You just got your first guitar (or maybe you are doing research for your children – we have also covered the best guitars for kids) and you want to play a bit. A melody may still work. But how do you actually get those fuller sounds where you use multiple fingers? These combinations of several notes at once are called chords. In this extensive guide you will learn to read and play guitar chords.
How are chords notated?
Often chords are only notated with a chord symbol: a letter, possibly in combination with a special character and / or a number.
For example G, C7, D # or Bb6. In addition, chord diagrams are also shown in various songbooks (“chord boxes”). These show exactly where to put your fingers.
When there are no diagrams but only chord symbols, you have to know by heart which chord grip goes with it. For each chord, there are a number of commonly used fixed finger positions.
In other words, you can play the C chord in various ways. As a beginner, you simply learn the easiest variant of a chord first.
In this guide, focus will be on these basic handles, starting with the open chords.
It is wise to start with the open chords. Open chords are played on the first three frets (frets are the metal strips on the neck of your guitar), each has a unique shape and contains one or more open strings – those are strings that you don’t have to press down on.
That way you don’t have to do tricky things, such as putting your index finger over all the strings (barre chords) or stretching your fingers very far. Meaning you learn a lot of chords relatively quickly, which gives a lot of satisfaction.
Unfortunately, there are some commonly used chords that do not have an open variant, such as F.
However, there are still quite a few songs that you can play in their entirety using open chords only.
Translating a chord diagram to position your fingers on your guitar neck
To get started with the most common open chords, you see the eight best known below. But how do you actually read it? Also don’t forget that depending on your guitar the grip will feel different. We have written an article about starting on an acoustic or electric guitar to help you.
- Place the guitar on your lap with the neck up and the strings facing you. You should actually look at chord diagrams that way.
- The thickest string is on the left and the thinnest string is on the right.
- Open circles are strings that you strike, but do not press with a finger, while strings with a cross are neither pressed nor struck. It does take some practice to play only the right strings!
- Look at the numbers for the correct fingering.
- Are you a left-handed guitarist and do you pick up the chords with your right hand? Then you will have to mirror each chord diagram. For more information about the left-handed guitar, read our Selection Guide on this topic.
Numbering your fingers
The most important and basic open chords: major and minor (“m”)
Playing actual music with chord progressions
When you have mastered the first chords, it’s now time to start actually playing some music.
Chord progressions come in handy here. In order not to start too difficult, the diagram below is great to start with. You will find this type of chord combination, or cadence, in many well-known songs.
G | D | Em | C |
Each box is four counts. So always count from 1 to 4 and after four beats go to the next chord.
First, only strike the chord on the first beat (with your pick or thumb), from top to bottom. After having four times counted to 4, you should have played all the chords.
Does go smooth? Then hit each chord on the first and third beat. If this goes well, strike every chord on every beat.
- Take the time to get your fingers ready in the beginning, and not at the last second. Always put down the fingers of the strings that you will strike first. This will make sure you are on time with your finger when the plectrum (or thumb) arrives at the relevant string.
- It may be a good idea to practice with a metronome. For example, use a metronome app or buy one online or in a local shop. With a metronome you ensure that you learn to play perfectly in rhythm. Start at a slow pace so you have time to get your fingers ready.
The next step: open chords with a seventh
Want a bit more of an exotic or chic sound? Then there are also open chords with a seventh tone, as listed below:
A small blues challenge for you after learning the basics
Have a bit of a personal challenge: below is a blues chord progression. Follow the same steps as with the previous chord progression.
| A7 | D7 | A7 | A7 |
| D7 | D7 | A7 | A7 |
| E7 | D7 | A7 | E7 |
Learning barré chords (or barre/bar chords)
With the open chords above you can build up a reasonable repertoire of easy to play songs, for example to play by the campfire. But soon you will want more, so you grab a songbook from your favorite artist. To your horror, you will come across chords like “Bb7” and “G # min7”!
Don’t worry, it looks more complicated than it is. Now is the time to learn the most famous barre chords.
What is a barre chord?
With a barre chord, it is necessary to press several strings of your instrument at the same time with (at least) one of your fingers.
For this you need more strength than with the open chords. Playing these will be a matter of daily practice and not expecting it to work well the first time.
Overview of the most commonly used barré chords
We start with the two main barré handles: the “E-shape” and the “A-shape”.
These are the major chords. You can check them in the illustration below. I chose these names because these barre chords are very similar to the E chord and the A chord you learned above with the open chords. The difference is that you now have to press five or six strings at the same time with your index finger.
Why learn these two barre chords?
Once you have mastered the two barré grips below (the “E shape” and the “A shape”), you can play a huge range of chords in one fell swoop.
The beauty of barré chords is that you can “move” them. Once you can play the barre chord with the E shape, you can play not only the F chord, but also F #, G, G # / Ab and so on, simply by moving your hand one square at a time towards the next fret .
The same applies to the barré chord with the A-shape: with it you can play the Bb chord, but also B, C and so on. You can see an overview of all options below
Where on the neck do you play a barre chord?
In the image above you can see all the “boxes” and frets as you see them on your guitar neck (the thick line on the far left is where the neck ends and the head of the guitar starts: the nut). If you play the E shape with, for example, your index finger in the third box (III), you will hear the G chord. If you move one box further, you will hear the G # or Ab chord (why this chord has different names is not important now). And so on. The Roman numerals are a visual aid: for example, V is the fifth box. This also matches the position dots you see on many guitars.
