After covering Types of Guitar: Beginners Guide to Buying a Guitar, this week we focus on playing the darn thing. Let’s begin with learning and practicing guitar chords. Simply put, chords are two or more notes played at the same time. They come in different shapes and sizes; from the easy power chords of your childhood punk records, to spidery two-handed chords from a jazz nightmare.
If notes are letters, chords are words. And the bigger your vocabulary, the more you can say. Don’t be limited by tired platitudes like ‘all you need is three chords and truth’— that may be true for some, but there is literally not a single disadvantage to building your inner chord library. It can only add more color and dimensions to your musicality.
Free guitar apps like Uberchord app (download here) provide a fun and novel way to learn, but exposure to new chords are only the first step. You must then internalize them through cold practice. Unsure where to start? Here are a few beginner tips.
How & What to Practice?
For newbies, the first mile of your journey be packed into five chords: A – E – D – C – G.
These are called ‘open chords’ because they require you to play one or more strings ‘open’—without fretting anything. They are the primary colors of guitar music.
These chord diagrams spell out each chord:
Confused? Chord diagrams are a top-down map of your fretboard. Try it: lay your guitar flat with the thickest string facing you. This string (a low E) corresponds to the bottom horizontal line on the diagram. The vertical lines represent frets, and the circles indicate where to press your fingers, with the number inside the circle showing what finger to use. On the outside left of the charts, O tells you to play the string open, and X means to mute, or dampen the string entirely.
If this is literally your first time touching a guitar, you should probably step back and watch a quick tutorial. We recommend this YouTube video: “Guitar Chords For Beginners”.
Learn Guitar Chords for Beginners
The chords above are major. Once they’re locked in, learn the slight alterations that transform them into minor chords. With these little beauties, you’ll have the ingredients for most songs you can imagine.
Spend a good time learning how to play these chords cleanly, making sure every pressed note rings clear and every string you don’t need isn’t played, or is (fully) muted. Nothing breaks the spell of a beautiful song like a muffled or sloppy chord.
Here are some supplementary articles to streamline your path in becoming a great guitar player: “5 Tips for Learning Guitar Chords” and “10 Tips to Learn Good Guitar Technique from the Start”.
Learn Rhythm Guitar First, Lead Second
Plan to be a lead guitarist? Good choice. It’s fun, ego-fellating, and you’ll sit higher in the band pecking order. But wait! Before you buy your obnoxious jacket and medallion; here’s an official warning: DO NOT NEGLECT CHORDAL PLAYING. Seriously, don’t be that guy.
This is especially true in the time of social media shorts. That blazing lead line you saw on IG today was impressive, but isn’t really ‘helpful’ musically. Case in point: Last year, I jammed with a younger, ‘new breed’ guitarist, who had learned guitar in emulation of his social media heroes. To be fair to him; his lead was perfectly fine, with strong John Mayer vibes (that will eventually flower in a more original direction). But when we switched rhythm and lead roles, he visibly crumpled. Elastic timing, unconfident strumming, choked chords—my pleasant first impression of him tumbled straight out of the window.
The point is, a song can exist without lead, but dissolves without rhythm. And don’t be fooled, every one of your guitar heroes is a rock on rhythm guitar too. You need to absorb the rhythm of a song before you can paint any meaningful melody over it. Rhythm is the bedrock that supports lead.
Here’s a video to get you started with a basic strumming rhythm. Practice it with all the chords you learned earlier.
Worst Case Scenario: What Happens When You Don’t Learn Guitar Chords & Rhythm
So that jam I described earlier was bad, but at least private. Let me present the worst case scenario.
My school talent show, 2008. Two friends of mine, the token metalheads of our year, performed an ambitious but utterly inappropriate Metallica cover before the other students, their parents and the faculty. The song choice could have been forgiven if the performance was good. But it wasn’t. It was excruciating. Although the solos —the only thing they practiced— were technically flawless, the whole song was undone by their mutually terrible rhythm. Bad timing displaced the entire song train, the chords were so badly fingered that the riff was swallowed by distortion, and consequently the whole performance fell apart. They looked like idiots. They had sacrificed learning basic rhythm and paid the price. Don’t do the same.