- What types of guitar chords are there?
- Learn how to get around the guitar neck with some basic chords
- Which guitar chords should I start off with?
Even if the leader of your punk band insists you only need to know three guitar chords, or that you don’t even need to learn guitar chords at all, it’s always useful to learn at least the basics.
After all, you never know when you’ll get called for a gig.
Or perhaps you’ve just bought your guitar and are simply not sure where to start. You might also be wondering how many guitar chords are there in total, and which ones are the most common in popular songs.
Music theory can be intimidating, especially if you’re new to your instrument.
But don’t worry, we’ve all been there! Which is why we’ve put together this guide to help you learn and practice guitar chords, how to play basic and advanced guitar chords, and how to utilize them in a song.
For a look at advanced guitar chords, you can also check out this article!
What are the different types of guitar chords?
How many chords are there on a guitar? Technically, since a chord consists of a group of three or more notes played together, there’s a near infinite number of guitar chords you can play, if you’re willing to get creative.
The most basic chords are called triads, these are made up of three notes played together (hence the name triad, tri meaning three).
In standard Western diatonic harmony, there are eight different triad chords within a musical scale, which can be played over any of the twelve different musical keys.
The musical key tells us which notes are included in the chord and which note the scale starts on (known as the root note).
There are 12 musical keys and eight notes to a scale, otherwise known as an octave. If you look on a musical keyboard, the middle note is known as “middle C.”
This is the simplest starting point for learning your way around a musical keyboard because there are no sharps or flats (black keys).
The notes of a scale are sometimes referred to as degrees, like this, or by their technical names in parentheses:
- C: 1st degree (the tonic)
- D: 2nd degree (the supertonic)
- E: 3rd degree (the mediant)
- F: 4th degree (the subdominant)
- G: 5th degree (the dominant)
- A: 6th degree (the submediant)
- B: 7th degree (the leading note)
- C: 8th degree (still the tonic, just one octave up)
The most basic chord is a C major chord, as it’s one of the easiest to play on a guitar fretboard, and just like on a musical keyboard, it starts in the middle of the scale.
If you don’t know what major and minor chords are, let’s break it down a little so you can see how many other basic chords you can play on a guitar.
What are major chords?
If you look at the notes of a musical scale, a major chord consists of its root note, followed by a major third from that note, and then another jump to a perfect fifth (from the root note).
Major chords sound upbeat and happy. Genres like ska and pop-punk use them a lot.
What are minor chords?
Looking at our musical scale again, a minor chord consists of the root note, then a minor third from that note, which means it’s a half-step down from your major third (making it flat).
On a guitar fretboard, this means you would move the third note down a fret. Then, just like with the major chord, you’d add a perfect fifth from the root note.
Genres like metal and postpunk use them a lot. Minor chords usually have a sad sound.
Basic guitar chords are built with triads, which means the chord consists of three-chord notes. Seventh chords are one of the more advanced guitar chords.
If you add another note on top of the triad, you can turn it into a 7th chord. A dominant 7th starts with a major triad and then adds a minor seventh, so it’s a half step down (or one fret down) from the seventh note of the scale.
A major 7th just takes that same major triad and adds two steps up to a major seventh. Seventh chords are used in jazz and blues a lot to resolve a melody or create tension.
Extended chords use two octaves on the fretboard rather than just using one octave the way triad chords do. This gives us 16 notes, so now we can play ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth chords.
Even though the highest notes in these chords are the same notes as the octave below, when they’re played alongside the lower octave notes, it gives it a different sound and tonality.
Extended chords are used a lot in jazz and funk. Ninth chords are one of the easiest extended chords to play because generally, the finger positions for the first five strings are all on the same fret.
Ninth chords are the most popular extended chord because they add that little extra note of dissonance on top of seventh chords, making them very distinctive to the ear.
A couple of notable examples are “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” by James Brown and the notorious intro to “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix.
In fact, Jimi Hendrix was so well-known for playing ninth chords, that the dominant seventh sharp nine chord is sometimes referred to as “the Hendrix chord.”
Looking to spice up your songwriting? Check out Weird Chord Progressions (Examples & How To Make Them).
Which chords are easiest to play?
The easiest guitar chords to play are the most common major chords:
- C Major
- D Major
- E Major
- A Major
- G Major
All of these chords have the simplest positions on the neck. The corresponding minor chords are similar enough in their finger positions, that they don’t require much adjustment.
The A Major chord can be a little tricky at first because you have to sort of stack your fingers on three strings all on one fret, but with practice, you’ll get it.
When you practice guitar chords, you should focus on how to change from chord to chord with the least amount of movement possible.
