How to Learn Chords on Guitar for Beginners

If you’re a complete beginner on the guitar it is better to start with playing tunes that use one note at a time, than to learn chords.

The reason is that a chord is three or more notes being played at the same time on the guitar.

Needless to say, playing one note at a time is easier than playing a chord.

That said, chords should be learned early on in your guitar learning curve for the simple reason that they’re used a lot.

Also, most chords are not hard to learn, just a little harder than single notes.

Thus, once you can play a few easy tunes (approximately 1-3 weeks, depending on how much you practice) it’s time to start learning chords.

In this lesson I will show you how to learn chords on the guitar in a step by step process.

Step 1: Learn how to read guitar chord diagrams.

The most commonly used way to learn guitar chords is through diagrams.

Thus, the first step to being able to play chords is to be able to read the diagrams.

The following is the diagram for the A minor chord (open position)

The 6 vertical lines in the diagram represent the 6 strings of the guitar, starting from the low E string.

The space between the horizontal lines represents the frets on the guitar. 

The black dots show you which notes you need to press with your left hand fingers.

The numbers at the top show you which left hand finger you need to use to press that note.

An X means that the string shouldn’t be picked at all. A 0 means the string should be played open.

If the number is 1 it means you should use your index finger to press the note, if it’s 2 use the middle finger, 3 the ring finger, and 4 the pinkie.

Thus in the example above, the low E string is not played, the A string is played open, on the D and G strings press the second fret, the first fret on the B string while the high E string should be played open.

Step 2: Press the right notes correctly

Now that you can understand what the guitar chord diagram means, it’s time to put your left hand fingers on the frets correctly.

Two things are important here:

  1. Fret each note with the tip of your finger. If you use the flesh of your fingers you are likely to mute adjacent strings. Apart from that you have less strength in the flesh of your fingers and would need to press harder.
  2. Whenever possible, put your finger as close as possible to the fret.

Step 3: Play the notes in the chord one by one

There are 5 notes to play in the A minor chord given above (since we’re not playing the low E)

Play them one by one and make sure every note sounds right. If they don’t, keep adjusting your left hand fingers until they do.

Step 4: Muscle memory exercise

A chord is something you learn once and have it memorized so that you can recall it and play at will anytime you see it written in a chord chart.

Now that you have got the A minor chord right, it’s time to start this memorization process.

First, simply look at it. Looking at the chords visually helps the memorization process.

Next, press the fretted notes hard. Don’t hurt your fingers, or try to build guitar callus this way. Simply press the notes hard for a short period of time to help your mind remember the chord.

Then release the pressure, and press again. 

After repeating this enough times, the A minor chord should be imprinted in your brain and you will be able to recollect it anytime you want.

Step 5: Learn a new chord

The next step is to use the same process to learn the second chord in your vocabulary.

This is the diagram for the E minor chord.

Step 6: Change from one chord to another

In order for guitar chords to be useful, you need to learn how to change from one chord to another.

Changing from Am to Em is easy. Lift your middle and ring finger up a string, and remove the index finger from pressing any note.

You may find some chords harder to change, in which case you can use this simplified process to change chords.

Step 7: Learn all major and minor open chords.

Though there are thousands of chords a guitarist can learn, major and minor chords are by far the most commonly used, thus the ones you should learn first.

Not all major and minor chords can be played in the open position (that is, when at least one string is left open and you don’t need to perform a barre with your left hand finger)

These are the major and minor chords you can play in open position 

Major chords

Minor chords

Apart from A and E minor which you have already learned, the only minor chord that can be played in the open position is D minor.

Conclusion: Which guitar chords to learn next

Once you are fluent in playing open position major and minor chords as well as changing from one to another, I would suggest you learn these chords next:

  1. Power chords: These are not actually chords since they only have two notes, but dyads or double stops. However they serve the same purpose of chords and are very common in Rock and Heavy Metal music.
  2. 7th chords in open position: The dominant 7th chord (ex G7) is very commonly used in Pop, Rock and Blues music and should be learned earlier on.
  3. Barre chords: Not all chords can be conveniently played in the open position. Barre chords enable you to play any chord in any place over the guitar fretboard.

They’re harder to play than open chords since they require your finger to form a barre and press all the strings on a particular fret.

Once you acquire the ability to play all the chords mentioned above you will be able to play the absolute majority of guitar songs ever written.

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