The Ultimate Guide To Guitar. Chapter I: 2 Chords - The Basics

author: ZeGuitarist date: 10/27/2008 category: the guide to
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Part I - Chapter 2.

Chords: The Basics

Hi all, and welcome back to the Ultimate Guide to Guitar! In this article, we continue where we left off last time: our guitar is completely ready to be put to work, now the work is up to us! So, I'll start off with the thing that every beginning guitar player should start learning: chords!

Why chords? Well, for a couple of reasons, and I'm speaking from personal experience. First of all, chords are nice and easy to learn, at least the basic things like the chord shapes. Second of all, using chords you can play about ANY song. Not the melody, but if you play the rhythm guitar (only chords) you can sing along and make yourself popular at campfires! Being able to play any song you like is the most important reason why I chose to learn chords first, and why I choose now to teach them to you first: it makes playing guitar enjoyable! If you play an hour a day, for example, you can dedicate half an hour to pure practice (exercises, ...) and the other half hour to real playing with chords!

So, what will we learn in this lesson? We start off with some theory, but the most important thing will be practice, because you're all waiting to finally be playing your guitar!

01. What is a chord? A very basic definition...
02. Major and minor chords: some very basic music theory on chords
03. Chord shapes: play these all over and over again until you can play them in your sleep!
04. Chord exercises: to learn to switch chords fluently
05. Some easy songs with chords

Well, I don't want to keep you waiting, let's get it started...

What Is A Chord?

Chords. If you want to learn them, you must first learn what exactly a chord is. I'll be honest, to fully understand what exactly a chord is, you must wait a couple of weeks, when we're doing the more advanced stuff and the whole story is clear to you. Until then, I can't begin explaining fully what a chord exactly is. However, this brief but correct definition will do for now:

A chord is a combination of 2 or more notes (mostly 3) that sound good together. This combination consists of a root note and one or two notes that sound well with that root note.

This definition is, however incomplete, a correct definition of a chord. It is incomplete however, because it doesn't say why certain notes sound good together and form a chord. But this is theory for later...

I will give an example to clarify it. The chord C major (or just C) is made up of the note C, which is the root note and gives the chord its name; if you add the notes E and G to the root, you will have a C Major chord.

Note: for those who can't wait until next week for some music theory.. why exactly E and G? Well, if you take the scale of C Major, and you take the root note and add the 3rd and 5th note of the scale, which are E and G, you have a C Major chord. Any other combination of notes with the root will create another C chord... But that's for later.

Just keep in mind this definition. Another very important thing to keep in mind is this:

Some chords sound good together with other chords. Chords that sound good together can be combined to form a chord progression on which every song is based.

Yes, literally every song is based on a certain chord progression. That's why every song can be played with chords on guitar (although not every song will sound good that way!). Of course, this definition is as incomplete as the previous one: it doesn't include why some chords sound good together and some don't. But don't worry, this will all be explained in future articles...

So with these definitions, we can almost move on to playing. Just remember that combinations of notes make chords, and combinations of chords make chord progressions and songs, just like words make sentences and sentences make an Ultimate Guide to Guitar! But as I said, we can almost move on to playing... There is only 1 little bit of theory I would like to explain to you before we start practicing chord shapes.

Major And Minor Chords

I just explained briefly how a chord consists of a root note, which define the chord's name, and 2 (or sometimes more) notes that go well with the root. Those other notes define not only the name of the chord, they also define how it sounds, the color of the chord. I'll use the example that I just used, to clarify this.

If you take C as the root note, you can add E and G to make a C Major chord. This is a fairly happy, jolly sounding chord. But you can also do something else: if you add Eb (E flat, that's an E lowered with a semitone) and G to the same root, you also get a C chord, but this one's more dark, dramatic, sad sounding. This one is called C Minor. You can do this with every chord, with every root, so that for every root you can create two different chords: one Major and one Minor. Get it?

Depending on the notes we choose to go with the root note, we can create (amongst others) a Major and a Minor chord for each root. The Major chord sounds more happy, the minor chord sounds more sad.

Amongst others indicates that this definition is again not complete. Of course a root note can be combined with more notes than just the 2 combinations that make up Major and Minor chords... But this knowledge is enough to finally start learning chord shapes!

Chord Shapes

OK! We're done with the theory! Now it's finally time to grab your guitar and start practicing chords! In this section, I will provide the shapes of chords based on every possible root note. For every root, there will be a Major chord and a Minor chord. So, the chords that you will learn are: A, A minor, A#, A#minor, B, B minor, C, ... Then, we will look into a special genre of chords called power chords. These are used a lot in rock and metal genres and are very important, because they are so universal.

A. Major And Minor Chords

Below is a (huge!) image of all the chord shapes (diagrams) that I just mentioned: every root, major and minor.

