Learning Guitar Chords

Learning guitar chords is one of the biggest problems people want help with when starting out. Without any way to know for sure, I'd guess that this is a top question for most guitar teachers and instructional web sites.

It doesn't seem to matter what playing level folks are at when they come to Learn-To-Play-Rock-Guitar.com. The challenge of learning and playing chords is something we all struggle with from time to time.

Case in point: here's an example of a chord challenge I encountered…

I wanted to teach one of my students some advanced chord voicings, and I knew Joe Satriani has some nice sounding chords in his song "Always With You, Always With Me." They don't sound like chords because he is playing each note from the chord individually (an arpeggio pattern), but they are chords nonetheless.

The killer here is that the fingering to pull off the first chord in the song requires this weird stretch between your index finger and your middle finger. And no, your other two fingers don't get a break - they're rounding out the rest of the chord (a Badd11(no5), if you must know).

So not only am I trying to stretch across five strings with my first two fingers, I'm also negotiating a four fret reach between my index and pinky fingers.

Needless to say, I'm still getting my fingers used to the positioning and making a smooth transition to and from this chord.

That leads me to another chord challenge I see a lot of - changing guitar chords.

As you can see, it's not only about learning guitar chords and how to play them. You can learn to play a G major or a D minor chord pretty easily, but you also have to learn how to switch from one chord to the next.

This is where many beginner guitar players get tripped up. They learn a few guitar chords and then find some tabs to play a song, but they can't seem to play the chord changes smoothly enough to make it sound like the song.

That's frustrating!

And since playing guitar chords is probably the most identifiable skill associated with guitar, that frustration can lead to GQS...

Guitar Quitter Syndrome

Chord shapes on the neck
The C major chord shape

This tragic disease steals the dreams of countless guitar beginners. They discover the wonders of guitar and get excited to learn. It looks like so much fun and so easy to play - just press your fingers on the strings and start strumming, right?

Except we know it's not that easy. There's a lot going on between the fingers, hands and arms (not to mention the brain).

When the reality sinks in that guitar takes some work to make even the simplest chord sound good, the dream starts to die a little. It doesn't take long for doubt to set in, and there you have it...

Another sad and lonely guitar in a closet or corner, or under a bed. Anywhere out of sight so it isn't a constant reminder that you suffer from GQS.

That's why I'm trying to do my part to battle this debilitating disease.

The First Lesson - Learn The Shapes

To start you off, let's talk about muscle memory. As uninspiring as it sounds, to get a solid foundation in guitar (and music for that matter) you have to commit some things to memory.

I'm not just talking about remembering how to finger a chord or how it is supposed to sound. I'm also talking about the muscles in your hands. When you learn various chord shapes, the muscles in your hand and fingers begin to memorize the way they're placed on the fingerboard.

The more you practice holding each shape, the easier it will be to play the chord.

There are five basic shapes you need to learn. Here they are:

You may recognize right off that the chords lined up spell "C-A-G-E-D". There is a teaching method called the CAGED System that can help you a great deal in understanding the layout and patterns of the guitar neck. I recommend reading this article from Premier Guitar Magazine about the CAGED System.

Sure, there are many more shapes to learn, and there are pros and cons to CAGED, but learning these guitar chords build a solid foundation. With these chord shapes you can play major guitar chords all the way up the neck. Work on learning each chord by itself before trying to move on to the next one.

Now a couple of warnings.

First, when you play each shape, make sure you are using the correct fingers for the chord shape. You want to get this habit set early on because when you use the correct fingering, you are setting yourself up to make easier chord changes.

Second, when you play each shape, practice it until each note is clear. You need to be able to play the chord cleanly.

When you pay attention to these little warnings, you are accomplishing a number of things.

You're building the muscle memory in your fingers - this is critical so that your fingers know exactly where to go in a split second with relation to your hand position. You don't need to think about it - it's automatic, like breathing.

You're also strengthening the muscles in your hand, not to mention new dexterity and flexibility.

Your aural skills will improve as well. Your ears will gradually learn to recognize the notes in each chord and the overtones that the notes create. You'll instantly recognize when a chord doesn't sound right, or a melody note isn't the right fit with a particular chord.

That's a good start. Learn the shapes of these guitar chords and you'll be well on your way to playing many of your favorite songs. To gain a better understanding of chord construction, you can start the details of learning guitar chords here.