Guitar Chords for Beginners – Learning To Strum and Play Guitar

This article is a great place for beginners to begin their journey into the world of chords—the main ingredient needed for playing songs. We’ll begin with a couple of chords that are not only used in “Sweet Home Alabama,” but also used in tens of thousands of songs.

Then we’ll talk about strumming and counting. I’ll also give you some tips on learning how to feel the music so that you’re playing will sound more natural. Lastly, I’ll give you some chord switching tips to help you change chords smoothly and learn songs quickly.

So, let’s get to it!

What are Chords?

We’ll begin by answering this question.

The most basic chord that we’ll be referring to is the triad. And, just like the prefix tri- indicates, we’re talking about a three-note chord. So, when you stack three notes on top of each other you’re playing a triad or a three-note chord.

Now, we don’t randomly stack any three notes, there is a method to this. And, I have a quick and painless way of helping you understand this.

The musical alphabet is A through G and then it repeats. The note that we start on is the key: so, if we start on A we’re in the key of A and if we start on G we’re in the key of G.

Let’s start on C and spell out the musical alphabet: C-D-E-F-G (remember, H doesn’t exist we go back to A) A-B-C. That may sound more complicated than it is, but if you have a piano it’s easier to visualize. C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C.

Piano Example 1

Chords are built by stacking every other note. In order to build a C triad we need to start on C, skip D, add to E, skip the F, and add the G.

Piano Example 2

Next, try it with D. Start on D, skip E, add F, skip G, and add A. C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C.

Piano Example 3

That’s it! If you’re still finding difficulty understanding this, don’t worry. Continue forward and come back to this section. Understanding these concepts sometimes takes a little bit of time; but, eventually, it sinks in.

Open Position G Major Chord

Let’s get started with the open-position G major chord. I know that that’s a mouthful but it’s usually referred to as simply, G—the “open-position major” stuff is generally understood. Open-position means that we’ll be using open strings. Major refers to the quality of the chord and chords fall into three categories: major, minor and dominant. We’re only going to worry about major chords right now.

Next, I’m going to show you three ways of playing the G chord. But, first, let’s find the notes that make up the G triad. Spell out the musical alphabet starting on G: G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G.

Piano Example 4

Next, start on G, skip A, add B, skip C, and add D. G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G; G-B-D!

Piano Example 5

G Type 1

The first way will be using the 1, 2 and 3 fingers of your fretting hand. (The 1 is the index, 2 is the middle and 3 is the ring finger). The strings are numbered from high (the thinnest string) to low (the thickest string).

  1. Begin with your 1st finger on the 5th string, 2nd fret.

  2. Next, use your 2nd finger on the 6th string, 3rd fret.

  3. The 4th, 3rd, and 2nd strings are played open.

  4. And, finish up with your 3rd finger on the 1st string, 3rd fret.

Guitar Chord Example 1

G Type 2

Some folks have a little bit if trouble with the stretch between the 2nd and 3rd fingers. Fortunately, I have a solution. The main problem may be that you have a hard time making that stretch while allowing the 5th string, 2nd fret note to ring out. If that’s the case then try my second way of playing the G chord:

  1. Begin with your 2nd finger on the 6th string, 3rd fret.

  2. Use the pad of your 2nd finger to mute the 5th string.

  3. The sound of the other strings ringing will drown out the muted string.

  4. Next, play the 4th, 3rd, and 2nd strings open.

  5. And, finish up with your 3rd finger on the 1st string, 3rd fret.

Guitar Chord Example 2

G Type 3

Finally, my third way of playing the G chord uses the 2, 3 and 4 fingers.

  1. Begin with your 2nd finger on the 6th string, 3rd fret.

  2. Use the pad of your 2nd finger to mute the 5th string.

  3. Play the 4th, and 3rd strings open.

  4. Add the 3rd finger to the 2nd string, 3rd fret

  5. And, finish up with your 4th finger on the 1st string, 3rd fret.

Guitar Chord Example 3

Give these a try by fretting the chord and then picking each string making sure that the notes ring out nice and cleanly. Some common problems are notes buzzing and not ringing out clearly. You don’t necessary need to press harder, you may need to simply make sure that your hand is positioned correctly.

