Guitar is one of the coolest instruments to learn, and it can be a lot of fun besides.
Are you just getting started on the guitar?
It can be a confusing world for the uninitiated, but rest assured we can have you up and running in no time.
So, let’s look at how to play guitar and learn a few open chords.
The Absolute Basics
Before we can learn to play chords, there are a few basics we need to cover.
For some of you, this will be review. For others, it will be new. Either way, you’ll learn something new or reinforce important concepts you need to remember.
First, the guitar has six strings. Count them for yourself if you doubt me.
Across the fingerboard you have multiple vertical metal pieces called fretwires or frets. These are what allow you to play different notes on the guitar.
You have two hands, and each has its own responsibility.
You’ll be picking or strumming the strings with your dominant hand. With your non-dominant hand, you’ll be fretting notes.
With your picking hand, you should hold the pick between your index finger and thumb.
Your fretting hand has four fingers available for fretting – index, middle, ring and pinky. In this lesson, you will be using these fingers to form chord shapes.
To fret a note, you need to place your finger next to the fret (not directly on the fret) and apply pressure.
If you pick the note and it rings out clearly (i.e. no buzzing), you’re doing it right.
To form an open chord, we’ll need to place multiple fingers (generally three) at different locations within the first three frets of the fretboard.
So, you’ll have different fingers on different strings and frets (never the same string).
I covered a lot of information relatively quickly, so if you don’t understand it all yet, don’t worry. You should start to figure it out as we explore how to play chords.
How To Read Chord Diagrams
Chord diagrams are generally how chords are relayed from one player to another.
Even if you’re working with a teacher, and they show you where to place every finger to play a specific chord, they will likely send you home with chord diagrams so you can also practice on your own time.
So, we need to be able to read chord diagrams.
Also note that it’s typically not the same as reading guitar tab, where the strings are represented by horizontal lines.
With most chord diagrams, the strings are represented by vertical lines and the frets are represented by horizontal lines.
One important thing to note about the strings is that because of how the diagram is oriented, they go from left to right, thickest to thinnest.
Notice how the diagram looks like your guitar if it were sitting upright, only if the neck was chopped off at the fourth or fifth fret?
The bolder line against the top basically represents your guitar nut, the small piece holding the strings that comes before the headstock.
With that established, the only thing we need to know is why a chord diagram looks like a game of tic-tac-toe. Notice the circles and X’s?
So, the black dots are where your fingers would go. It might be second string first fret, fourth string second fret and fifth string third fret or something along those lines. For now, it doesn’t matter.
The point is that there are black dots and they tell you where your fingers should go.
The white dots are strings you play without fretting. Open strings, basically. That’s why the chords we’re about to learn are called open chords – they prominently feature open strings.
The X’s are strings you don’t play. Most open chords have at least one string you don’t strum with the rest.
Now you know how to read chord diagrams. Let’s move onto…
Playing Your First Open Chord – C
The first chord we’re going to attempt to play is the C chord.
I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s the easiest open chord, but all open chords will require a bit of effort.
Take your time with this, because you’re basically having to force your fingers into shapes you’ve never made with them before. Don’t get frustrated.
Looking at the chord diagram, we can see that C has three black dots. That means we’ll be fretting notes with our index, middle and ring fingers.
There’s one X at the top, which means we don’t play the sixth string.
And there are two white dots, on the third and first strings, so we’re going to let those notes ring out freely with the rest of the chord.
Now for finger placement.
Your index finger will go on the first fret of the second string.
Your middle finger will go on the second fret of the fourth string.
Your ring finger will go on the third fret of the fifth string.
Some people don’t find this difficult. Some find it’s a bit of a stretch. My recommendation would be to tilt your wrist slightly towards the body of the guitar for some leverage.
Now, you can go ahead and strum the chord, but there’s a good chance you’ll hear a bit of muting or buzzing. If you don’t hear it, try picking each string on its own (fifth through to first).
Where you’re likely to hear the muting or buzzing is on the fourth and third strings, and sometimes the second or first string.
We want each note to ring out clearly, so we need to make some adjustments.
Going back to the basics, we need to make sure our fingers are as close to the frets we can get them. Again, we don’t want our fingers directly on top of the frets, though.
And, you also need to ensure you’re applying the right amount of pressure, closing the gap between the string and the fretboard with each note you’re fretting.
Beginners often feel like they need to apply a lot of pressure, and because they’re still developing their finger dexterity, that may be the case.
In time, however, you will discover that you don't need to apply that much pressure at all.
But there’s still one more adjustment that needs to be made.
You need to curl/arch your fingers. If you place your fingers flat across the fretboard, they will end up muting notes.
So, we need to create enough extension such that each finger isn’t touching another string.
My tip here is to use your joints. Your fingers have a couple of joints for a reason. Take advantage.
With these adjustments, you should be a lot closer to getting the C chord sounding great.
Note that you will likely need to go through this process with each chord, ensuring that every note is ringing out clearly.
With that, we’ll be going a little more rapid fire through each chord (we’ll be learning eight total), so review this section if you get stuck.
