It's a combination that just doesn't mix, but it always happens. Start with 1 part enthusiastic beginning guitar player, 1 part beautiful new guitar, and 1 part confusing "Learn guitar" chord book. The result is rarely pretty -- it usually results in 1 confused and frustrated not-so-enthusiastic-anymore guitar player!
A "chord" is simply a mixture of notes played at the same time. You finger certain positions, then strum the strings; what results is a chord.
Most chord books are technically correct -- they do show you finger positions for loads and loads of chords. However, they're often functionally deficient -- they show you chords, but don't show you which ones are important and why!
Rather than trying to learn hundreds of chords in order, it makes more sense to learn the most important chords in the right combination. I think that if you concentrate on learning just 10 chords -- in combinations of two or three at a time -- you'll jump-start your guitar-playing career and have fun from the very beginning.
Let's start and see how easy it is!
The First Three
We'll still use your guitar chord book; you'll look up the chords we mention to learn how to finger them. We just won't learn the chords in the order presented in your book
The first three chords you want to learn are: G, C, and D. These may be called G Major, C Major, and D Major in your chord book. These chords are important for several reasons.
First, they form the famous "I-IV-V" Chord sequence, sometimes called a "3 Chord Progression". Once you learn to listen, you'll realize that probably 90% of all music uses this progression (rock, country, blues, soul, even classical!).
Next, this particular "key" (key of G) is used in a lot of popular music, especially country. This means you can "play along" with songs and you'll be in the same key, or pitch.
These three chords happen to use a lot of "open" strings -- strings on which you do NOT place your fingers. Open string chords "ring" in a most pleasing manner and generally sound richer than non-open string chords.
This key fits well with instruments such as violins, banjo's, and mandolins -- that's another reason it's common in country music.
Finally, this particular key is one that most people find very easy to sing in. It's not too high, not too low -- just right.
Play these chords in different combinations; try and become adept in switching between chords (especially between the G and the C). You'll quickly recognize the "I-IV-V" signature. For instance, "Louie Louie" would be "GGG CC DDD CC". Most country tunes would be something like "GGGG GGGG CCCC GGGG DDDD CCCC GGGG". As you become familiar with the pattern, you'll start recognizing different combinations ... maybe something like "DDD CCC GGG GGG".
The Second Three
Our next three chords are: A, D, and E. However, since we already know how to play a D, we're really only learning two new chords.
These three chords are also a "I-IV-V" chord sequence -- just in a slightly higher key, or pitch. You can play the same songs you might play with the G-C-D combo ... they'd just be a little higher. It's more common to find the A-D-E combination in rock music than in country.
The Third Three
Another "I-IV-V" progression -- this time, it's C, F, and G. Since we already know C and G, we really only have to learn one new chord -- F.
This key is about half-way through the scale from G. That means you can sing either higher or lower to be in the proper pitch. You'll also probably note that F doesn't "ring" as richly as the other chords you've learned -- because it doesn't have as many open strings. You'll probably find it the most difficult to play of all you've learned so far.
It's worth it to spend time to get the "F" chord right. It will really pay off further down the road when you begin learning chords in different positions on the neck of the guitar.
This time we need E, A, and B. We already know E and A -- we just need to add the B.
This does present a problem, though.
B is not an easy chord to play in first position. The easiest way to play a B in this position on the neck is with a "bar chord" -- however, beginning guitar plays are usually not quite ready to play bars at first.
A good compromise is to learn the B7 chord in the open position instead. If you count the string closest to you as "1" (the fattest string) and the string furthest from you as "6" (the skinniest string), then the fingering would be: 1-open, 2-second fret, 3-first fret, 4-second fret, 5-open, 6-second fret. By the way, early Beatles music uses this particular chord quite a bit.
The E, A, B (or B7) combination is another "I-IV-V" progression. Why it's important is because this key is very often used in rock-and-roll music. Don't know quite why -- it's not a great natural key for guitar (because of the B issue), it's not the easiest to sing in, and it doesn't mix well with instruments other than an organ -- but it seems to have become standard!
The Final Three
We've now learned seven chords -- G, C, D, A, E, F, and B7. It's time to slip in the last three. These will be "minor" chords.
The three chords are A Minor, E Minor, and D Minor. These are also written as Am, Em, and Dm. You won't necessarily play these three chords together -- although if you did, you'd have a great blues progression. Play the A, D, and E progression -- then play the same thing, but use Am, Dm, and Em instead. Yep, that's the "blues", alright.
You'll probably use the Am and Em the most. The Am fits well with the C, F, and G combination. Use it like "C, Am, F, G". (Think of that little piano ditty, "Heart and Soul" -- remember Tom Hanks dancing on the Keyboard in "Big"?) This combination works well in both slow and fast tempos.
The Em fits well with G, C, and D -- the order would be "G, Em, C, D". This is the same progression as the last, just again in a different key.
This particular combination (addinging the minor with the I-IV-V chords) is called a "I-iii-IV-V" progression.
There's a lot you can do with just these ten chords. Playing the normal "I-IV-V" and "I-iii-IV-V" progressions in different keys will serve most singers and will cover many of your favorite tunes. You'll also find other progressions with these same chords -- for instance, try A, D, G, C and see what happens.
What chords should you add next? Well, you might want to add the 7th to some of these -- for example, G7, C7, D7, A7, E7. Next, you'll want to start exploring different positions on the guitar neck -- which probably means bar chords. I'd learn the B bar chord with your finger across the entire second fret first. Once you master this, just slide your hand one fret lower -- and you'll have a B-flat chord -- which fits in between your F and C to give you another "I-IV-V" progression in a new key!
Still, no matter how far you go and how many chords you master, the odds are quite high that you'll find yourself most often using these basic Top Ten favorites!
About The Author
Joey Robichaux rides the Road Warrior circuit; he also maintains "Free Sheet Music" at http://www.freesheetmusic.net, one of the longest running free sheet music websites on the internet.