Are you learning to play guitar and trying to decide what guitar chords you should learn first?
This batch of chords is an excellent place to start because they are used often, and I like to start here because the shapes build off each other as you learn them.
How to read the diagrams
These chord diagrams are written as if you’d set your guitar on a stand and looked at it from the front. Sometimes they are written horizontally, but I think the vertical is the most common, and it’s what you’ll see in songbooks and magazines. The vertical lines are the guitar strings, with the 6th string (low E, the lowest sounding string) on the left and the 1st string (high E, the highest sounding open string) on the right.
All of the chords in this lesson are shown within the first 3 frets of the guitar. Some of them are moveable to other places. The dots indicate which strings to press down, and the numbers show which fret-hand finger to use. The circle or 0 on the diagram indicates you play an open string. The X means it’s a string you don’t play.
The power chord is a staple of rock and metal music and is often found in country and blues songs. It only has 2 different notes, a root, and a 5th, and can be played with or without open strings. A chord with only 2 notes can be called a diad. These diagrams show 3 notes played, but there are 2 roots in each chord (root-perfect 5th-root). A power chord is labeled with a note name and a 5, like E5 and A5.
This diagram shows an E5, A5, and D5 power chords. These power chords use open strings. Each one has 3 notes you want to play and some open strings you want to avoid striking.
One thing to note, the E5 and A5 look the same. They are just played on a different set of strings. The D5 chord has a note in the 3rd fret you need to stretch a little bit to play because of the slightly weird way we tune the guitar. You can also play a 2 note version of a power chord by playing just the lowest 2 notes. If you only play 2 notes, all 3 of these chords look the same, just on different strings.
These power chords do not use any open strings, but they should look familiar. The shapes of these chords are the same as the open versions, just shifted up the guitar neck. The note under your index finger would give you the note name for the chord. For example, on the 6th string, the 1st fret is an F, which is an F5 chord.
This shape is moveable all over the guitar neck. Play these anywhere up and down the neck, and you’ll be playing power chords in every key. Many rock songs can be played with only power chords, using only this shape played in different places on the neck.
These should look familiar. Using the open string power chords that we started with, you can add more notes to build other chords. These are minor chords, made of a root, a minor 3rd, a perfect 5th. A chord with 3 different notes is called a triad. Only 3 notes are needed to make the minor chord, so some notes are repeated.
These chords are Emin, Amin, and Dmin. Minor chords can be labeled a few ways, for example, E minor, Emin, Emi, E-, or Em. The ‘m’ or ‘minor’ should be lowercase.
Continuing with our variations of the open power chords, here are the major triad versions of these chords. A root, a major 3rd, and a perfect 5th make up a major chord.
These chords are E Maj, A Maj, and D Maj. Major chords are usually labeled with only the letter name, but sometimes you’ll see them labeled like E Major, E Maj, E Ma, or EM, with the ‘M’ part of Major being capitalized.
Dominant 7th chords
Again, these chords are still based on the starting power chord shape and are a little different from the minor and major chords. These chords have 4 notes in them. The Dominant 7th chord contains a root, major 3rd, perfect 5th, and a minor 7th. These chords are used to create more tension in a song, which propels the music forward.
These chords are E7, A7, and D7. Dominant 7th chords are always labeled with a letter name and a number 7.
How to practice these chords
The first way to try out these chords is by just getting your fingers in the right place and strumming the strings. It would help if you tried striking the strings quickly to get all the notes to sound at the same time. You can also pluck each note one at a time to make sure a finger isn’t accidentally muting a string. Don’t worry if it’s difficult at first to get all the notes to ring out. It takes time to get your fingers to make the tiny adjustments needed, and as long as some of the notes are ringing out, it will sound ok playing along with your favorite songs.
The next step is to switch between chords. You can do this by just picking chords to try and then playing them steadily by counting or using a metronome. You can also try playing along to a song. A quick search will find you dozens of songs that use just 2 or 3 of these chords.