14 Basic Guitar Chords You Should Know (Illustrated Guide)

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  • An illustrated guide to open guitar chords for beginners.
  • Diagrams of 14 easy guitar chords with finger and fret positions.
  • Exercises and tips to help you get started.

 

Guitar chords are one of the earliest challenges a beginner will face. They can be copious and confusing, often making it problematic to figure out where to start.

A few students cram as many as they can without any underlying understanding of their function. Others dive into barre chords without the prerequisite finger strength and dexterity. Both of these are recipes for disaster, the exact kind that this post will help you sidestep.

It’s never a good idea to take on too much. Your first goal as a rhythm guitarist is learning simple chords until you can confidently play songs with two to four open chords. You should learn the major scale and other rudiments of music theory side by side.

Noah Teachey has written two fantastic posts to that end – The Major Scale Explained and Types of Triads: Explained Simply. I recommend both of them alongside this post for beginners or as a refresher for more experienced guitarists.

As for the chords, I’ll walk you through the most basic guitar chords for beginners.

Revising the Basics

Let’s do a quick revision of the basic guitar jargon/theory that will be relevant to this post for those who have never taken guitar lessons. Feel free to skip this section if you’re already acquainted with these concepts.

Simplistically speaking, there are two ways to fret a chord on the guitar:

  • Open chords
  • Barre chords

What are open chords?

An open chord refers to an ‘open-position guitar chord’. It can be any chord with one or more open strings – a string where you don’t press down any frets. Open chords may have one to five open strings in them. These are the easiest chords to learn and are typically the first ones you are taught.

Using alternate tunings, you can produce a chord without pressing any frets. For example, if you tune your guitar to DADF#AD, playing the open strings produces a D (major) chord.

For better or worse, EADGBE – the standard tuning we use – isn’t an open tuning. Playing all the strings open yields an A11/E chord, which isn’t anything to dwell on unless you’re into esoteric jazz music.

Open chords are also called ‘cowboy chords’ because they are used abundantly in Americana folk/country music. However, there are ‘advanced’ open chords that are anything but easy to fret.

What are barre chords?

A barre chord (or bar chord) is any chord where one finger is used to hold down the same fret on all strings. This finger acts as a “bar” – the French figured it out before the English, apparently. Barre is a French word that means barred – thus the atypical name.

Barre chords are usually moveable chords – which means they can be moved around the fretboard (transposed) holding the same position. Rumor has it that barre chords are the #1 reason people sell their guitars or buy capos (don’t quote me on that).

Luckily, this post has nothing to do with barre chords. You won’t quit just yet.

Jokes apart, barre chords are challenging because you need finger strength to hold down multiple strings with one finger. I will walk you through them once you’ve developed your calluses.

Denoting major & minor

When a chord is denoted by a letter – i.e. A, C, G – it’s a major chord by default. The term “major” is not included. You only write the letter that refers to the root note i.e. the “A major chord” is denoted as A.

Minor chords, on the other hand, are denoted by an ‘m’ or ‘min’, usually the former. Therefore, an Am refers to an A minor chord.

How to Read Guitar Chord Diagrams

Move on to the next section if you already know how to read diagrams. For those who don’t, you’ll soon realize that it’s an easy-to-grasp system. Let’s get to it:

Some diagrams might be simple whereas others may have more details. We’ll pick the most detailed example to cover all bases. Here is what a regular chord diagram looks like:

The thick black line represents the guitar nut. “X” marks the omitted strings – the ones that you do not fret or mute.  “O” indicates that the string will ring open and no finger should be pressing down on it.

The black dots represent the fret on which you place your fingers and the numbers below (1, 2, etc.) indicate which finger you use to fret the note. 1 corresponds to the index finger, 2 to the middle finger, and so on.

Open Chords for Beginner Guitarists

Here are the chord diagrams of the seven open chords that you must know…

Major chords: C, A, G, E, D

We’ll focus on the 5 most commonly used major chords in the open position. I’ve started with the C major and arranged them as C-A-G-E-D because it corresponds with the CAGED system of guitar learning. It’s not important to get into the details, for now, just memorize these 5 easy guitar chords.

