Ten Chords for Guitar Beginners

By Joey Robichaux

It’s a combination that just doesn’t mix, but it always happens.

Start with 1 part enthusiastic beginning guitar player, 1 part beautiful new guitar, and 1 part confusing “Learn guitar” chord book. The result is rarely pretty — it usually results in 1 confused and frustrated not-so-enthusiastic-anymore guitar player!

A “chord” is simply a mixture of notes played at the same time. You finger certain positions, then strum the strings; what results is a chord.

Most chord books are technically correct — they do show you finger positions for loads and loads of chords. However, they’re often functionally deficient — they show you chords, but don’t show you which ones are important and why!

Rather than trying to learn hundreds of chords in order, it makes more sense to learn the most important chords in the right combination.

I think that if you concentrate on learning just 10 chords — in combinations of two or three at a time — you’ll jump-start your guitar-playing career and have fun from the very beginning.

Let’s start and see how easy it is!

The First Three

We’ll still use your guitar chord book; you’ll look up the chords we mention to learn how to finger them. We just won’t learn the chords in the order presented in your book.

The first three chords you want to learn are: G, C, and D. These may be called G Major, C Major, and D Major in your chord book. These chords are important for several reasons.

First, they form the famous “I-IV-V” Chord sequence, sometimes called a “3 Chord Progression”. Once you learn to listen, you’ll realize that probably 90% of all music uses this progression (rock, country, blues, soul, even classical!).

Next, this particular “key” (key of G) is used in a lot of popular music, especially country. This means you can “play along” with songs and you’ll be in the same key, or pitch.

These three chords happen to use a lot of “open” strings — strings on which you do NOT place your fingers. Open string chords “ring” in a most pleasing manner and generally sound richer than non-open string chords.

This key fits well with instruments such as violins, banjos, and mandolins — that’s another reason it’s common in country music.

Finally, this particular key is one that most people find very easy to sing in. It’s not too high, not too low — just right.

Play these chords in different combinations; try and become adept in switching between chords (especially between the G and the C).

You’ll quickly recognize the “I-IV-V” signature. For instance, “Louie Louie” would be “GGG CC DDD CC”. Most country tunes would be something like “GGGG GGGG CCCC GGGG DDDD CCCC GGGG”.

As you become familiar with the pattern, you’ll start recognizing different combinations … maybe something like “DDD CCC GGG GGG”.

The Second Three

Our next three chords are: A, D, and E. However, since we already know how to play a D, we’re really only learning two new chords.

These three chords are also an “I-IV-V” chord sequence — just in a slightly higher key, or pitch. You can play the same songs you might play with the G-C-D combo … they’d just be a little higher. It’s more common to find the A-D-E combination in rock music than in country.

The Third Three

Another “I-IV-V” progression — this time, it’s C, F, and G. Since we already know C and G, we really only have to learn one new chord — F.

This key is about half-way through the scale from G. That means you can sing either higher or lower to be in the proper pitch.

You’ll also probably note that F doesn’t “ring” as richly as the other chords you’ve learned — because it doesn’t have as many open strings. You’ll probably find it the most difficult to play of all you’ve learned so far.

It’s worth it to spend time to get the “F” chord right. It will really pay off further down the road when you begin learning chords in different positions on the neck of the guitar.

Another Three

This time we need E, A, and B. We already know E and A — we just need to add the B. This does present a problem, though.

B is not an easy chord to play in first position. The easiest way to play a B in this position on the neck is with a “bar chord” — however, beginner guitar players are usually not quite ready to play bars at first.

A good compromise is to learn the B7 chord in the open position instead. If you count the string closest to you as “1″ (the fattest string) and the string furthest from you as “6″ (the skinniest string), then the fingering would be: 1-open, 2-second fret, 3-first fret, 4-second fret, 5-open, 6-second fret. By the way, early Beatles music uses this particular chord quite a bit.

