After learning the parts of the guitar, the name of each string, and your first few notes and melodies, the next thing beginners usually learn is their first couple of chords. That is, at least how I first learned to play guitar. If this sounds like you, we are here to help you over this little hump in the process.
You have probably seen any number of ads for guitar programs offering fast results with little effort on the internet. While I am sure that some of these work alright, a lot of them are just guys trying to make a buck. I am here to tell you that this is not all that difficult, but it does take a little time on your part, and it is best to avoid making any shortcuts early in your playing experience.
Today, I will be discussing some of what I have noticed has helped my students over the years.
Before moving on, however, I would like to discuss reading chord diagrams since I will be using them here. It’s actually very easy. Imagine that you are holding the guitar upright and the fretboard is facing you. You will notice that there are six strings with horizontal lines for the frets. Any markings in the form of black circles are frets that will be played on a given string and fret. An “X” above the string, means that string is not played. A “0” above the string means that string is played open. An arc or a black line across several strings means you barre that frets across those strings. That’s about the gist of it. Not so hard, right?
Here is an example to give you an idea:
The first chords
The next step after reading chord charts is learning our first few chords. For the purposes of this lesson, we will mostly be focusing on chords related to the keys of G and C major. These chords are open position chords meaning they use open strings and the first few frets on the neck. If you have a capo available to you, you can use these shapes in any key signature. Now, I have recently noticed what is called the CAGED system floating around on the internet. It seems handy, but it’s not how I learned and it’s not how I teach. I prefer just to learn things as they are instead of trying to remember mnemonic devices, but that’s for you to decide.
Try to get a good sound
Now we have your first couple of chords. The very first thing to do here is to try to get a good sound out of every note in each chord. Do not worry about playing through progressions just yet. Take each chord, play each note in the chord individually while holding the chord, and see which notes are being muted or otherwise don’t sound great. You will inevitably make these mistakes in the beginning and the only way to correct the problems is through practice. There are a few things to keep in mind, however, with regard to getting a good sound. Let’s go over some of these.
Now take these steps
First and foremost, sit up straight. Slouching is normal at first, but when you slouch, your arms take funny positions and cause bad technique and bad tone as a result. Second, imagine that you are gripping a tennis ball. That should be more or less how your hand looks gripping the guitar. You will take liberties with this later on, but it’s good to establish good posture and form early. Third, avoid bending the joint at the tip of your finger. You will get into that later, but for the purposes of these first few chords, it’s bad form and can cause unwanted muting. And last, make sure you are only using the tips of your fingers to fret notes.
Now, let’s move on to some progressions. The most important thing here is to take this slowly. Take a metronome and set it to somewhere around 40-50 BPM. Go slower if you must. Take the progression two chords at a time and make sure you nail each transition. For example, if we are practicing the progression above, your practice would look something like this:
G > C > G > C > G > C
Please each chord four times before moving on to the next one. Don’t worry about strumming patterns right now.
Next, go to the next pair of chords. C to Em, then Em to Am, and lastly, Am back to G. Make sure each transition is clean, and there is no hesitation. Remember that there is no rush here! Good sound and good tempo is the most important thing to take away from this. It is much more difficult to retrain someone with bad habits than it is to establish good habits early on. When you finally feel comfortable enough with each one of these transitions. Go ahead and try the whole progression. See if you can get through it without stumbling. If you find that you are stumbling a little too much, go ahead and lower the BPM a bit.
Add more Chords
Next, let’s go ahead and add a few more chords to your library. F major does not use any open strings, but it is close enough that we can add it to our library here. With these seven chords, we can now play a TON of songs, believe it or not! Let’s go ahead and add a few more progressions for you to practice.
- G – Em – Am – D
- C – Am – Dm – G
- Em – C – G – D
- Am – F – C – G
Make sure you practice these using the same steps I listed earlier.
The importance of music theory
Lastly, I would just like to point out the importance of learning music theory. Guitar players often neglect this side of things and wind up playing catch-up later on. Nip this in the bud early! Also, go ahead and learn a bunch of songs. This is really the best way to absorb and understand what works and what does not in music.
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed this lesson!
About the Author
Marc-Andre Seguin is the webmaster, “brains behind” and teacher on JazzGuitarLessons.net, the #1 online resource for learning how to play jazz guitar. He draws from his experience both as a professional jazz guitarist and professional jazz teacher to help thousands of people from all around the world learn the craft of jazz guitar.