Minor chords: Am, Dm, Em

You should also learn all the minor chords in the open position. I’ve deliberately omitted chords such as Bm or Fm because they are played as barre or half-barre chords. Here are 3 minor chords you can start with:

Sus Chords: Asus2, Asus4, Csus2, Csus4, Dsus2, Dsus4

We’ll also learn some suspended chords. In this type of guitar chord, you omit the third note (suspend it) and play the 2nd or 4th note instead.

Sus chords are a guitar lesson in their own right, but there are some easy ones we can use to supplement our major and minor chords. I’ve only included basic chord shapes with stress-free fingerings.

(Make sure you read our guide to suspended chords if you want to learn more, including how to resolve them in a chord progression.)

Tips to Learn Open Guitar Chords for Beginners

Memorizing chord shapes isn’t an overnight deal. Improving your vocabulary and the speed at which you can shift between chords needs patience and perseverance. Regular and disciplined practice goes a long way. You only need 10 to 15 minutes a day for this task.

Start with the two simplest shapes from the batch I’ve presented – E major and E minor.

As you can see in the chord diagram, lifting your index finger (1) turns an E major into an Em chord. Below, you can see how to shift between the A and Am chord. However, it’s not as simple as E / Em because you have to change your fingerings entirely.

After these chords, I recommend learning the A-Asus2-Asus4 trio. Playing sus chords along with the parent chord (Asus2 with A) is very common. You can hear it in countless pop, folk, and rock songs.

I’ve provided several chord examples, but I recommend learning them in the following order:

  • Em, E,
  • A, Am
  • A, Asus2, Asus4
  • C, Csus2, Csus4,
  • C, Cadd9,
  • G
  • D, Dm
  • D, Dsus2, Dsus4   

This order starts with fewer testing chords, in terms of finger position and hand placement, and prepares you for more demanding shapes such as C major or D minor.

Pay attention to your fretting hand technique. Your goal is to learn how to play each chord clean – without any buzzing or muted strings. These unwanted sounds occur when you don’t fret notes accurately or if your finger is unintentionally touching an adjacent guitar string.

Basic Exercise for Right (Strumming) Hand

You can pick any of the basic guitar chords from the list above to start building muscle memory. I recommend an Em and E major chord as they are easy on the fingers. Now use the following patterns to improve your strumming and right/left-hand co-ordination:

  • 4 down strokes – d/d/d/d
  • 4 upstrokes – u/u/u/u
  • Alternate strokes – d/u/d/u and u/d/u/d

Once you can strum the chord cleanly, move on to the next chord and repeat these exercises. Ultimately, you will memorize every major, minor, and sus chord shape/fingering and get fluent with the basic up/down strumming patterns.

Now you can mix and match chords to build a simple major or minor chord progression. The goal is to move from one shape to another fluently, without any pause or trailing off the pulse.

Employ musical ways to practice chords once you achieve baseline fluency. It will take some effort to fret each string when you shift, so don’t let impatience and frustration get the better of you.

Lastly, don’t dwell on the rhythmic complexity, our goal is to learn chords and train the left hand to move fluently through chord progressions. The strumming techniques are an added bonus.

10 Easy Songs to Practice Open Chords

I’ve always found that being able to play a song (even an oversimplified version of it) can be a great encouragement for beginner guitarists. You can use this list of easy-to-play songs to practice the chords you have learned:

  1. The Beatles – Paperback Writer
  2. Bruno Mars – Grenade
  3. A-Ha – Take On Me
  4. Billy Ray Cyrus – Achy Breaky Heart
  5. Maroon 5 – She Will Be Loved
  6. U2 – With Or Without You
  7. Bob Marley – No Woman No Cry
  8. Green Day – When I Come Around
  9. Jason Mraz – I’m Yours
  10. Pearl Jam – Last Kiss

Wrapping Up

These easy guitar chords should keep any beginner guitar player busy for anything from a few days to a few weeks. I’ve also provided a downloadable PDF of all the guitar chord charts. You can print it and use as it as an offline reference/resource.

This list may seem paltry when compared to the repertoire of professional guitar players. Yet, oddly enough, you can play thousands of songs using the chords we’ve covered. So master them, have fun, and move on to more complex pursuits once you feel up to it.

(If you’re still looking for your first acoustic guitar, make sure you read our article 5 Critical Things To Look For When Buying An Acoustic Guitar)