The E, A, B (or B7) combination is another “I-IV-V” progression. Why it’s important is because this key is very often used in rock-and-roll music. Don’t know quite why — it’s not a great natural key for guitar (because of the B issue), it’s not the easiest to sing in, and it doesn’t mix well with instruments other than an organ — but it seems to have become standard!

The Final Three

We’ve now learned seven chords — G, C, D, A, E, F, and B7. It’s time to slip in the last three. These will be “minor” chords.

The three chords are A Minor, E Minor, and D Minor. These are also written as Am, Em, and Dm.

You won’t necessarily play these three chords together — although if you did, you’d have a great blues progression. Play the A, D, and E progression — then play the same thing, but use Am, Dm, and Em instead. Yep, that’s the “blues”, alright.

You’ll probably use the Am and Em the most. The Am fits well with the C, F, and G combination. Use it like “C, Am, F, G”. (Think of that little piano ditty, “Heart and Soul” — remember Tom Hanks dancing on the Keyboard in “Big”?) This combination works well in both slow and fast tempos.

The Em fits well with G, C, and D — the order would be “G, Em, C, D”. This is the same progression as the last, just again in a different key.

This particular combination (adding the minor with the I-IV-V chords) is called a “I-iii-IV-V” progression

What’s Next

There’s a lot you can do with just these ten chords.

Playing the normal “I-IV-V” and “I-iii-IV-V” progressions in different keys will serve most singers and will cover many of your favorite tunes. You’ll also find other progressions with these same chords — for instance, try A, D, G, C and see what happens.

What chords should you add next? Well, you might want to add the 7th to some of these — for example, G7, C7, D7, A7, E7.

Next, you’ll want to start exploring different positions on the guitar neck — which probably means bar chords. I’d learn the B bar chord with your finger across the entire second fret first. Once you master this, just slide your hand one fret lower — and you’ll have a B-flat chord — which fits in between your F and C to give you another “I-IV-V” progression in a new key!

Still, no matter how far you go and how many chords you master, the odds are quite high that you’ll find yourself most often using these basic Top Ten favourites!


The Easy Way to Learn Guitar

By Frank Foxx

I’m on a mission. To convert.

To convert guitar players and aspiring guitar players to learn guitar using open-D.

It’s the tuning so important to guitar in the last number of decades, but too often, overlooked by the mainstream. Standard tuning has a stranglehold on the business of learning guitar. The reason, to me, remains unclear.

As a starting point: an open tuning is clearly the logical choice for the aspiring guitarist. What easier way to begin to learn to play guitar, but with an open, major chord? How much more confidence could any newcomer (of any age, but more on that later) need than to be able to play a nice sounding chord without putting finger to fret? That’s what you get when you start with an open tuning.

My personal story went like this. Frustrated novice guitar player (“novice” for years on end!) gets nowhere with guitar for years. Does research (i.e. reads guitar magazines). Realizes many of the greats played in alternate tunings (K. Richards, J. Mitchell, E. James, R. Johnson, R. Cooder, J. Page, etc, etc.). Re-tunes and re-tunes guitar until he finds one that works – open-D. Presto! Light bulb comes on. A better guitar player is hatched.

Open tunings are mentioned, frequently enough, in magazine articles, transcriptions, books and the like. But very seldom have I seen an outright promotion of their use as a stand-alone approach to learn guitar (my god, even Keith switches to standard tuning every now and again!). And open-D, the most logical of all starting points, is rarely mentioned at all.

I have yet, in 20+ years of public performance, to have anyone come up to me and say – “How about that – you play just like I do, in open-D”. People do come up, but the comments are almost always, “You sure use some funny chord positions” or “Are you playing in a different tuning?”

Amazingly, many guitar players associate “open tuning” with “more difficult”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, to make the transition from standard tuning is a bit of a learning curve, but once you’re there, POW! You’ll never want to play any other way (although just adding proficiency on an open tuning to your standard tuning is a giant leap).

Which brings us back to beginners learning guitar.

No matter what the age, a beginner, whether 6 or 60 years old will find open-D an easier way to start to learn guitar. It is so obvious.

