Any guitarist knows about chords. Whether you’re a metalhead, a jazz aficionado, or in a Tom Petty cover band, you’re going to need to learn the basic guitar chords. But how much is there to know about chords? Is there a difference between acoustic guitar chords and electric guitar chords?
In this guide, we’re going to give you all the knowledge you need, to master beginner guitar chords. From the basic barre chords to complex jazz figures, you’ll be a master at playing chords. It takes time and practice, but you need the right knowledge before you can make any progress. So let’s dive into the basics of guitar chords.
What are Guitar Chords?
Chords are any combination of 3 or more notes, and you can find them on any instrument that can play more than 2 notes. So apart from guitar, you see chords on bass, piano, banjo, and other string instruments. But singers and instruments like trumpets and saxophones can only hit one note at a time, so they aren’t able to play chords.
There are 12 notes to choose from, and octaves typically don’t count. So if you’re playing a G major chord on the 3rd fret of your E string, you’re actually only playing 3 notes, and the other 3 strings are playing different octaves.
While you can use any combination of 3 or more notes, typically you choose notes from a scale. Whether it’s a pentatonic scale or one of the guitar modes, you can get better sounding chords if you don’t just pick 3 random notes.
What are the Major Guitar Chords?
Major chords sound “happy” and are typically the first few that we learn. Most likely you’ve learned G, C, D, F, A and E major pretty early on in your guitar career, and that’s because these are some of the most fundamental chords.
A major chord is any note, plus the major third and the perfect fifth. A prime example of this is G major, where you have G, B, and D. The G chord is one of the most common guitar chords there is, because it’s the only major chord that uses all 6 strings in an open position. C major, (also referred to as C guitar chord) is also an open chord, but only uses 5 strings.
Most chords on guitar are barre chords, requiring you to block down most of the strings on the guitar. The most common of these chords are F or F# major, A major, and E major. If you’re a fan of AC/DC or the Ramones, they mostly use major barre chords in their music.
What are the Minor Guitar Chords?
Minor guitar chords are the “sad” version of a major chord. The only difference between a major guitar chord and a minor guitar chord is the third. Rather than a major third, they have a minor third, but both major and minor chords have a perfect fifth. The most common minor guitar chords are A minor, E minor, and D minor.
It’s really easy to change a chord from major to minor, since they only have one note difference. Just identify which note is the third, and move that down a fret. On an E major chord, you’d just open up the G string. On A major, you move your finger from the second fret to the first fret on the B string.
Are There any Other Guitar Chords Variations That I Should Learn?
Major and minor chords are the foundation of guitar music, but there’s an entire world of chording technique out there. We’re going to cover just a few of the most common ones, but there are some truly complex chords that you need to master if you want to get better at creating new melodies.
Seventh chords are just like major and minor chords, but they add an extra note, the seventh. Just like with the third, the seventh can be either major or minor, and the combination of third and seventh determine what type of chord you’re playing.
If you’re playing a chord that has a minor third and a minor seventh, it is called a minor seventh chord, written as “m7.” So if you play A minor, but add a G to it, you’re playing A minor 7, or Am7. Likewise, if you’re playing a major third with a major seventh, you’re playing a major seventh chord, written as “m7.” Playing a C major chord and adding a B would be Cm7.
You can also mix and match the third and seventh. Play a major third and a minor seventh and you get a dominant seventh, just written as “7.” So play an E major chord and add a D to get E7.
Technically, you can also have a minor third and a major 7, but no natural guitar scales have these two intervals, so it’s extremely rare. You can find some 80s thrash metal that uses these chords, but it’s extremely uncommon.
Every now and then, you have a chord without the perfect fifth. Instead, it has a diminished fifth, which has a really dissonant, crunchy sound. When you have a minor third and a diminished fifth, you get a diminished chord. An A minor, which is normally A, C, and E, can be diminished by playing an Eb instead of an E. They’re most common in classical, jazz, and metal, but you rarely see them in rock, blues, or pop.
You can do the same thing with a minor 7 chord. Picture an Am7 chord, which is A, C, E, and G. If you replace the E with an Eb, you’re now playing an A diminished 7 chord. You can take this one step further by diminishing the 7, changing it from G to Gb, which is an A fully diminished 7 chord.
Because of the way intervals work, you typically add every other note to a chord. That’s why you get the third, the fifth, and the seventh first. If guitarists wanted to “follow the rules,” you’d have to go in order, adding the ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth one after another. This makes up all of the notes in a scale, and was pretty common in 50s and 60s jazz.
