played four times" may produce some bewilderment for a new guitar player in trying to create a 12 bar blues progression. Please take a look at my I,IV,V blues progression hub. It's my first hub and would appreciate any comments.

      Thanks, keep rockin', or bluesin', or jazzin', or whatever . . . !!

    • Jon Green profile image
      Author

      Jon Green 6 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Hi sligobay - here we go then. Any musical note is at its own frequency or pitch. A is 440Hz. As the frequency changes, the note name changes,using the letters A to G, then starting again. There are 12 notes in all (look at the piano keyboard) because some of them have flat and sharps in the name.

      Maybe this will help, looking at piano definitely will.

    • sligobay profile image

      sligobay 6 years ago from east of the equator

      Hello and thank you Jon. I have been writing Hubs with my poetry for a few years and wonder how to turn them to song lyrics. I figure that I should know something about music before I try to write a song. I bought a guitar to learn about this musical alphabet stuff, but its all Greek to me. I understand the cadence and rhythmn of poetry in its many forms but feel like I'm from Mongolia with beginning to learn this new language. Cheers.

    • Jon Green profile image
      Author

      Jon Green 6 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Hi - just e-mail with any questions.

    • PR_am profile image

      PR_am 6 years ago from Oregon

      Very informative. I will be following your series. Thanks

    • Jon Green profile image
      Author

      Jon Green 7 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Hi, you're welcome.

    • profile image

      How to Get Him To Propose  7 years ago

      Nice blog...thanks for providing such a nice information....

    • Jon Green profile image
      Author

      Jon Green 7 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Thanks Peter. I think the I IV and V chords in common keys are the best place to start.

    • PeterPatton profile image

      PeterPatton 7 years ago

      I was just thinking a month or so ago of what I would consider the most important chords to learn because I see them more than any other. I think I came up with a list of about 17. And of my 17, I think 13 to 15 are in your list of 20 here. :D

      You had about 5 that I know that I didn't have in my list. The one or two in my list that weren't on your list were in my list more for the formation than because I see them often... They're chords that when you learn them, can be moved up and down the neck to form others.

      Great hub!

    • profile image

      VIntage Gibson guitar 7 years ago

      Great tips.Jon.

    • Jon Green profile image
      Author

      Jon Green 7 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Thanks moondive!

    • moondive profile image

      moondive 7 years ago from Modena,Italy

      Good informations thanks!

    • Jon Green profile image
      Author

      Jon Green 7 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Hi kylie - you're welcome.

    • profile image

      kylie 7 years ago

      thankx for the tips ive played the guitar for 5 years but was never taught the cords or the names of them this info was very helpful as i want to become a great guitarist..:D

    • hanrianto profile image

      hanrianto 7 years ago

      thanks, It's a nice information

    • hanrianto profile image

      hanrianto 7 years ago

      thanks, It's a nice information

    • profile image

      cel13 7 years ago

      Very handi

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks Jon for another very useful Hub.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • Jon Green profile image
      Author

      Jon Green 7 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Hi -it's easier to play them than explain them! The harmonised scale concept is what really works.

      Cheers, Jon

    • Jon Green profile image
      Author

      Jon Green 7 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Hi Misstlkal1 and tyrrell123 and thanks. You Americans have strange names! All the best, Jon

    • tyrrell123 profile image

      tyrrell123 7 years ago from Yorkshire, England

      Some really useful info well presented in your hubs, keep up the great work....

      Many Thanks

    • Jon Green profile image
      Author

      Jon Green 7 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Thanks keira - if he has any questions just e-mail through hubpages, I'll try to help.

    • keira7 profile image

      keira7 7 years ago

      Hi Jon, my son just finish reading your hub and he said thanks for the info. He plays guitar a lot. Thanks Jon, take care.

    • Jon Green profile image
      Author

      Jon Green 7 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Hi - have looked at the website. Craig is a good player,though I always despair when the shredding starts! Personally, I just don't have the patience for learning scales/modes all over the neck, and find the approach really boring to listen to, however technically accomplished. Jimmy Bruno is one of the best improvisers, and he thinks that scales are vastly overrated - learn some melody lines instead! And, not least, developing your own style is important.

    • Jon Green profile image
      Author

      Jon Green 7 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Thanks Robert -

      the next one is on Guitar DVDs and their effectiveness(or not)!

    • profile image

      Robert Ballard 7 years ago

      Nice hub and useful information.

      Robert Ballard

    • Jon Green profile image
      Author

      Jon Green 7 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Hi Jim, jonty and nicksstuff. Thanks for your support. Please ask for other hubs if it would help - soon I'll be posting some video lessons with any luck.

    • nicksstuff profile image

      nicksstuff 7 years ago from Going for a swim in the ocean.

      Totally cool hub man. This helps me understand a lot about guitar chords. The article I posted with basic chords helps but you have taken it to another level. Thanks for such a great hub. Awesome.

    • Sexy jonty profile image

      Sexy jonty 8 years ago from India

      Thanks for providing such useful information, and explaining it so clearly.

    • Jim Farguson profile image

      Jim Farguson 8 years ago

      thanks a lot..I like your information about incorporating the minor notes into the 1,4,5.

    • Jon Green profile image
      Author

      Jon Green 8 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Thanks very much both of you. Good luck with your playing - the first 30 years are the worst!

    • profile image

      best guitar courses 8 years ago

      Great tips Jon. I'll be taking a look at your other hubs too.

    • illminatus profile image

      illminatus 8 years ago from Chicago, IL

      Jon I enjoyed it.. Just picked up the guitar.

    • profile image

      jon green 8 years ago

      Hi Jen, you're welcome. One day I'll post some video too, in the meantime, have fun with your guitar.

      Cheers, Jon

    • Jen's Solitude profile image

      Jen's Solitude 8 years ago from Delaware

      Thanks for the great info Jon

    • Jon Green profile image
      Author

      Jon Green 8 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Hope you find this information useful. Please check out my other hubs, as they will help in understanding this material. For instance, all of this stuff can be applied to piano/keyboards, bass, etc.

      jon green