Playing Your Second Open Chord – D
Let’s look at the diagram.
A D chord has two X’s, one white dot and three black dots bunched together.
This chord can feel a little weird because of that “bunching” but rest assured if you practice getting your fingers into the right positions, you can do this.
So, with the D chord, we won’t be playing the sixth or fifth string. You can ignore them completely. The fourth string is open. Simple enough.
Now, let’s look at where to place your index, middle and ring fingers.
The index finger goes on the second fret of the third string.
The middle finger goes on the second fret of the first string (yes, same fret as your index finger – this can feel weird).
The ring finger goes on the third fret of the second string.
Go ahead and strum the chord.
Again, you might have to deal with a bit of muting or buzzing here, but you should be equipped to handle that now.
The cool thing about guitar chords is that they are movable. So, you can try moving the D to different positions on the fretboard and see how it sounds to you.
Playing Your Third Open Chord – E
With three white dots and three black dots, it’s clear that E requires you play every string.
The fretting is relatively simple too.
Index finger goes on the first fret of the third string.
Middle finger goes on the second fret of the fifth string.
Ring finger goes on the second fret of the fourth string.
It might seem a little weird to place your middle finger above your ring finger, but you’ll get used to it. That’s about the only tricky part about this chord.
So, with all fingers in place, you can strum all six strings and see how it sounds. Adjust as needed.
Playing Your Fourth Open Chord – G
As with the E chord, G has three white dots and three black dots.
G requires a bit of a stretch, more so than any other open chord. But you can do it – it doesn’t matter if you have small hands.
The index finger should be placed at the second fret of the fifth string.
The middle finger should be placed at the third fret of the sixth string.
Finally, your ringer should be placed at the third fret of the first string.
Seeing as how there is a bigger gap between your fingers, you must remember to arch your fingers, so you don’t end up muting the open strings in between.
There is a variation of the G chord where you place your ring finger on the third fret of the second string and pinky on the third fret of the first string (with your index and middle taking the same positions).
This variation is worth learning, as it tends to show up in a lot of songs.
My students sometimes tell me this chord feels awkward, but I always reassure them that being able to make this chord shape will make you look like a guitarist, more than any other open chord.
Playing Your Fifth Open Chord – A
If you made it this far, you’re over halfway there. So, take a deep breath and pat yourself on the back.
The A chord features the greatest amount of bunching of any chord, as you must fit three fingers into the same fret (the second fret).
This chord has two white dots and three black dots. There’s one X too, on the sixth string. So, we won’t play the sixth string.
Here’s how the fretting works:
Your index finger goes on the second fret of the fourth string.
Your middle finger goes on the second fret of the third string.
Your ring finger goes on the second fret of the second string.
Now, up to this point, I’ve reinforced the fact that your fingers need to be placed as close to the frets as possible.
With this chord, it’s okay to break that rule a little bit. Get your ring finger as close to the fret as possible and allow your other fingers to fall in behind.
Assuming you’re applying enough pressure, it should still work. Try strumming it and make any adjustments you need to make.
Playing Your Sixth Open Chord – Dm
So far, we’ve worked exclusively on major chords. Major chords are generally happy and complete sounding.
Now it’s time to add some minor chords to the mix. They have a sadder, darker, incomplete quality to them.
But they can be used in a variety of ways – not just to create sadder sounding songs. Surrounded by major chords, they can still sound happy. They can also add color to chord progressions.
The first minor chord to tackle is Dm.
The diagram shows two X’s, one white dot and three black dots. So, we get to ignore the fifth and sixth strings entirely. The fourth string will be strummed open along with the remaining strings.
To play this chord:
Your index finger goes on the first fret of the first string.
Your middle finger goes on the second fret of the third string.
Your ring finger goes on the third fret of the second string.
This chord is a lot like your D chord except with less bunching.
Playing Your Seventh Open Chord – Em
The Em chord is probably the easiest open chord to play.
With two black dots, it only requires two fingers. And, you get to strum all strings.
With this chord, your middle finger goes on the second fret of the fifth string, and your ring finger goes on the second fret of the fourth string. That’s it.
Try strumming it a few times just to make sure you’re not inadvertently muting any strings. Pick the notes out individually if you can’t tell.
Playing Your Eighth Open Chord – Am
One more chord and you’re off to the races.
The Am chord is a lot like the A chord. There’s just one note difference.
And, it’s basically like the E chord except on different strings.
With this chord, you can strum all strings except the sixth string, which we’re going to ignore.
So, place your index finger on the first fret of the second string.
Place your middle finger on the second fret of the fourth string.
Place your ring finger on the second fret of the third string.
You’ve got your Am chord!
How To Practice Fretting Chords
Students often assume the way to practice open chords is to get their fingers in the right position and strum a bunch of times.
But that doesn’t give your fretting fingers much of a workout. If all you do is get your fingers into position and strum a bunch, it’s as good as practicing the chord once!
