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How to read and play chords for beginners

Welcome to this free guitar lesson, where we're gonna learn how to read and play relatively easy chords. With theses open chords you will be able to play a lot of beginners songs.

Basics required for this lesson : None
Practice this lesson : None


Reading chord diagrams

A chord diagram is a schematic way to transcribe a chord, and thus a form of written music. You will meet them very often on the web, in the guitar methods, softwares, sometimes in addition to a tab.

Below, an example of chord diagram :

C major chord diagram

How to read a chord

  • At the top is the name of the chord, written in two ways : first, the full name (here "C Major"), and second,  ("C") the "short" version. This is much more frequently seen on the web, however, when spoken, the full name is generally more used. 
  • This diagram consists of six horizontal lines and six vertical lines.
  • Vertical lines represent the six strings of the guitar. The leftmost line is the low E string, the right the high E string.
  • The horizontal lines represent the frets, the top line represents the nut which is down the neck of the guitar, or top, depending on the people, but to be clear: this is the 0 or the "head end" or "mechanical side." The number of horizontal lines can vary depending on the number of frets needed to play the chord.
  • On the diagram, there are dots, which are located between two frets. For example at the top right we have one dot numbered "1" placed on the B string, the second string starting from the right, between the first and second line, that is to say between the nut and the first fret This means we have to fret the B string on the first fret.
  • The two other dots indicate that we should fret also, and simultaneously, the D string on fret 2 and the A string on the fret 3.
  • The figures on the dots indicate which fingers to use on each of this frets, and correspond to the four fingers of the hand that frets the strings, that is to say the hand around the neck (the other hand is used to hit the strings). There are often several fingerings for the same chord, which vary according to context. 

Hand diagram

  • The index is numbered"1"
  • The medium finger  "2"
  • The ring finger"3"
  • The little finger"4"

In the few cases where the thumb is used, it is designated by a T (for "thumb”)

Chords and Tablatures

There is still one line that we have not yet spoken about, the line with a series of numbers between the nut and the name of the chord. Here each figure corresponds to the box where the string is fretted. We see the figures 1,2 and 3 on the B , D and A strings respectively.The"0" means that the strings should not be fretted (left open), the "x" means this string should not be played (not be touched).

This line is representative of what is most frequently found on the web, to illustrate a chord when discussing in a forum for instance.
 
We can also transcribe the chords in the form of a tablature, we find the figures mentioned above, but the strings are no longer presented vertically but horizontally, the low E string is at the bottom. The same chord, tablature version:

C major chord tablature version

 

One important thing about chords: one single chord exists in lots of different positions. However the position of "C major" which we mentioned above, belongs to the category of "open" chords, i.e, a chord which is composed of notes played on open-strings. Only two, three, or four out of sixstrings are fretted which make them easier to play.

There is virtually an infinite number of chords. From a musical point of view, a chord is composed of ​at least three different notes played together, if you fret three notes randomly, you obtain a chord.
 

Important thing to remember

In most cases, the lowest note in a chord is what is called its "fundamental". It’s usually with this note that we begin to play a chord or an arpeggio, and it’s also this note that gives its name to the chord :  in a C chord, the lowest note is C,in a A chord, the lowest note is A, in a D minor chord,the lowest note is D,  in a E7add14+b2 chord, the lowest note will be E etc.

Practicing chords

5 essential chords

Essential chords are the E minor, A minor, the C major, the D major and G major. You will find all the diagrams for these chords in the appendix to this course, a little lower.
This list is not a definitive list, these chords can be played in different ways, but they have the characteristic to all belong to the same tonality, the tonality of G major, which means you can chain them together one after the other in almost any order, it will sound right.
 

The E minor (Em):

E minor chord diagram

As you can see from the diagram, the middle finger is placed on fret 2 on the A string (5th string starting from treble), the ring finger comes on the D string (4th string) on fret 2 as well. Make sure your fingers are very stable, placed on the upper side of the fret (closer to you than to the head of the neck), and rounded to form a bridge over the strings to make sure that your fingers do not touch the other strings (see this guitar course for more details on the left hand).
Now, play the strings one by one from the bass notes, making sure every string rings individually. If everything sounds good, try to play all the strings together. If everything does not sound good, do not worry, we will see shortly some tips to improve all this.

