Absolute Beginner Part 1: Chords

Which Guitar First

So…you’ve just bought your first guitar, borrowed one from a friend or received one as a gift (and if that’s the case, please introduce me to this person…). Now what do you do?

Well, if you haven’t got a clue at all, perhaps we can help you. Guitar Noise welcomes you to the first of our Absolute Beginner articles. It is our hope to get you started playing the guitar as quickly and as painlessly as possible.

First, though, one very important thing to know: the guitar is not some magical device that somehow makes beautiful music while you simply hold it. Like any other musical instrument YOU HAVE TO LEARN HOW TO DO IT!! Fortunately, as with most instruments, getting started is no trouble at all. But getting good should take you the rest of your life.

I don’t want to sound like the stereotypical parent telling his child, “Yes, you can have a pet but it’s your responsibility to feed it, walk it, clean up after it, etc.” But you must understand that learning how to play is very much a negotiation between you and your guitar. And you do have to bring something to the table: a willingness to use your brain, to experiment and to fall flat on your face. You cannot expect the guitar to play itself and you cannot expect to play it without putting in (a lot of) effort.

You will find yourself faced with all sorts of choices and more information than you can possibly use at any given moment. Let me suggest a few old articles of ours that you should read at your leisure and reread once you know a little more about the guitar: A Question of Balance, If I Only Had…, Common Sensei.

Finally, please realize that as great a tool as the Internet can be for education, it is still only one source. Ideally, you should equip yourself with as many means to learn as possible. I’m one of those persons who stresses the use of books, and nothing is more helpful than a human teacher when one begins learning the guitar, even if your “teacher” is the friend next door who’s only been playing a year. You can look at pictures and videos and listen to tapes and read a lot of text, but I cannot begin to compare that to the value of dealing with a person. Even if it’s only to learn how to hold the guitar and to put your fingers on the fretboard.

The first thing that you have to know about your guitar is what exactly it does. Pluck a single string, any one string. What you are hearing is called a note. This is a single note and every note has a name, designated by a letter of the alphabet (A through G only) and sometimes the notation “#,” which means “sharp” or “b,” which means “flat.” When you see something written out as “F#,” this means “F sharp.” “Bb” would be read as “B flat.” In western music, there are twelve possible names for all the notes. To find them all and to see how they relate to one another, please read my column The Musical Genome Project.

Exactly which note you play depends on what string you struck (not to mention whether or not that string was in tune). And whether or not you are fingering the string on the neck of the guitar. When you put your finger on a fret – which is a space on the fretboard between any two metal strips (which are also called frets, by the way) – you create a new note. The guitar is an instrument that offers you the choice of playing individual notes, one at a time (as in most lead guitar parts) or several notes at once, which are called chords.

But before we can even think about chords, we have to make certain our guitar is in tune. Tuning is assigning each of the guitar’s strings to a particular note. And before we can look at that, we have to agree on what to call our strings. Traditionally we either number the strings from 1 (thinnest or closest to the floor as you are holding the guitar) to 6 (the thickest one). Later, when you learn to read guitar tablature, you will see that the stings are lined up in this way. But we will come back to this in a later Absolute Beginner lesson.

Back to tuning – In what we call “standard tuning,” the strings are tuned to the following notes:

Standard tuning chart

The first string, being the thinnest, will be highest in pitch, while the sixth string will be lowest in pitch. And please don’t start asking about alternate tunings, low tunings or anything like that just yet. You have to focus on one thing at a time and if you can’t get your guitar into standard tuning, then all the other tunings aren’t going to matter.

Fortunately for us, Paul Hackett has written a great article on how to tune your guitar. Not only does it discuss the use of tuners, but it also includes a link to a site where you can get a note to which you can tune your 6th (low E) string.

Now that our guitar is in tune, shall we get down to business? We are going to be playing what are called “first position” or “open chords.” They are called this because they are played close to the nut and utilize a number of open strings. Let’s start with the easiest chord to play, the E minor (usually written as “Em”):

Chart of Em Chord

Chart of Em chord

This is a chord chart. It is a picture or graph that represents where you need to position your fingers on the fretboard to form the chord. The heavy line across the top of the graph is the nut of the guitar.

The vertical lines descending from the nut are the strings. You will see six of them. From left to right, they are the 6th (low E, the thickest one), 5th (A), 4th (D), 3rd (G), 2nd (B) and 1st (high E, the thinnest) strings. This will almost always be the case in any chord chart that you look at. This is why, whether you play left handed or right handed, you can read the same charts. The position of the strings is not going to change relative to your perspective of them.

