Introducing the Learning Guitar Series. Over the next few months, our friend and guitar teacher extraordinaire Haley Powers will teach you how to take your guitar playing to the next level. From locking down a practice routine to nailing an acoustic cover, Haley has you covered.
There are hundreds of different chords out there, and as a beginner, it can feel overwhelming. I remember when I first started playing, I thought that I knew all my basic open chords and felt pretty good about myself. I had graduated from slowly placing my fingers one at a time to quickly making chord shapes and changing chords like a pro. However, I’d often be reminded of my status as a guitar noob when I’d look up chords to a song. Instead of A major, it would say ‘Asus2’ or instead of Bm, it was ‘D/Bm’.
The songs I was attempting to play were so simple (did we all have a “First Cut Is The Deepest” era or was that just me?), but they always sounded slightly different from what I’d learned. Playing through the song, I could use the open chord shapes, but I'd wonder what I was missing out on by not playing the same chords as the songwriters.
If you’re at the point where you know some basic chords, but aren’t quite sure of what exactly you’re playing, this blog is for you. In the first part of this blog series, we’re going to deep dive into basic open chords, and we’ll move on to different types of chords in later posts. I hope this helps simplify some of the big concepts so you have an overall understanding of major chords, minor chords, and everything in-between.
If you’re unsure of how to read chord charts, we recommend by first starting with our blog on reading chord and tab diagrams.
What’s an Open Chord?
Don’t be intimidated by starting to learn chord theory — it's simpler than you might think. A chord is just 3 or more notes played at the same time. Technically, if you choose any 3 notes on your entire fretboard and play them at the same time, you would have a chord (maybe not a beautiful one, but it would still be valid).
For example, here’s how to play one note on the 5th fret.
When people talk about numbers, they’re referring to what note in the scale it corresponds to. If you’re unsure of how to find notes in a scale, check out my simple video on the number system. Basically, the most common chord, a major chord, is formulated with the 1-3-5 of a scale. This means that the chord consists of the first (called the "root") note in the scale (notated by the “1”), the 3rd note in the scale (“3”), and the 5th note in the scale (“5”).
For example, here’s a C Major Scale.
And this is how a C Major chord is translated on the guitar.
An open chord is when you use the open strings of the guitar to formulate your chord. This is especially lovely on acoustic because it sounds so pretty when the open strings ring out. For example, notice how Dillan Witherow uses a ton of open strings, making his playing sound airy and gorgeous.
Types of Open Chords
The major chord is a simple formula of 1-3-5 (first, third, and fifth note of the scale). Keep in mind, those notes don’t have to be placed in order from lowest to highest on your fretboard and some notes can repeat (like it could be 1-5-1-3-5-1 for example). On acoustic, the open chord shapes account for using the open strings. You can think of your major chords for happy, bright, and pretty sounding chords.
Common Major Chords
With minor chords, the chord formula changes slightly. Rather than using the 3rd note of the scale, we’re going to move the 3rd note down a half step. On guitar, a half step is one fret, and this makes the minor chord formula 1-b3-5 (the “b” before the “3” denotes that it is a flat 3).
Playing around with moving the 3rd down a half step and noticing the different sound is the best way to see how much this small change affects your chord. It’s pretty crazy how changing just one note can make an entire chord sound more melancholy, mysterious, and sad.
Common Minor Chords
Playing Major and Minor Open Chords
Now that you have a basic understanding of major and minor chords, the hard part is over. Most other chords are just changing or adding a note in this formula. Personally, I think it’s easier to memorize how to play the chord and not overthink all the theory when you’re first learning.
Chord theory comes in most handy when you want to create a chord yourself that you haven’t learned yet, you’re improvising a solo around a chord, or if you happen to be someone that has an easier time learning things based on theory.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the theory, focus on noticing the emotion of certain chords as you play through them. You can even practice writing a song. You’ll know more about choosing the chords based on the emotion rather than getting caught up on the chord composition.
Each chord has a unique sound to it, and as you learn more, you’ll find there are a lot of different ways to play the same chord (this is called alternate voicing). Any time I play acoustic guitar, I make a point to use as many open strings as I can because it sounds gorgeous and takes full advantage of the acoustic guitar’s capabilities. Using the open strings often can make for some unique alternate voicing, so try it out!
I hope this blog helps you feel more comfortable with the ins and outs of chords, and remember to have fun experimenting with your chord creations to find a sound that you love.
Haley is a guitar player, blogger, and guitar teacher based out of Nashville, TN. When she's not playing or writing, you can find her in line at her favorite breakfast taco shop, taking her dog hiking at the nearest waterfall, or binging Outer Banks with her hubby.