Welcome to the very first article in our “Chord of the Week” series. In this series we’ll be sharing a new “chord” every week, going into the depths of its history, relevance, how it’s played on the guitar, its major scale, some common chord progressions, and a few popular songs in the key of the chord.
This week we’re starting with the king of all chords: the C Major chord.
Why Does the Guitar Chord Alphabet Begin With “C?”
Why does the C Major chord have the honour of being the first chord most guitarists learn, despite it’s being the third letter in the alphabet and its root the third of the seven basic musical notes?
The short answer: the piano.
In the history of guitar you’ll find many instances of the guitar and the piano trying to copy and outdo each other in one way or another, like jealous siblings. The dissonant chords of ragtime piano, for example, were a way of trying to recreate the “blue note” (the bending of guitar strings to create a flattened “bluesy” sound— read this to learn how). Later on guitarists like Reverend Gary Davis copied those same piano chords on the guitar, adding to the guitar’s already brilliant affinity for blues and jazz.
Relevance: Guitar Strings Taking a Cue From the Tinkling Ivories
But “starting with C” wasn’t just a copycat move. It makes sense that the guitar should profit from the ease with which the piano teaches the fundamentals of music theory. In your own musical journey you may even find yourself from time to time going to keyboards for a better understanding of chord structure.
Guitar lessons usually start the student out with the C chord position, the C chord being the root chord of the key of C, in part because C is the first key learned by piano students. The key of C has no accidentals (that is, no sharps or flats) and so is a great way of introducing piano beginners to music theory without overwhelming them. It also helps that “middle C” lies at the very centre of the piano keyboard.
So let’s take a brief look at the key of C, the key for which the C chord forms the root.
Theory and Practice: The Pattern of the C Major Scale Explained
If you’ve already learned a little music theory (if you haven’t here’s a great place to start) you’ll know that the sequence of intervals in a major key are:
whole tone, whole tone, half tone, whole tone, whole tone, whole tone, half-tone
That is, at the third and the seventh places in the scale there’s a half tone, and between all the other notes there are whole tones.
In the key of C this means that between the notes B and C and again between the notes E and F there’s only a a half tone, and in the key of C these two half tones just happen to lie at the third and seventh places in the scale. Voila! No need to touch the black keys (sharps and flats) in the key of C.
Of course guitars don’t have black keys, so it shouldn’t matter, right? A guitar player can create a a half tone (a sharp or a flat) simply by placing a finger halfway between two whole tones— that is, by just moving up or down one fret— because each fret represents a half tone.
For the guitar the major scale pattern—
whole tone, whole tone, half tone, whole tone, whole tone, whole tone, half-tone—
translates into: two frets, two frets, one fret, two frets, two frets, two frets, one fret
C – D – E – F – G – A – B
As an aside, the key of A minor is also free of sharps and flats, and for guitarists, it’s a relatively easy key to play in. If you want to start a student off with easy chords, you can’t beat the chords A minor, E minor, and a simplified B7. This may explain why so many self-taught guitarists start out by learning to play “House of the Rising Sun” in A minor. But the piano tradition stubbornly lives on, perhaps in part because minor keys don’t sound as cheery as the major keys.
In music theory, it just makes sense to begin with C. If you study music theory along with learning how to play the guitar (and you should because it’s amazing and super helpful) you’ll see the wisdom in starting your alphabet with C.
And don’t fret— the Uberchord blog has a great series of music theory articles to guide you through the dark forest and into the bright plain of musical understanding. This will help you to be a better musician and give you the peace of mind that comes with knowing exactly what you’re doing and how it all fits together. It’s a great complement to using the free Uberchord app!
The C Chord is All Well and Good, But How Do I Play it on the Guitar?
The C-chord can be played in various shapes and positions on the guitar. If you are on your mobile, you can open the exercise directly in your Uberchord app by clicking on the image.
The C Major Scale
Here is the C scale, with C at its root and another C, an octave higher, at its summit. On the treble clef the lower C sits at exactly the middle of the piano, which is why it’s called middle C. On the guitar this C can be played on the fifth string, third fret. The higher C can be played on the second string, first fret.
Common Chord Progressions in the Key of C
A Little Vitamin C Never Hurt: Few Great Songs in the Key of C
Technically speaking, there’s no reason to believe that one key should have a different “mood” than another; they’re all just higher or lower, with the same intervals, and so they should all sound the same, right? But the more you play, the more you’ll notice that each key has its own peculiar emotional character.
Of the major keys, C may be most childlike and resilient. It’s so full of light that it can risk tackling darker subjects without hanging its head – Bad Romance by Lady Gaga.
It can be upliftingly joyful La Bamba by Ritchie Valens.
It can sound hopeful: Imagine by John Lennon.
It can carry you on a long and winding musical journey without boring you to death: Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin.
It can be quirky and playful like: Miss You by the Rolling Stones
Hopefully you’ll soon see the C chord as a great start to your guitar road trip. The lessons are new, the callouses are still growing, and the chord position isn’t the easiest, but rest assured— it only gets better from here.