Play open strings (rather than fretting them) when you can. Not only will this involve less work with your hands, meaning you’ll be able to play for longer, but you’ll also be able to play faster.
Barre Chords and Power Chords
Especially in popular music, there are other types of chords that are commonly used, such as barre chords and power chords.
They’re called barre chords because you use your index finger to “bar” five or six strings on the fretboard to make them.
These are what we call ‘transposable’ chords, meaning all you have to do is move the whole shape up and down the neck to make a new chord.
Power chords are technically an interval, that are neither major nor minor. They’re made up of the root note and the fifth. In guitar land, we don’t necessary use the same terminology as say a classically trained pianist.
The guitar is a bit more rock ‘n’ roll in its approach and as such we will still call this 2 note interval a power chord.
When you play power chords, you’ll always have your finger on the root note of the chord. You can also take your root note up an octave, adding a third note, to thicken it up.
Another way to play power chords is by taking the 5th the doubling that up 1 octave below the root note, this is called an ‘inversion’ and is particularly popular in genres like metal as it gives the impression of a chord sounding lower than it really is.
Suspended chords, or sus chords, take a major or minor triad and omit the third, usually swapping it out for a fourth or second interval.
This lack of the major/minor third gives the feeling of a chord being left ‘hanging’, hence the name suspended.
They’re generally notated as “Csus2” for example, which means that rather than playing an E, you would play a D. Similarly, a Sus4 (suspend 4th) chord will suspend the fourth note.
They’re used a lot in jazz, blues, and folk, but also in rock (for example, in “The Long And Winding Road” by The Beatles).
If you think of triad chords as stacking two-thirds, one major, and one minor, augmented chords are simply two stacks of major thirds, meaning the highest note in the chord gets raised a half-step.
Depending on which key you’re in, this might involve adding a sharp. For example, a G augmented chord is G- B -D#. Augmented chords are a type of non-diatonic chord, which means that augmented note isn’t actually part of the scale which adds to its unique tonality.
Diminished chords are the opposite of augmented chords. In other words, diminished chords are made of two minor third intervals.
If you’re looking at your chord as a third and a fifth stacked together, the fifth will be minor too.
This is where it gets a little more complex, once you start talking about seventh chords again. If you diminish a seventh chord, the minor seventh still goes down half a step…which makes it a major sixth.
Similarly, half-diminished seventh chords keep that minor seventh. This might seem backward, but just remember that by diminishing the minor seventh half a step, you’ve effectively gone down a whole step.
What is an open chord?
Some of the easiest chords to play are also open chords, named so because they include one or more open strings. Here are some of the easiest open chords:
- C Major
- D Major
- E Major
- A Major
- G Major
- F Major
- E minor
- A minor
Remember that when you play some of these open chords, you won’t always be strumming all six strings.
As you get used to holding a guitar pick, one of the tricks you can use is to mute the strings you don’t want to play with your palm or the outside of your hand. Try a few different picking positions and see what works best for you.
Lastly, keep in mind that this is a different concept than open tuning. When you tune a guitar to open tuning, you’re tuning its strings so that when you strum the open strings, it plays a chord.
The most common chords for open tuning on a guitar are D major and E major.
For example, if you’re playing slide guitar, you’ll typically want to tune to E major so that you won’t have to fret any notes with your fingers and can just use the slide.
What are the most common chord progressions in rock music?
One of the most common chord progressions in rock, whether the rock n’ roll of the 1950s or punk rock, is I-IV-V, also known as 1-4-5. A classic example is “Blitzkrieg Bop” by The Ramones.
However, the I-IV-V progression is even used today in modern pop, such as in “Mean” by Taylor Swift and “What Makes You Beautiful” by One Direction.
The chords aren’t always played in that order and the progression might be I-V-IV, for example.
Another common chord progression is I-V-vi-IV, or 1-5-6-4. Examples are “When I Come Around” by Green Day, “If I Were A Boy” by Beyonce, and “Come Together” by The Beatles.
Can you play chords on a bass guitar?
You can play chords on a bass guitar to create a heavier sound or to accompany the guitarist. It’s often done in metal, for example in “Zero Signal” by Fear Factory.
If you’re playing a 4-string or 5-string bass, you’ll generally end up playing simple dyads (two note intervals) or triads.
So how many guitar chords are there?
As you can see, the answer is a little more complicated than simply “a lot”.
To sum up, there are 12 musical keys and eight notes to a scale, and a chord consists of three or more notes played together.
Hopefully, we’ve given you a better understanding of guitar chords and how to learn chord positions and notes so you can play with a little more fluency and confidence.
We recommend spending time not just playing, but listening to your favorite songs to better understand which chords they use and why.
The more comfortable you get playing basic chords, the easier it’ll be to start creating your own and using them in your own music.