This first chord is quite simple. However, you will face problems for other chords than the E minor, so here's a first tip: when you see a diagram you’ve never seen before, fret the strings one after the other in order, bass to treble or treble to bass, slowly. If you try to play all the strings at once, you'll likely to go wrong if you’re a beginner.
 

A little more complicated chord, the A minor (Am):

A minor chord diagram

We can see that the low E string should not be played, and three fingers are to be placed: The major finger is on the fret 2 of the D string (4th string starting treble). The ring finger comes on fret 2 of the G string (3rd string). The index is on fret 1 of the B string (2nd string). Let’s pick the strings one by one, this time starting with the A string (5th string).
Two possibilities : either all sounds correctly, or there is a string (or more) that does not ring correctly. In both cases, read on, so that you learn how to react if something goes wrong.
For instance, let’s say you have a problem with the high E string when you try to fret this Am chord. It does not ring and you hear a "plop" instead of a nice sound, here are some tips to fix that:

  • First learn how to correctly place your fingers. Look at this course for more details.
  • When a finger is positioned incorrectly, remove it and reposition it properly, do not try to grind in all directions, you might make the position uncomfortable and impossible to replicate. Remove the finger, and replace it correctly.
  • Another tip: if you cannot put your finger so as not to touch the adjacent strings, we'll cheat a little. Try to place it so that the finger touches a string that is already fretted earlier by another finger. For example in the case of the A minor, it’s very often the index that cause problems. So it’s better to let it touch the G string because this G string needs to be fretted in any case to get the A minor chord.
  • Last tip (which applies generally, not only for chords): be observant and think. Do not place your fingers randomly, ask yourself where the problem is. Is it a finger that does not press hard enough? A finger that touches a string that it should not touch ? Identify the problem before trying to fix it.

Once you are able to play this two chords easily, you can try and learn the following chords : C Major, D Major and G Major which are a little more difficult to play.

 

Training

Here is an exercise that will help you improve the way to play your chords. It is a difficult exercise, I do not advise the very beginners to do it. Work on a few chords, memorize them, practice, and in a few days or weeks only, try this exercise.

The exercise itself is simple to learn and is composed of only a few steps :

  • Place your hand on the neck correctly
  • Now try to form a chord as you normally would, but this time without touching the strings, let your fingers above the strings, just above the frets, without touching the strings.
  • Once your fingers are up in the air, above the strings, press them all together, and stop moving
  • Repeat. If you succeed to fret the right strings in the right fret all together at once, practice again and again. If you did not succeed, i.e. if you pressed the wrong string, do not try to correct the position of your fingers. It’s too late. Try to understand what went wrong, try and deduct the right positions for your fingers. Put your fingers up in the air above the strings again, and try pressing them all together again.

 
To do this exercise well, it is necessary to understand why it is useful. For this it’s good to observe a good guitarist who plays a song. You will notice that he is playing his chords very quickly one after another, and that they all sound nice immediately. If an error is made (even very slight), you hear immediately a wrong note or a hole in the song (a kind of pause which is not normally in the song). Roughly, when you play a song, no error is allowed or we hear it immediately.

The exercise mentioned above enables you to play correctly and quickly all the chords. By moving all your fingers at the same time you make sure to play the chords as quickly as possible, which will be a big advantage later. In addition, if you have carefully followed the steps outlined above and explained in the video, you'll understand that there’s no room left for errors. When you place all fingers at the same time, you have either succeeded to play the chord or you have failed.

There’s no possibility to correct the positions of your fingers. You need to get it right the first time, and to practice this exercise until you get the chord right the first time. This, again, will be of great help to play the songs properly.
 
Appendix
 
Hereafter, are the 5 chord diagrams we talked about earlier in this course. They are the basics to start with nice and simple tunes.

E minor chord diagramA minor chord diagram

C major chord diagramD major chord diagram

G major chord diagram

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