That's quite a lot of chords, isn't it? Here's some tips to help you learn them all:

  • There's more than one possibility for each chord, e.g. C Major has three... Study the first one for each chord, they are the most used shapes, the other shapes are optional. You will learn them as you go.
  • Study the Major chords of each root first. Then take a look at the Minor chords: they are very similar to the Major versions, only one or 2 differences. It's easier to remember them if you already know the Major chords, just remember the small differences.
Here are some practical tips for making it easier for your hands to play the chord correctly:
  • Some of the chords have a muted low E string, e.g. the C Major chord. You can either just not play the string, or mute it with your thumb so that you don't accidentally play it anyway while strumming. To do this, just bring your thumb, which is normally resting at the back of the neck, over the top edge of the neck and slightly touch the string.
  • You may also have noticed that some of the chords have similar shapes, only in different positions at the neck. E.g. the F chord has the same shape as the F# chord, only the F# chord is one fret higher. Notice that there is a vertical bracket over the diagram of these chord. These chords are called barre chords.

A barre chord is a chord shape where you use your index finger to fret down all strings (or the first 5 strings) at the same time by laying your finger down flat onto the fretboard and pressing all strings down behind the same fret. For example, in the F chord the index finger is used to fret down all strings behind the 1st fret. This is called a barre, hence barre chords. Barre chords can be moved up and down the neck to play different chords with the same shape! For example, if you move the F shape up 2 frets, you are playing a G chord (because G is 2 semitones higher than F).

Playing barre chords will be difficult at first, because doing the index finger barre requires a lot of strength. Just practice, practice, practice until this becomes natural!

Now that you have all the chord shapes you need, and you know how to play them and memorize them, I suggest you start practicing! It takes a lot of work trying to memorize them all and being able to play them all easily and being able to change chords fluently... I have some exercises to help you do that, but first I'm going to explain briefly what power chords are.

B. Power Chords

Power chords basically are the easiest chords there are. You only have to remember one shape, and you can move it around the neck to play every possible chord. First, I will explain what power chords are, in theory.

Remember that every chord is a combination of a root note with 2 (or more) other notes? Well, a power chord is a combination of a root note with just one more note (the 5th note of the root scale, for those who know what that means... Those who don't, you will soon!).

I will give you a couple examples to demonstrate what power chords exactly are, and what the difference with normal chords are. Below is an image of a regular F Major chord (left), with 2 power chord versions of the F chord next to it (right). One uses 3 strings, the other uses only 2, but they are the same chord.

The power chord (F5, for the 5th note) consists only of F and C (the 5th note in the F Major scale). The 3rd note, A, which is in the regular F Major chord, is not there in the F5 chord. This is why power chords are not Major nor Minor: it's the 3rd note that decides whether a chord is Major or Minor. The power chord can be used as a substitute for both! Handy, isn't it?

Another thing that makes power chords very interesting, is that they always have the same shape if you move them around the neck. You can play any chord with the same shape, just by moving a couple of frets down or up. An example:

This time, we are using the 5th string as the lowest string to play a B5 chord in the 2nd position. If you moved that same shape up one fret, to the 3rd position, you would be playing a C5 power chord. And so on... Very easy!

Ok, so now you have all the chord shapes you need and you know what power chords are, we can go on to some chord exercises!

Chord Exercises

The goal of these exercises is to learn to switch chords fluently, without pause. This may be difficult at first, but if you keep practicing, you will get the hang of it eventually. To do this, I will provide you with some basic chord progressions. What I want you to do is strum each chord 4 times and then switch to the next chord. Here are some chord progressions:

C Dm Em F G Am

Note that I am using C instead of CM or C Major... This is the easiest and most common way of denoting a C Major chord.

Some other progressions:

D Em F#m G A Bm

E F#m G#m A B C#m

F Gm Am Bb C Dm

Bb stands for B flat, which is B lowered with a semitone... This is the same as A# or A raised with a semitone. You can replace Bb with A#.

G Am Bm C D Em

A Bm C#m D E F#m

B C#m D#m E F# G#m

Practice! Play these chords progressions over and over again, forward and backward, until you can switch between chords fluently and without pause... This will take time! But be patient... As soon as you get the hang of this, you can start playing your first songs!

Note: these chord progressions are designed to sound good because the chords used are chords that normally go well together. Why they go well together is knowledge for the future, as I already said... You can, if you want, practice chord switching by just picking random chords out of the list and switching between them. It won't sound good, but it will help you increase your fluency.

Easy Songs With Chords

Perfect! You got the hang of playing and switching chords? Now you can start playing your first song using these chords! Exciting, isn't it?

Like I said in the beginning of this lesson, chords can be used to play just about ANY song in the world. Just look up a tablature on UG for any song you like, and open a tab that has chords in the description on the right (and preferably a good user rating!). I will give some suggestions:

Coldplay - Yellow and here's the tab: Yellow tab. (skip the tabbed part for the electric guitar intro, just go to the chords)

Bob Dylan - Knocking on Heaven's Door and the tab: Knocking on Heaven's Door tab.

Bob Marley - No Woman No Cry and the tab: No Woman No Cry tab. (there's a weird G/B chord in this one, just replace it with G for simplicity!)

Listen to the songs, practice the chord progressions, take some time playing them all over and over again, play along with the songs, ... Anything that can help you learn to play chords better! Just have fun playing! After all, that's what playing guitar is all about!


Basically, once you got everything in this article down, you can play any song you want! But we're still a thousand miles away from the level that we are trying to achieve... So stay tuned for the next article in the Ultimate Guide to Guitar series!

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