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Guitar chords and guitar chord theory can present real challenges to the new guitarist. On this page we’ll take a high-level look at what chords are and learn the 13 most useful chords for the beginner.
With the chords you’ll learn in this introduction you’ll be able to play literally hundreds of songs. You’ll also have a solid grounding for the much more detailed study of chords and theory you’ll find elsewhere on this site.
So what are Chords?
To be precise, we’ll use the Harvard Dictionary of Music definition of aChord as three or more different musical tones sounding simultaneously.
A Guitar Chord, then, is three or more different tones played at the same time on your guitar.
Another guitar chord theory term you’ll want to know is Interval, which the Harvard Dictionary of Music defines as the distance in pitch between two tones.
We’ll use intervals to define, classify and name guitar chords.
Basic Guitar Chord Theory Part One: Understanding and Naming Intervals
We get an interval’s full name from the combination of its two attributes:
- its quality, and
- its size
Examples would include interval names like major third and minor sixth. I’ll explain precisely what these and the rest of the interval names mean in the Theory section of this site. For now, though, it’s enough to understand the concept.
As it happens, the musical alphabet (and its quirks that we’ll explore later) gives us enough information to establish both parts of an interval’s name. This alphabet starts at A and runs through G before starting over with A.
A two-octave span of tones would thus be: A B C D E F G A B C D E F G and back to A (and so on, endlessly).
This information alone is enough for us to determine an internal’s size. Here’s how it works…
- Start counting with first tone’s letter name.
- Stop counting when you reach the second tone’s letter name.
- The count is the interval’s size
For example, suppose you wanted to determine the size of the interval that spanned A to C.
- Start counting with 1 at A.
- Stop counting with 3 at C.
- The interval from A to C is a Third.
What size is the interval from B to A?
- Start counting at 1 at B.
- Stop counting at 7 at A.
- The interval from B to A is a Seventh.
We’ll explore interval Quality in much greater detail on the Theory page, as this topic requires quite a bit more guitar chord theory groundwork than this brief introduction permits.
For our purposes right now, though, I need to simply present to you the quality of three specific intervals:
- Major Third
- Minor Third
- Perfect Fifth
Most of the music we hear today is based on Tertian Harmony. This simply means a harmonic structure based primarily on the intervals of Thirds and Fifths. Notice I didn’t say exclusively.
A Major Third consists of a starting tone and the tone four semitones (half-steps / frets) above it.For example: C and E form the interval of a major third. Symbol: M3.
A Minor Third consists of a starting tone and the tone three semitones above it.For example: D and F form the interval of a minor third. Symbol: m3.
A Perfect Fifth consists of a starting tone and the tone seven semitones above it.For example: C to G is a perfect fifth, as is D to A. Symbol: P5.
That’s all for interval quality right now. Again, we’ll be covering this topic in much greater detail on the Theory page. Onward to…
Guitar Chord Theory Part Two: Understanding and Naming Guitar Chords
Now that we’ve had a quick look at intervals, let’s use them to get a better understanding of the guitar chords you’re about to learn. Specifically let’s look at Major and Minor chords.
A Major Chord consists of a starting tone, and the tones a M3 and P5 above it, all sounding together.For example: C, E and G form a C Majorchord (C or C Maj.). Notice that the absence of any qualifier after a letter name, e.g., C, identifies the chord as being major. This is an important point to remember.
A Minor Chord consists of a starting tone, and the tones a m3 and P5 above it, all sounding together.For example: D, F and A form a D minor chord (Dm or D min.).
The chords we’ve just created are in Root Position, meaning the chord takes its name from the lowest tone, C and D in these examples.
If we were to shuffle the order of the tones in these two chords, we’d still have C and Dm chords, but they’d now be Inversions of C and Dm.
Don’t worry about understanding this right now. Simply remember that changing the order of tones in a chord doesn’t affect the name of the chord. It does, however, create inversions of the chord. This point will be extremely important later in your study of guitar chord theory.
Even though this has been a very high-level look at guitar chord theory we’ve covered a lot of territory. I encourage you to read and re-read this information until it “clicks”. And please remember that we’ll look at naming intervals and guitar chords and learning how to use them musically in much greater detail on the Theory page.
But for now, onward to…
The 13 Most Useful Chords for a New Guitarist
Here are the 13 most useful guitar chords for the beginner, in my opinion. Study the chord diagrams and the photos carefully, and practice playing these chords slowly, clearly and accurately.
I left the finger numbers off the diagrams for two reasons:
- The photos clearly show which fingers to use, and
- I wanted to reduce diagram clutter as much as possible.
Here’s what the guitar chord diagram symbols mean:
- The solid dots represent finger positions.
- A circle represent an open string. In other words, don’t touch this string with a fretting finger.
- A red dot or circle indicates the Root of the chord. For example, the first chord diagram (G Major) shows three G‘s:
- first string, third fret
- open third string
- sixth string, third fret
- The numbers inside the dots or circles indicate the function that note performs in the chord. In that same G Major diagram, the Third chord tone (B) of the G Major chord appears at both the fifth string and the open second string. The Fifth chord tone (D) appears at the open fourth string.
- An X above the string means “Do not play this string”.
- An X inside a circle means “Playing this string is optional”.
- A b3 indicates that this tone is the Minor Third of the chord.
- An arched line connecting two dots indicates a Barre. Fret all the notes under the Barre with one finger.
- Unless a fret number appears to the side of a chord diagram, the top line represents the guitar’s nut.
Below you’ll find six pairs of guitar chords:
- a major chord
- the major chord’s relative minor chord
There are 13 guitar chords because I show two different ways to play the F Major chord.
I present these chords in pairs because the Major/Relative Minor andMinor/Relative Major relationships are extremely important!
Remember, we’ll cover these relationships and many other guitar chord theory issues in much greater detail in the Theory section of the site.
Knowing these chords will open the door to literally thousands of songs, in every musical style. Playing these guitar chords will soon become second nature to you, and you’ll be playing them for as long as you play the guitar.
G Major (Relative: E Minor)
E Minor (Relative: G Major)
C Major (Relative: A Minor)
A Minor (Relative: C Major
F Major (Relative: D Minor)
D Minor (Relative: F Major)
A Major (Relative: F# Minor)
F# Minor (barre) (Relative: A Major)
D Major (Relative: B Minor)
B Minor (barre) (Relative: D Major)
E Major (Relative: C# Minor)
C# Minor (Relative: E Major)
F Major (barre) (Relative: D Minor)
A Word About Practicing Guitar Chords
Playing guitar chords is a skill and, like any skill, requires diligent, patient practice. New players almost always look for a shortcut that will bypass this truth, but after playing the guitar for more than 40 years I’m convinced that focused, diligent, patient practice is the shortcut!
Take the time required to master these 13 chords.
First learn the 13 chords separately. Practice with focus and force your fingers to fret each string cleanly and clearly. Listen!
When you know the 13 chords, begin practicing moving between each chord and its relative. I displayed the chords with their relatives for a reason. Listen to what you’re playing!
When you really hear the musical relationship between the relative chords, you’ll start hearing that relationship in virtually every song out there.
I cannot overstate this truth…
Focused, diligent, patient practice produces mastery. Insist on excellence in your practice and you’ll experience excellence in your playing!
Congratulations – you’ve sampled some important guitar chord theory and have learned 13 extremely useful guitar chords!