But if you just want to skip ahead and add an interval without going in order, you use “add chords.” The process here is pretty simple, where you just add the interval you want to the chord. So if you have an F Major Chord and want to add a G, you play an Add 9 chord. If you wanted to add a Bb, you’d play an Add 4 chord. It’s just an easy way to play any combination of 4 or more notes.
Inversions aren’t a type of chord; they’re the way you play the chord. Picture strumming a C Major starting on the A string. That’s called “root position,” because the lowest note you’re playing is C. Now picture strumming all 6 strings, adding in that low open E. It’s still part of the chord, but now the lowest note you’re playing is an E. Since E is the third, you’re now playing in First Inversion. It’s all the same notes, but your lowest note isn’t the root of the chord.
Picture that same chord, but on the lowest E strum a G. G is the fifth in a C major chord, so now you’re in Second Inversion. If the lowest note is the seventh, then you’re in third inversion, and if it’s the ninth, you’re in fourth inversion.
Sus chords aren’t actually a chord, they’re 2 chords played quickly. Sometimes a guitarist wants to switch chords, but change one of the notes later than the rest. Imagine Playing a G chord, then a D chord. You would normally be moving from G, B, and D to D, F#, and A. But if you wait just a little bit before moving that G to an F#, that’s a suspension, where a note from one chord “suspends” over the next chord before falling into place (called “resolving”). Rather than catch guitarists off guard by having 2 chords really quickly, you can just call it a sus chord. So a G sus4 would start out with a C, the fourth of a G major chord, but then resolve to a B, the third of a G major chord.
Any rocker is going to be more than familiar with power chords. These are the most common type of chord in rock and metal, but doesn’t actually count as a chord. Power chords are made up of the root, the fifth, and the octave, so it only counts as 2 notes. But by taking out the third, you get a really full, powerful sound.
How Can I Use Guitar Chords in My Guitar Playing?
Now that we’ve covered what chords are, let’s talk about how to use them in your playing. Guitar chords are one of the most powerful tools in a musician’s arsenal, so it’s important to understand how they work.
Most music has a melody accompanied by a chord progression. Whether you’re listening to Back’s “Little Fugue,” John Coltrane’s “Blue Trane,” or Lamb of God’s “Laid to Rest,” there are chords in almost all music. These backing chords are called a chord progression, and can work in a few different ways.
Most music since the 1910s have had chord progressions that repeat, and often change in the verse, chorus, and bridge. This is the easiest and most enjoyable way for most players to learn guitar chords. Start out with something simple like C-G-Am-Em to get your hands moving.
More advanced classical technique didn’t repeat it much, and instead composers chose a different chord every time. If you’re interested in learning classical and jazz guitar, have a deep understanding of chords and see if you can master this method.
Chords are often the most common way you can change keys. While the most powerful players like Joe Satriani or Vai can do this through melody, most of us use the chords to switch keys. Sometimes you just have to start playing in a new key, and the chords will make the song sound right.
Other times, you can find chords in common between two keys and make the switch there. For example, both G major and C major have an A minor chord. If you want to switch, you can use A minor to “pivot” between them.
There are a few advanced techniques you can use to fluidly switch keys using chords. Seventh chords are a powerful way to do this, because they can sound so vague. For example, every major scale will have 2 major seven chords, one on the root of the key, and one on the fourth. But while you’re playing each one, you can’t tell which key you’re in. So if you play Em7, and move to Am7, you’re playing in E major. But if you pivot to Dm7, you’re now playing in A major.
The most skilled players will actually incorporate chords into their melodies. This is really common in jazz, but even iconic guitarists like John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers do it. Picture that classic intro to “Under the Bridge.” This is a prime example of a chord melody, where he adds enough movement, trills, and other embellishments to create a solid melody while also using chords.
The most advanced guitarists of all time, like jazz titan Joe Pass, will add chords into their solos. They can successfully inject their melodies with complex chords, and will often rest on a powerful 7 chord before moving on with their solo. This technique takes years of practice, but can work in any style.
Guitar chords are a huge part of playing music. From the basic concept to the most advanced techniques, you’ll spend your entire guitar career learning more about chords. But by taking the time to master the fundamentals, you’ll put yourself on the path to mastery. Even the most iconic player of all time started out just learning a few open chords. Take the time and effort to learn this musical building block, and you’ll be on your way to becoming a master player.