The horizontal lines that intersect the strings at regular intervals are your frets. When you see a dot on a “string” you are supposed to put your finger on that particular fret and string. Here, in our Em chord, we want to place a finger on the second fret of the A (5th) string and one on the second fret of the D (4th) string. More on this in a moment…

If you see a “0” above a particular string, then you play that string as an “open” string. This means that you do not have to put a finger on it at all. An “X” means that you do not play the string at all. An open circle (which we will not be seeing today) means that particular note is optional. You can play it or ignore it.

Let’s get back to our Em chord. As I said, we want to place a finger on the second fret of both the A and D strings. The other strings we can play open. This seems easy enough. But which fingers shall we use? And how should we go about placing them on the strings?

I’ll answer the second question first: When we place a finger on the string, we want to place the tip of the finger, the rounded part just below the nail, on it. It’s the same part of the finger you’d use to dial a push-button phone or use an adding machine or write me an email asking me which specific part of the finger to use.

If you look at the fingertips of people who’ve played for a long time, you’ll see that their tips are actually closer to flat than round! Using the tip also causes you to arch your fingers so that they are arcing away from the neck of the guitar. This should keep them out of the way of the open strings so that they (the strings) can ring freely.

You ideally want to place your fingers as close to the metal fret closest to the body of the guitar. But don’t place your fingers on the metal fret – your fingers should be in the space between the metal frets. This space, as I pointed out before, is also called the fret and when someone says your fingers should be on the second fret, they mean the in the space between the first and second metal frets and not on the metal itself.

Okay, which fingers should you use? Believe it or not, this is going to be your choice. Yes, there are standards, and there is also a lot of debate over this. But the truth is that everyone’s fingers are different and what feels comfortable for you may not be so for someone else and vice versa. Choice of fingers will also eventually depend on other ever-changing circumstances: which chord did you come from, which are you going to, are you going to be doing any ornamentation or fills?

For now, though, let’s use our middle finger on the second fret of the A (5th) string and our ring finger on the second fret of the D (4th) string. You will hopefully understand why I chose these particular fingers as we move along. With your fingers all set on their appropriate strings and frets, strum all six strings of your guitar. Voila! You have just played an Em chord.

Now let’s move on to the E major chord. All major chords are represented by a single letter, which might or might not be followed by a flat or sharp symbol. So if you see the symbol “E” or “F,” for instance, you know that it is an E major chord or F major chord. An “Ab” means an “A flat major chord.” Here is a chord chart for E:

Chart of E Chord

Chart of E chord

Perhaps now you will see why I chose to play the Em with those particular fingers. An E chord is essentially the same: you start with your middle finger on the second fret of the A (5th) string and your ring finger on the second fret of the D (4th) string. To this we are going to add the index finger on the first fret of the G (3rd) string.

Do yourself a favor and play both of these chords one after the other. Listen to the tonal differences between the major and minor chord. This will not mean much to you know, aside from their noticeably different sounds. But as you learn more about the guitar and about chord theory you will be glad you took the time to train your ears in this manner. For more info on this, just to keep in the back of your mind as you learn, read my first column on ear training called Happy New Ear.

Are you all set for another chord? Well, take your fingers as they are positioned for the E chord and shift them up to the next higher string:

Chart of Am Chord

Chord chart of Am chord

You should have your index finger on the first fret of the B (2nd) string, your ring finger on the second fret of the G (3rd) string and your middle finger on the second fret of the D (4th) string. This is an A minor chord, or Am for short. On this chart you will see an “X” over the sixth string. This means do not play it. Start your strum on the open A string.

Later you will learn that it is indeed okay to use the open E string as well (since the E note is part of an Am chord), but for now I want you to be able to concentrate on not always hitting all six strings. Not all chords can be played on all six and you should get into the habit early of not flailing away on your guitar.

Since the E and Am chords were relatively easy, shall we take on a bit of a challenge?

Chart of A Chord

Chart of A chord

The A chord causes people no ends of problems because it’s not always easy to get three fingers into one fret! Here is something I wrote in one of our Easy Songs For Beginners:

“Now the A chord is another matter. Some guitarists actually have a lot of trouble with this chord. It looks like it should be easy enough, simply press the second fret of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th strings. But that’s exactly where the problem lies. Most people (and a lot of teachers) will tell you to use this fingering:


Personally, I find this very uncomfortable. By some happy accident, I learned the A chord after the E chord. At the time, I was trying like crazy to make as few changes with my fingers on the fretboard as possible and I managed to come up with this:

Easier fingering

I just find it easier to get a better sounding A major chord this way. Not only is it more comfortable for my fingers, but I can switch quickly and easily back and forth between the A, E and D chords (which are the three most common chords when playing songs in the key of A major). I should mention, though, that I know a number of people (mostly guys with big fingers) who can’t get all three fingers on the second fret no matter what combination they try. Sometimes they resort to playing the A chord by barring the second fret (to “barre” means to lay a finger across all the strings of a fret). In this case, you wouldn’t barre the entire fret, just the first four strings. But here you have to make certain NOT to play the first string.