What you should do instead is make the shape, strum it, then break it. Make the shape, strum it, then break it. Rinse, repeat. That’s how you practice your fretting.
Another great way to practice your chords is to practice moving between a sequence of chords, for example: Am – C – Dm – G.
So, you would make the Am chord, strum it, and then make the C chord. Then, you would strum that. Move to the Dm, strum it, and finally form the G and strum it. Repeat.
We need to get comfortable with each chord and this can take a while, so don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t all come together right away. Keep practicing.
Transitioning between chords will be a challenge until you’ve practiced each chord enough times.
What’s “enough” will vary depending on the individual. Some people have incredible muscle memory and can get it all under their fingers after a few tries.
For many others, it will take dozens if not hundreds of tries.
Don’t get discouraged. It’s possible for anyone to get these chords under their fingers if they dedicate themselves to practice.
Chord Combinations That Work
As you’re practicing, it’s fine to play through all the chords in any order. The more you practice, the better.
But the interesting part about music is that certain chord combinations sound better together than others.
And, I imagine you would like to learn to play songs, or even write your own songs, sooner rather than later.
So, based on the chords we’ve learned, let’s look at chord combinations (chord progressions) that work.
I’ve organized these by key signature. For now, you don’t necessarily need to know what that means but I’ll offer a quick explanation.
Basically, there are 12 keys in music, each with a different group of seven chords that play nice with each other.
Based on the chords we now know, here are the options available to us:
- Key of C – C, Dm, Em, G, Am
- Key of D – D, Em, G, A
- Key of E – E, A
- Key of G – G, Am, C, D, Em
- Key of A – A, D, E
We can’t play all seven chords in any key yet because we haven’t learned all of them. That’s fine.
But you’ve learned five chords in the key of C and G, so there’s quite a bit you can do there. You can play four chords in the key of D too.
It’s also worth noting that you don’t need to play these chords in the order presented. You can mix it up and have some fun with it.
So, if we were looking at the key of C, for instance, you could simply play C, G and Am in succession. This progression has a pleasant quality to it and could be the building blocks of a real song too.
Using the above chord combinations, you can come up with a lot of variations. I wholeheartedly recommend that you do, because this is great practice.
Spend plenty of time doing this because the last step is…
Learning Your First Song – “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”
Now, there are plenty of songs we could learn based on the chords you’ve already learned.
I always like to start my students off with something easy, so they feel encouraged and motivated to keep playing.
Though you may not be familiar with Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, it’s been covered by a variety of artists and it is well-recognized. If you played it in a bar, you’d probably see people singing along.
Plus, the basic structure of the song is simple.
Now, you probably can’t play along with the lead guitar in the song at this point. But what we can do is strum along with the chord changes.
The basic structure of the song is this, over and over:
G, D, Am, Am
G, D, C, C
All you need to do is strum each chord twice to keep pace. Because the tempo of the song is quite slow, keeping up with the chord changes shouldn’t prove too challenging.
Now, if you just learned your open chords for the first time, you probably haven’t practiced a lot yet, so it might seem stressful trying to keep time with the beat of the song.
Don’t worry – you can always keep practicing your open chords and come back to it later. You don’t need to rush into anything.
What Else Can I Do With Open Chords?
When you learn a new technique on the guitar, it’s easy to think it’s an end in and of itself. But that is rarely the case.
Typically, you can build upon what you’ve learned. You can apply it to other areas of your playing.
I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself here. But here are a few more things you can do with open chords:
- You can learn more songs. You might want to check out a few songs like “Horse With No Name” by America, “Proud Mary” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, “The One I Love” by REM, “With Or Without You” by U2, “Chasing Cars” by Snow Patrol, “Clocks” by Coldplay or “Otherside” by Red Hot Chili Peppers. I can’t confirm or deny the simplicity of each song, but the truth is there is always a simple way to play every song you can think of.
- You can write your own songs. As I started figuring out how to play chords, I mimicked what I heard others doing and even started writing my own songs. I don’t think I ever took any of those songs and turned them into official releases, but I got better as a guitarist through that process.
- You can play them in many ways. So far, I’ve only talked about strumming, and I didn’t even go into a lot of detail. There are tons of strumming patterns you can learn – honestly, it’s almost infinite. In addition to strumming, you can pick (arpeggiate) your chords, learn bass/chord strumming patterns, add embellishments (hammer-ons and pull-offs) and even play fills in between changes. There’s a world of possibilities waiting for you.
Although that might seem a little overwhelming right now, hopefully it also strikes you as inspiring too.
If you take chording to the nth degree, you basically get jazz, and established jazz players are typically among the best in the world, so there is huge value in getting better at chording.
We hope you enjoyed this lesson.
Chords are the building blocks of music, and even if you don’t learn them now, you’ll want to pick them up at some point.
Spend plenty of time practicing each chord. As I said earlier, it can take a while to get them under your fingers, and that’s perfectly normal.
Get used to repeating what you’ve learned, because repetition truly is the key to mastery in music.
Side note, do you want to learn to play guitar songs the easy way? Learn how here – results are guaranteed!