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How Can I Learn to Play Chords?

How Can I Learn to Play Chords?

Chords are an integral part of music as a whole, you can’t really have a song with musical notes that doesn’t at least imply some kind of harmony. Chords can be used in simple ways, such as writing a basic accompaniment for your songs, or as part of a more complicated chord melody arrangement.

Music has three distinct pillars, and everything to do with it fits with one of those areas. Those basic building blocks, the foundation of what we know as music, are harmony, melody and rhythm. Chords are obviously a harmonic concept, and in this blog post we are going to learn how to play some basic chords. 

Please skip to the ‘Learning Basic Chords’ section if you are reading this blog post after being directed to do so in a lesson. 

What is a Chord?

Harmony is the relationship different notes have with each other, and a chord is more than one of those notes played at the same time - many classify chords as three or more notes played at the same time. I often test younger students with a game where I play something on the guitar that may or may not be a chord, they simply have to answer yes or no - sounds straightforward, but I always manage to catch people out. A number of notes played in quick succession doesn’t constitute a chord.

There are levels of complexity within harmony, meaning that there is an impossibly large spectrum of chords; there are simple chords and very tricky chords, both in terms of playing them on the guitar and the theory behind them, but that doesn’t mean that any are better or worse. 

If you can, try to recognise when you are hearing more than one note at the same time. It could be played on the same instrument at the same time, or spread across an ensemble (like in classical music). It shouldn’t be too hard to do this, though if you struggle you can use your own guitar and play one of the open strings, then combine it with some others - that way you can physically see if something is a chord or not. 

Learning Basic Chords

Before we go any further, you must have a good knowledge of the open strings and where the frets are on the guitar. This will become difficult to understand otherwise, and it doesn’t take very long to learn that. 

One of the most common ways to learn, write or remember a chord is to use chord boxes. Please study the diagram below - the first example is just a demonstration, but fear not, we will be learning some simple chords after that!

The horizontal spaces represent the frets of the guitar (remember that we place our fingers between the metal of the fretwire and not on the fret itself). The vertical lines represent the strings - both have been labeled. Some people find it useful to imagine holding the guitar out in front of you, with the front of the guitar facing you.

There are a few symbols and markings to learn about in the diagram, or chord box, to the left - these have been explained below.


Now that you know how to read some chord boxes, let us put it into practice. This is applicable in the same way, regardless of your hand orientation - you can interchange the hands I describe here if you are left-handed. 

We are going to learn some three basic chord shapes below. They are three string variations of chords that are not worse than other, harder shapes, but are more accessible for beginners. For all of these chords, hold the plectrum in your right hand and rest it on the G string (third up from the floor). You should strum all three strings smoothly so they sound like they are being played simultaneously - remember to pass the plectrum through all of the strings by swiping towards the floor and not outwards. 

The first chord is called G Major, often simply referred to as G for short:

Whilst I have no real preference for what finger you should use here, I would suggest that you use either your index or ring fingers.

Make sure you use the tip of your fingers and press firmly (making sure your left hand fingernails are appropriately trimmed definitely helps!)

Does this chord sound clear? Can you play it clearly and consistently? These are questions you should ask yourself when learning these shapes. 

Now we will learn the C and A minor (shortened to Am) chords. Pay attention to the number on the black dots - these indicate the fingers you should use (though it is not always displayed on a chord box. As mentioned earlier, you will soon instinctively know what finger to put where.):

Learning Harder Chords

No one is able to play every single chord, especially since there can be infinite voicings, and restrictions between instruments - a guitar, for example, cannot play a chord with more than six notes in it. The choice you have to make when deciding what chord to learn next is difficult - are you learning chords for a specific song? Or just as general practice. The best musicians can figure out how to play a chord if they don’t already know it, though that is not always an option for those just starting out. If you are a bit stuck with what chords to work on, try asking your teacher or choosing a song to learn that might have a new chord in it. 

Changing between chords can also cause problems and can be hard to overcome, something that becomes increasingly harder to the more complex the chord. Check out this blog post by Ryan for some great tips!

When It Doesn’t Sound Good

When you play a chord, it is important that you can hear all of the notes clearly - the combination of those notes together make the chord what it is and if you can’t hear all of them, the chord will not be correct. If some of the notes sound muted we should try and fix it!

First off all, you should be able to hear when the chord is correct. If you can’t tell, I would suggest playing each note of the chord one at a time and keeping a mental note of which string does not ring out properly. This can all be a bit of a balancing act, so make sure you take regular breaks so as not to get frustrated. 

In my opinion, there are three reasons why a chord may not ring out properly. They are as follows:

  1. You are not pressing hard enough - this is common for beginners as they typically haven’t had the time to build up the finger strength to press down properly,

  2. You are pressing in the wrong place - an unlikely cause if you have read the chord box properly. It is still possible, and you may accidentally put your finger on an incorrect string,

  3. Wrong angle - if you are pressing in the correct place and with plenty of pressure, you might not be using the very tip of your finger and curling it around properly so the tip touches the string above instead. It is also possible that, whilst the target string is being played correctly, the pad of your finger (the squishy bit) is lightly touching the string below. 

Final Thoughts

Learning chords is like any musical activity. Some find it easy, others just can’t seem to get their head around it. Everyone should try their best and have some kind of ability. The broader your musical perspectives are, the more varied the chords are that you have to learn. Therefore, you may find a time when you really have to work on them to achieve your goals. 

This is all something the fantastic team of teachers at The American Guitar Academy can help you with. Happy strumming!


A detailed explanation is also provided in this video. Check it out!


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