Focus on the strum without any fingers on the fret board, and then work your way up to one finger on the fret board (the basic major chord in open-D is just one finger). What a way to develop early confidence.

The truth is, and I am living proof, you would never have to make the flip to standard tuning. But if you wanted to, it’s just small tweak up to standard – sort of drop-D tuning with three other minor adjustments back and forth, to and from standard E A D G B E, to D A D F# D.

One question that arises – why open-D, then, of all the potential starting points?

The absolute simplest choice may be, for easier understanding of theory, keys and harmony might be open-C C G C E G C, but that gets a tad floppy sounding, as the guitar strings are so slackened.

Going the other way to open-E E B E G# B E might be going too far the other way, though it’s used. Open-D seems the perfect choice! For singers wanting to accompany themselves, of course, it becomes an issue of vocal range tied to the guitar tuning. A capo may be in order.

Tuning for open D

  • Tune your sixth string down a tone to D. Check the tuning with the fourth (D) string.
  • Tune your third string down a semitone to F#. Check the tuning with the fourth fret of your fourth string.
  • Tune your second string down a tone to A. Check the tuning with the fifth (A) string.
  • Tune your first string down a tone to D. Check the tuning with the fourth (D) string.

Standard tuning – E A D G B E
Open D tuning – D A D F# A D

Hopefully you can now see a real alternative to learn guitar using open-D tuning.

Guitar Tuning Tips

By David O’Toole

Most guitar tuning problems on a Stratocaster arise from the old style whammy bar or “vibrato bar” as it’s correctly called. And although it’s a wonderful, fun, fantastic, and great invention, it does have its shortcomings. Newer Strat designs and double-locking systems have mostly overcome these annoying side-effects, but they do have a very different feel to them.

But if you set an old one up properly, and keep it well lubricated (use sewing machine oil), you can reduce your guitar tuning vibrato-bar problems to a minimum.

It is well worth your while learning all you can about your guitar and music gear, as regards keeping it serviced and running smoothly. If you don’t do it yourself, it means taking it to a repair guy or someone else, every time the slightest thing goes astray.

I have a mountain of books like this for reference and it’s another interesting side of playing. Guitar mags such as the excellent and long running Guitar Player, or try Guitar One Magazine, Guitar Amps and so on are also a mine of information. I’m sure I’m not alone there.

An important point to remember when it comes to choosing strings is don’t “Cheat on the Cheese”. This too is a major source of guitar tuning problems even nightmares! Try a few different brand types out, and only buy from recognized and reputable guitar-string makers. Different players, styles and guitars have different needs.

Always go with a respected brand name such as “Ernie Ball” or “Fender”.

I like 9s on a Strat and something heavier on an electric guitar with no whammy bar. You can experiment with gauges yourself, find one you like and stick to it, especially on a guitar with an old style hand-vibrato on it, ok whammy-bar.

If you intend to play slide on electric or acoustic guitars, use heavy gauge for the best tone and tuning. In general the heavier the string the heavier the tone, but they are harder to play and control. Try bending a g string on a heavy set and you’ll see what I mean.

Strings are your guitars lifeblood, and as mentioned elsewhere, no Lee Chang or Red Dragon 50c Specials!

Sometimes you might hear a pinging sound when you use the whammy. This is caused by stored tension in the Nut being released as you dip the bar, and then bam, you’re out of tune. If it’s an emergency, i.e. it happens in the middle of a song during a gig, try pulling the bar up a bit and depending on how far you have slipped out of tune, this might just get you back in – at least to the end of the song. Hallelujah…

To solve this annoying and interfering nuisance, some good ol’ lubrication is needed here. The best thing to lubricate the nut-end of things is graphite. An easy way to do this, is to use an ordinary pencil, and literally write onto the nut underneath where the strings slot in (lifting it up first, loosen if necessary), and give it a coating of lead (graphite). Then the strings just glide along the grooves instead of sticking there until you “ping” and release them.

This simple little trick works wonders for Strat guitar tuning problems.