  • Make sure your thumb creates a “T” with the neck.

  • Your wrist doesn’t have any hard angles.

  • And, your fingers are close to fret but not on top of them.

  • You may need to bring your elbow closer to you body and a little bit forward.

Practice a little bit each day and you’ll get there. Be patient! All of these little things will correct themselves over time if you just keep working at it.

G Chord Recap

One final thought before we leave this section. We talked about the G triad and some of you may be wondering, “If it’s a three-note chord then why are we strumming five and six strings?” Good question! Some of the note are doubled. The 6th string, 3rd fret and 1st string, 3rd fret are both Gs. The 3rd string, open is also a G. In the case of the G chord, the G note is tripled. Things that make you go, hmmm!!!

How to Strum

Before we talk about strumming, let’s talk about picks. I like smaller, jazz-type picks but that’s just me. Also, every time that I perform I sweat, and sweaty hands equals slippery picks. I’ve also seen young players eating french fries and other greasy food before the hit the stage and picks start flying like frisbees.

How to Hold a Pick

There are three basic grips that you should try and see which one works best for you.

  1. The Two-Finger Grip: The is simply holding the pick between your thumb and index finger. However, players like Eddie Van Halen use the thumb and middle finger. I’m guessing that he does this because it’s easier to tap with his index finger and not adjust his pick grip.

  2. The Three-Finger Grip: This grip uses the thumb, index and middle. Some players, like George Lynch and Gary Moore will fan their fingers when playing fast passages. This helps add intensity to their attack.

  3. The Jazz Grip: For the sake of completeness I’ve included this grip. Curl your index finger and and use your thumb to stabilize the pick. All of the motion comes from the elbow.

Strumming Tips

  1. It’s important to hold the pick firmly so that it doesn’t fall out but with a loose wrist so that your chord strums sounds relaxed and natural, not stiff and mechanical.

  2. Begin with down strums. Keeping a nice and steady rhythm, brush the strings with your pick.

  3. Then, try to alternate between down and up strums. Notice that you don’t need to hit all six strings during the up strums. Just aim for the top two or three strings.

  4. Don’t forget to breathe. If you feel tense, you sound tense. Relax, breathe and strum.

Strumming and Counting

Strumming needs to sound natural. But, at the beginning you have so many things to think about that creating a natural feel is at the bottom of the list. So, how do we get from sounding dead and lifeless to creating head-bobbing, booty-shaking grooves.

We start by counting to make sure that we’re playing in time.

  • Count 1-2-3-4 evenly and play a down strum with each count.

  • Once you get used to the sound you can begin to feel it.

  • Continue playing down strums but instead of counting.

  • Sing the sound in your head.

  • Feel the rhythm as you play.

Guitar Chord Example 5

It may still sound a little stiff so we’ll add a technique called pulsing. Pulsing is used by the fretting hand and you loosen the pressure of your fingers without letting go of the chord. It almost looks like your frethand is bouncing.

Pulsing Tips

  1. Grip the G chord.

  2. Play a down strum.

  3. Loosen (pulse) the pressure of your fret hand.

  4. Strum, pulse, strum, pulse, etc.

Guitar Chord Example 6

The pulse creates a more rhythmic and percussive feel. I use this and other techniques to add excitement to songs and performances.

Open Position C Major Chord

Earlier in this article we learned how to spell the C triad. Let’s review that quickly.

  • Spell the musical alphabet from C to C: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C

  • Start on C, skip D, add E, skip F, add G: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C

  • And, there it is: C-E-G

Now let’s play an open-position C major chord:

  • Begin with your 1st finger on the 2nd string, 1st fret.

  • Add your 2nd finger to 4th string, 2nd fret.

  • Next, use your 3rd finger to play the 5th string, 3rd fret.

  • Use the tip of your 3rd finger to mute the 6th string.

  • And play the 3rd and 1st strings open.

Guitar Chord Example 4

Practice the C chord with the same strumming techniques that we used on the G chord. Also, follow the same hand position tips if you’re hearing any buzzing.

Switching Between Open C and Open G

The challenge of switching chords is something every guitar player has to become proficient at and one of the hurdles that many beginners struggle with. We’ve already played the G and C chords but now it’s time to play them together.