Barred fingering

The point of all this is to show you that there are different ways to play chords. Ultimately, you should use whichever fingering gives you the greatest comfort and ability to switch from one to the next. You may often find yourself learning to play the same chord with different fingerings depending upon the context of the chord progression in which it is used.”

It’s worth noting here that my charts are decidedly backwards. This is why it’s always important to look at everything.

The next two chords I want you to initially learn as four string chords, using only the first four strings.

Chart of D Chord and Chart of Bm Chord

Chart of D chord and chart of Bm chord

Virtually everyone plays the D major chord in the same manner: middle finger on the 1st (high E) string, ring finger on the 2nd (B) string and index finger on the 3rd (G) string. You will find yourself using your pinky a lot when playing the D in order to get a Dsus4. This will come in the future. Also, you will find that the open A string not only can be played, but is essential to working in an alternating bassline. If you can’t wait to find out more about these, check out the lesson on Margaritaville.

For the B minor, use your index finger on the 1st string, middle finger on the second and ring finger on the 3rd. There are a lot of ways of playing this particular chord (and all chords, for that matter); I have chosen this one because I feel it is the simplest voicing.

There are just two more important first position chords. I’ve saved them for last because they will, in all likelihood, require the most attention and practice:

Chart of C Chord and Chart of G Chord

Chart of C chord and chart of G chord

To initially form the C major chord, let’s start out with our Am fingering: your index finger on the first fret of the B (2nd) string, your ring finger on the second fret of the G (3rd) string and your middle finger on the second fret of the D (4th) string. Now take your ring finger off of the G string and place it on the 3rd fret of the A (5th) string.

Remember to keep your fingers arched so that each fingertip touches only its respective string, and that the rest of your fingers are out of the way. Picking each string individually, from the A down to the high E, should produce clear, ringing notes. If you get any “clunks,” then you need to work on having your fingers better positioned on their frets.

Once you have the C, take your ring and middle fingers and place them on the same frets on the next lower strings. Your ring finger will be on the third fret of the low E (6th) string and your middle finger on the second fret of the A (5th) string. Remove your index finger entirely from the fretboard and place your pinky on the third fret of the high E (1st) string. Now you have a G major chord.

Because so many, many, many songs have G to C or C to G chord changes, this is the way most teachers will show you how to play these chords. It is not what I do all the time. Often I will play a G major like this:

G major

Without a formal teacher, this is the fingering I found most comfortable for me. I will often use the first fingering when switching from a G to a C, played with my pinky still on the third fret of the 1st string. This is the same C chord, it is simply a different voicing, which means that I’ve changed the strings on which I play certain notes. Again, this is something that you will pick up on as you learn more about chords.

One last quick note – sometimes, particularly on TAB found on the internet, chord charts will be replaced with something that looks like a serial number. Again, this should be of no surprise since most people do not have the software to make chord charts. These numbers, more often than not, are set in parentheses and read from left to right as chord charts are, complete with “Xs” and “0s.” Any other number is the fret you want to finger for that particular chord. On these “serial number” chord charts, the chords we covered today look like this:

Em – (022000)
E – (022100)
Am – (X02210)
A – (X02220)
D – (XX0232)
Bm – (XX0432)
C – (X32010)
G – (320003)

This should be more than enough to get you going. Yes, there are a lot more chords to learn and also different versions of these particular chords. But knowing these eight first position chords will allow you to play literally thousands of songs. Knowing these chords, as well as being able to switch between them fairly quickly and smoothly, should be any beginners first task. If you are at all familiar with any of the songs on our Easy Songs For Beginners page, then I would recommend that this be your next step in learning.

I hope this lesson helps you in getting started. Our next installment will be on strumming, involving straight strumming (with and wthout a pick) and fingerpicking. The final “Absolute Beginner” articles will be on reading music and reading TAB. Part one of Reading Notation is already online.. And finally, there will also be a “Miscellaneous” article as well to cover general things that shouldn’t take a great deal of time, such as posture and holding the guitar.

And then there will be all the things we missed, not to mention all those that you will one day encounter as you learn more and more about the guitar. “Miscellaneous” will also cover symbols for (and explanations of) muted strings, hammer-ons and various guitar techniques that, again, you will want to know at some point.

As always, please feel free to write in with any questions, comments, concerns or songs (and/or riffs and solos) you’d like to see discussed in future pieces. You can either drop off a note at the Guitar Forums or email me directly at [email protected].

Until next lesson…