Depending on your style and how often you gig, once a week use of this treatment should be fine. Vaseline has also been recommended for this task but I think it’s a bit messy and more suitable to nappy rash ;-) .

Next, let’s look at other end of the guitar, the Bridge.

We have the same problem with “string-slack” as it’s called, as mentioned above on whammybars and Strats. It’s a bit more difficult to get the graphite under the string here, so loosen the strings a bit one by one, pull aside, and pencil the saddle itself, just under where the string lies.

After you finish one, tune it back up and move on to the next one. Do not release the tension of all the strings at once with a floating bridge, as you can imagine this plays havoc with the tuning.

If you notice a lot of strings breaking across the bridge, it’s time to replace your bridge saddles. If you’re handy at doing your own servicing, this is relatively easy. If not, get them done in a good, reputable repair shop. It’s not expensive, and after you have gone through breaking string after string every night, you will be so relieved, not to have to worry about that anymore, that it is worth every penny! Now you can concentrate on your playing instead.

Do not do the job yourself if you’re not sure how to reset the saddles, distance, action and string heights. If you set these wrong, this will play HAVOC with your guitar tuning! You have been politely warned.

If you use special replacement graphite saddles and a graphite nut this will improve things considerably. These are not much more expensive than the normal ones and they really do make a huge difference. As stated before, when you do not have to worry about gear and equipment performance and breakdown, it’s half the battle.

Under the Bridge (that sounds familiar), you will see 6 screws lying flush along a metal plate. If you dip the bar you will notice a little gap appearing underneath these, and you can lubricate under each one with 3 in 1 sewing-machine oil. It is ideal for guitars and not too heavy.

Now, on to the Guitar-Neck itself.

While this does not affect the tuning as such, it is the final piece in our Strat tip-top jigsaw. Once a month or so, depending on how often you gig, loosen off 2 strings at a time and pull them aside. Rub a small amount of almond oil into the neck and leave soaking for a few minutes. Wipe any excess off with a dry cloth and cover the whole board in this way.

Tune back up and don’t forget to s-t-r-e-t-c-h the strings again. It will not take long if they have been done before. This makes the neck feel nice and smooth to the touch, and also brings out the wood design. Improves general sliding notes around, and feels so professional to play.

Do not mess around with the guitar-neck regarding “Bowing or Concave” problems unless you are experienced and fully confident of doing the job. Doing this wrong can not only destroy your guitar tuning, but your precious guitar itself! Any problems in this area I would strongly advise you to see a guitar tech.

Another huge factor to be considered in Staying-in-Guitar-Tune- Land, is your musical lug ‘oles or as they are more commonly called, ears!

Lose these and you can forget about playing anything. You know what they say “Ear Today, Gone Tomorrow”. Use special ear-plugs at rehearsals. Make sure they are audio ear-protectors. There is more than one type.

Oh, while I think of it, get yourself a good guitar tuner that will last you.

BEGINNERS GUITAR TUNING TIPS: For a professional vibe on stage you need an Inline-tuner (a private tuner with headphones that only you can hear).

There is nothing worse than hearing someone on stage giving it the old “doi, doi, doi, doirrng” before your first number and during the gig. When two or three in the band are doing it at the same time including possibly the drummer, you have complete “amateur hour”. It doesn’t exactly induce a gig-owner to book you again and it is not only amateurish but extremely annoying to the punters.

So look after your guitar bridge, saddles, strings and nut on a regular basis and it will help keep guitar tuning problems down to a minimum. Learning the art of tuning can make a very important difference to your playing, and is one of the hallmarks of a professional.

David O’Toole is a guitar player, music fan, and musician from Ireland. A keen player and experienced guitar teacher, he is also the author of the popular standard, lefthand, reverse guitar, and piano / keyboard series of Basic Chord Families – Not just another random selection of 1000s of chords, but the key to fast learning and playing 1000s of songs with under 60 chords!

So it is well worth knowing how to get your guitar tuning spot-on and your guitar in tune  to stay.