In earlier sections we practice strumming and counting to 4. If the song is played to a 4 count then the song is in common time. Common time is also known as 4/4 which means 4 quarter notes per measure. That means one measure equals a 4 count.

Example 1

First, practice two measures of the C chord: Count 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4 and then play a down strum on each count.

Guitar Chord Example 7

Example 2

Next, we’ll do the same with the G chord: Count 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4 and play.

Guitar Chord Example 5

Example 3

Finally, we’ll put them together; two measures or C followed by two measures of G.

Guitar Chord Example 8

It’s pretty easy except for the part where we switch. If that’s giving you trouble, and it probably is, try playing one measure of C, followed by one measure of counting. During this measure of counting begin moving your fingers in place to create the G chord. Then play one measure of G followed by one measure of counting and during this measure of counting get your fingers in place to play the C. Your goal is to hit the “1” count with the chord change. Here’s what it looks like and sounds like.

Guitar Chord Example 9

Switching Between C and G Recap

Once you get the hang of it, you can slowly speed up the count or strum on beat 1 of the second measure and use the 2-3-4 counts to prepare for the chord change. Then, play on beats 1 and 2; and use beats 3 and 4 for the preparation.

Chord switching is conquered by consistent practice.

Adding the First Position D Major Chord

It’s time to add our third chord. You should already have G and C memorized and ready to go. Let’s play the open-position D major chord; or, quite simply, the D chord.

  1. The tricky part about playing this chord is to avoid hitting the 6th and 5th strings.

  2. The 4th string is played open D.

  3. The 1st finger plays the 3rd string, 2nd fret A.

  4. The 2nd finger plays the 1st string, 2nd fret F#.

  5. And, the 3rd finger plays the 2nd string, 3rd fret D.

Guitar Chord Example 10

Practice the D chord using the same counting, strumming and pulsing techniques as in the above sections. Then, when you’re ready, add use all three chords in the following tunes.

Songs with G-C-D

  1. “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd (There’s an F chord thrown in the “Boo hoo hoo” part, but other then that it’s all G-C-D)

  2. “Sweet Chile O’ Mine” Guns ‘n’ Roses (The Verse is D-C-G and the Chorus is A-C-D)

  3. “Squeeze Box” The Who

  4. “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash

  5. “What I Got” by Sublime (Just uses G and D chords)

  6. “You Shook Me All Night Long” by AC/DC

  7. “Leaving on a Jet Plane” by John Denver

  8. “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”

  9. “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” (Tab says you should play D7, but you can substitute a D)

  10. “This Land is Your Land”

  11. “Amazing Grace” (Tab says you should play an Em, but you can play G in its place)

  12. “The Wabash Cannonball”

  13. “Nine Pound Hammer” (You can substitute the C7 Chord with a regular C)

  14. “Lonesome Road Blues” (You can substitute Em with G)

  15. “Undone the Sweater Song” by Weezer

  16. “Amazing Grace” Traditional Spiritual

Conclusion

I’ll close with an old musician joke.

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A young kid wants to learn how to play the guitar. So, he goes the town guitar hero for lessons. The teacher takes the kid under his wing and the first week he teaches him the G chord. He tells him, “Practice that every day and I’ll see you next week.

The second week, the eager student shows up prepared for his lesson. He shows the teacher what he’s practiced. The teacher is pleased and shows him a C chord. He leaves the student with the same advice, “Practice that every day and I’ll see you next week.

The third week, the student shows up prepared and shows the teacher what he’s learned. The teacher then proceeds to teach him the D chord. He leaves the student with the same advice, “Practice that every day and I’ll see you next week.

The following week, the student doesn’t show. This goes on for a few weeks. The teacher then runs into the student on the street. He says, “What happened? We were doing so well… “

The student then replies, “Since you taught me the G, C and D chords, I’ve been too busy gigging to take lessons.”

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I most sincerely hope that this article has helped you and I look forward to seeing you on the bandstand. Thanks for hanging with me.

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Ed Lozano
 

Ed Lozano is a professional guitarist, instructor, producer and published author. He is a graduate of Berklee College of Music and lives in the Andes mountains.

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