Learning Guitar Chords: Follow These Basic Guitar Instructions

Use These Tips to Play the Guitar

Man playing the guitar

The guitar is a very versatile instrument. Once you learn to play guitar, you can perform classical, folk, country or hard rock music--or a host of other styles. To play any of these, however, you'll need to know how to play guitar chords. 

To play chords for guitar:

  1. We'll start with some guitar-playing basics. Hold the guitar with the body resting on your right leg. Curl your right hand into a fist, loosely. Your thumb should be parallel to your first finger. Insert a pick between your thumb and first finger. Notice that you do not clench the pick with any of your fingers. It just rests behind your thumb. Next, wrap your left hand around the neck of the guitar. Your thumb should lie on the back of the neck, and your four fingers should curl loosely around the neck. This is the proper technique for guitar-playing, whether you play an acoustic or electric guitar.
  2. Now, you'll need to learn how to read tablature. Tablature, or tab, as it's sometimes called, is a guitarist's method of notating music. When you look at your guitar, you'll notice that there are six strings. The string at the top is the thickest, then they get progressively thinner as you move across the neck. Each string is numbered one through six, starting with the thinnest one. You'll also notice that the neck of your guitar is divided by metal bars that run across it at increasingly smaller intervals. The area between these strips (and also the strips themselves) are called frets. Therefore, the area of the neck between the top, or nut, and the first bar is the first fret. The area between the first and second bar is the second fret, and so on. There are about twenty frets on a standard guitar neck, but most chords use only the first four or five.

    To notate these strings and frets, tablature was invented. When you look at tab, there will be six horizontal lines, each denoting one string on the guitar. The lowest line is the sixth string, which is the lowest string on your guitar. On each horizontal line, you'll see either a O, an X, or a number. If you see an O, it means you play the string in the chord, but don't depress it--just play an open string. If you see an X, it means don't play the string at all. If you see a number, play the specified string on the numbered fret, remembering to count from the top. So, if you were looking at tablature to play a standard A major chord, you would strum an open first string, open second string, play the third string on the first fret, fourth string on the second fret, fifth string on the second fret, and leave the sixth string open. It sounds complicated, but it's really very straightforward once you get used to it.

    Another common method of notating guitar chords is to number the strings as before, but each string is represented by a vertical line. These vertical lines have several horizontal lines running across them, which denote the frets on your guitar. Again, an O means to play an open string, and an X means to omit the string when strumming. However, this method uses a solid circle to show which strings should be depressed, and where. It should be clear from the chord diagram which form of tablature is being used. Many times, the strings will be labeled E A D G B E. This will tell you whether the strings are notated vertically or horizontally.

  3. how to play chords on a guitarNow that you can read chords, let's play the guitar some! Hold your guitar as described in step one. Depress the strings as notated for the chord that you wish to play with your left hand. For some complex chords, you may have to hold down two or more strings with the same finger. When you press the strings, apply firm pressure and make sure you aren't touching any other strings. With a smooth, downward stroke, strum across the sound hole in the guitar body with your pick. The chord should resonate clearly. If it doesn't, play each string separately, then play the chord, listening for each note within it. If you can't hear a certain note, again check that your fingers aren't brushing against a string that they shouldn't be, and make sure that you aren't playing a string that's not within the chord.
  4. Once you can play a chord clearly and easily, practice strumming in different rhythms. You should always use a down stroke, followed by an up stroke. Try to make your strumming sound fluid and even. If a chord sounds harsh, you may be strumming too firmly. Relax a bit, and play it again. As with most instruments, playing with tension will affect the tone of your music.
  5. When you've found a strumming style and rhythm that work for the song you're playing, practice the next chord. Work to change seamlessly from one chord to the next. It will take practice, but learning to play an instrument can't be done overnight. It takes slow, steady work.
  6. There are literally hundreds of guitar chords and thousands of ways to play them. Most basic chords have three notes, and can be either major ("happy") or minor ("sad"). From there, you can augment one or more notes, which means to move up a half-step, or diminish a note, which is to move down a half-step. You can add more notes to the chord, creating a 7, 9 or 11-note chord. The possibilities are endless. You will quickly memorize the most commonly played chords, but you'll probably want a reference chart for the remainder. You can find one online at About.com, or check any store that sells sheet music.

Learning guitar chords doesn't have to be difficult. With these instructions, you're well on your way to playing guitar chords! It's challenging at first, but keep at it and practice, practice, practice!


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