Many guitar players were inspired to start playing by watching or hearing a great player crank out a cool guitar solo. For example, Van Halen’s “Eruption” is a staple for rock players, “Besame Mucho” by Wes Montgomery for the hippest of all jazz cats, and just about anything from Chet Atkins would make a country player drool with envy.
We do have a piece of advice for beginner guitar players though—you need to learn to walk before you can run. In ‘guitar-speak’, that means you need to learn a number of basic chords before you venture off into solo-land. Sit back and think about it for a minute—chords really are the backbone and main structure of any song. Solos are just icing on the cake.
To put it simply, chords are a few notes played at the same time. The two most common types of chords are ‘major’ and ‘minor’. A good way to tell the difference between the two types is to look at the chord names themselves—major chords are noted by just a single letter (e.g., A), and minor chords have a lowercase ‘m’ after the name (e.g., Am). Another thing to note is how each type sounds: major chords sound ‘happy’, and minor chords sound ‘sad’. Don’t be intimidated by the idea of learning a bunch of them though—we have you covered!
What is a cowboy chord?
Let’s take a look at nine of the best basic guitar chords for beginners to learn, regardless of what type of music you prefer. These are often called the ‘cowboy chords’—they’re the chords all guitarists need to know when jamming around a campfire.
These so-called cowboy chords are great for beginners, as most require only three fingers to play. In other words, a cowboy chord is an open chord. This means that you don’t press down the other strings but allow them to ring open instead. You might see why this makes cowboy chords easy to learn and play.
Remember not to get fooled by the simplicity of these chords. Even the most basic minor and major chords can be used for a lot of impressive things in the hands of a skilled guitarist.
YOUR FIRST THREE BASIC GUITAR CHORDS
Let’s get started with three chords that are among the most basic and important to note. You can already try looking (and listening) for the difference between the major and minor versions of the same chord.
E MAJOR CHORD
Playing an E chord is one of the easiest to learn at first, partly because you don’t have to worry about strumming strings that aren’t part of the chord. Instead, you get to play all of them. As with all of the chords that we will look at, always make sure that your form is correct. Make sure your fingers are slightly curved as they come around the neck. This will make your fingering patterns much more comfortable and will let your fretted notes ring out just as they should.
E MINOR CHORD
Em chord is even simpler than an E chord. You use the same two fingers on the A and D strings, but you take your finger off the G string to let it ring open. When strumming an E minor chord, you once again play all six strings, leaving the other four strings open. It doesn’t get much easier than that!
A MINOR CHORD
The trick to playing Am correctly is to take a look at the fingering pattern. It’s really the same exact thing as the E chord you just learned, but everything is moved up one string. Same shape, different strings. However, notice that the lowest E string is marked with an X-symbol in the picture above. This means that the string is not played, unlike in the previous two chords. Try playing this chord with all six strings and you’ll hear why.
Time for a public service announcement here. As you are learning these first chords, it’s important that you take the time to make sure all of the notes sound like they should. We’d suggest placing your fingers in the right positions (as the Yousician app shows you) and playing one string at a time. Make sure to also play all of the strings that you should and leave out the ones that are not included in the chord.
THE REST OF THE COWBOY CHORDS
Now we’re going to look at more basic guitar chords that are among the most common ones you’ll play.
C MAJOR CHORD
The fingering pattern for a C chord should be fairly comfortable to play as the finger spacing naturally follows how your first three fingers would touch the guitar. The big trick here is to not let your 2nd finger keep the open G string from ringing out. To avoid this, make sure to curl your fingers so that none of them are touching any other strings.
G MAJOR CHORD
A G chord can be challenging and takes some practicing to get used to. Using your 2nd finger on the low E string (3rd fret) and then your third finger on the high E string (also on the 3rd fret) can feel like a bit of a stretch (no pun intended). However, once you get the hang of it you’ll be able to switch between chords with ease.
D MAJOR CHORD
An open D major chord is bright and happy sounding. Getting the fingering right means paying close attention to how your third finger is fretting the B string on the 3rd fret. If you are having trouble getting this one right, don’t worry. It’s a common beginner’s issue to have the bottom of that finger touch the high E string and keep it from vibrating in the right way. Also, keep in mind that the low E and low A strings aren’t played at all.
A MAJOR CHORD
When playing the A major chord, the biggest thing to get the hang of is that all three of your fingers are squeezed together in a tight area, thanks to all of them being on the 2nd fret of three different strings. You can try using the index-middle-ring fingers as shown, or experiment with other possibilities, like using your middle-ring-pinky instead. Just don’t play the chord with a single finger laid across the three strings, as this will very likely prevent the high E string from playing.
F MAJOR CHORD
This fingering for an F chord is a bit different than many other resources will teach, but it’s actually an ingenious way to play it without having to resort to barre chord formations (which are a little more advanced). The key here is to not let either of the E strings (low or high) ring out at all as you play.
D MINOR CHORD
We’ll finish off with a Dm chord. This is close to the same as a D chord, but instead of playing the note on the high E string on the 2nd fret, it’s played on the 1st fret instead. That means you’ll have to switch your fingers around a little, with your second finger playing the note on the 2nd fret of the G string instead of your index finger. If it feels like a big stretch, try using your pinky instead of your ring finger.
As we mentioned, the difference between minor and major chords is that major chords sound ‘happy’ while minor chords sound ‘sad’. Try playing the D and Dm chords back to back and you’ll hear what we mean. The difference is like night and day.
SONGS THAT USE COWBOY CHORDS
One thing that is important to keep in mind when learning the guitar is that it’s awesome to take the stuff you’ve learned and put it to good use. Take a deep dive into the numerous songs included in the Yousician app and you’ll see that you can play a tremendous amount of songs with the basic chords you’ve just learned. Here are a few familiar songs to kick things off with:
- Breakdown by Tom Petty (Am & G)
- Fast Car by Tracy Chapman (C, G, Em, and D)
- I’m Yours by Jason Mraz (G, D, Em, and C)
- Everybody Wants To Rule The World by Tears For Fears (C, G, and F)
- Hurt by Johnny Cash (Am, C, D, G, F)
Let’s move on to the next one.
The best guitar chords for beginners
These nine basic chords are just the beginning of your guitar playing journey. It truly is amazing how many songs you can play with them! As you progress through the different levels of the Yousician app, you’ll learn many others that will round out your chord vocabulary. Taking the time to learn the basics will really pay off as your skills improve and your knowledge expands.
To your success!