An example is shown in the figure . The Roman numeral on the left indicates the position: you must place your index finger (1) over all the strings in the third box (III). The horizontal line indicates that it is a barre, so you have to press several strings with one finger. Now drop the other three fingers as well, and you’ve made a G chord.
Always pay close attention to the Roman numeral on the left. For example, if it says IV, you have to play the entire chord one square further and you will hear a G # / Ab chord.
Playing the A shape works the same. If you play it with your index finger in the third box, for example, you will hear the C chord. When you move a box up, you will hear the C # / Db chord, and so on.
As you may have noticed, you can also play the same chords with barred grips that we saw with the open chords. For example, if you come across a C chord in a songbook, you can choose whether you play the open C chord or one of the above barre fingering.
However, it may be wise to make sure you don’t have to make too big of a “jump” between chords. Those kinds of transitions don’t sound very smooth and you have to move your hand really fast to be on time.
So choose grips that are close together. You will also notice that each variant of a chord has its own timbre.
And what about minor, 7 and m7?
As you can see in the diagram above, the Em shape, Am shape, E7 shape and so on also exist.
These are actually all derived from the E shape and the A shape. For example, you can go from the E shape to the Em shape very easily by just taking your middle finger off the string.
So once you master the E and A form (the major chords), it’s only a small step to minor (notated as ‘m’), seventh (notated as ‘7’) and minor 7 (notated as ‘m7’). And because the maj7 in the A-form is quite easy to play, it is also added right away.
The alternative handles explained
For the A shape, we added an alternate handle at the end of the diagram. The first, regular version, with all four fingers, is best played on the first half of the neck. There, the space between the frets is still quite large, so you have more room for your fingers.
However, when you get higher on the neck, it gets tighter.
Then the alternative may be easier (try it yourself), especially if you have larger fingers. You’ll have to bend your ring finger slightly the “wrong” way to press those three strings at once! Note: you must also dampen the highest (thinnest) string by placing the second phalanx of your ring finger against it (do not press). Practice makes perfect.
If you find the barre chord with the E-shape too difficult at the moment because you don’t have enough strength in your fingers yet, you can use the simple alternative at the end of the overview. You actually make a very small barre by pressing only the two highest strings with your index finger.
Tips for playing barré chords
Once you can play the above barré chords, you’ve made a huge leap forward in your chord playing. But all beginnings are difficult, so I have listed a few tips below.
Correctly position your thumb
Do you want to get started with barré chords as soon as possible? The hand with which you pick up the chords will have to get used to the new (fairly large) grips.
To minimize the effort required, place your thumb flat (not with the top) on the back center of the neck at the same height as your middle finger on the other side (this is one fret higher on the neck than where the index finger is barring the strings). If you do differently, you will have to use a lot more force to be able to pick up the chords (clear). This way, your fingers are also better positioned (upright) on the key. After your hand gets used to this position, you will find that it is much more efficient. Moreover, you have a lot less chance of injuries.
Get your fingers in top condition for the barré chords
Can’t hold on to the bar handles for long? Then – in addition to the correct position explained above – you can first get used to a complete barré grip step by step:
- Lay the first phalange of the index finger flat over the thinnest two strings, with the thumb behind the neck, and strike only these two strings. Once this sounds good, the simple alternative E shape actually won’t be that difficult anymore. If you play this chord with the index finger in the first box, you will hear the F chord. If you slide your fingers up a box, you will hear the F # / Gb chord and so on. It’s never wrong to have this small, quick chord scheme in your arsenal!
- Then remove the middle and ring fingers and leave the index finger. Try to pick up an extra string until your finger is like a rod over all six strings.
- Do check continuously whether each pressed string can vibrate properly, free, so not with a rattling or muffled sound. It takes some patience and attention before all strings sound clear. If you dedicate a little bit of time to this every day, you will start to notice and hear progress pretty soon!
- To make the above a little easier, you can do the exercises first near fret 5 to 7. Here the string tension will feel a bit easier.
Time to practice barre chords with these 4 schemes
To get used to the barré shapes and how to play in different keys, we listed some useful “cadences” for you below.
- You already know the first chord sequence below from the chord progression of the open chords at the beginning of this blog. Combined with the two barre grips you just learned, you now have several ways to play this scheme. For example, you can play the G chord as an open chord, but… as the diagram above shows, also as a barre chord with the E-shape or with the A-shape! And remember our advice: always try to choose grips that are as close together as possible.
- The second scheme sounds exactly the same, but then everything a whole tone lower (G has become F, D has become C, and so on).
Simple chord progression:
G | D | Em | C |
Simple Chord Progression – Whole Tone Lower:
F | C | Dm | Bb |
That’s it, you can now start to play for real!
With these chords in your pocket you should now be able to play all the basic schemes.
In the past, you often had to skip a deal, but now you can figure out for yourself which grip it should be.
Some guitarists suddenly choose to play all the chords in a song in barre fingering, because this is easier for them.
After all, they are just two simple chord shapes that you simply play in different places on the neck.
However, once your hearing has gotten used to it, it can appear quite “angular.” On the other hand, in music such as punk and some rock styles this may be desirable, but in many other styles it usually sounds more pleasant and fluid to mix open chords and bars that are close together (if possible). Because of the small distances between the tones, the transitions are less large and they sound a bit more natural.
Try to teach yourself this so that you can at least do it. But in the end it is of course entirely up to you whether you mainly slide back and forth with barre chords or make a mix.
Just don’t forget to tune your guitar, or all the practice won’t matter 🙂
Other articles about guitars on Musichunger.com
- A bit more advanced but definitely a lot of fun: open tunings for guitar
- An introduction to the instrument that is the acoustic guitar