Basic Guitar Chords
Every note in a scale has a name. Like the “root” and the “octave,” which we have already learned about, the other notes get their names from their position within the scale.
In our previous lessons we played C major scale, in this particular scale the D is the “second,” the E is the “third,” and so on until you reach the “seventh,” which is the B, and then, of course, the “octave.” The notes we are presently concerned with, and the three notes that are always required to make a major chord, are the root, third, and fifth.
In the key of C, these notes are Middle C, E, and G, which, as we have already seen, are these notes:
When these three notes are written as a chord, rather than as part of a scale, they look like this:
Notes that are stacked up like this indicate a chord; that is, the notes are intended to be played simultaneously rather than in sequence as with a scale.
Positioning your hand to play basic guitar chords like this one is also different than it is with guitar scales. There are many ways to play a C major chord, but the easiest is the “open position.” This simply means that some of the strings are allowed to vibrate openly without being touched by a finger, and is a style that is particularly common in acoustic guitar chords.
In standard guitar notation, the fingers of the left hand are given numbers. It’s easier to identify them this way than to call them “index finger” or “pinky finger.” It’s a very simply system: the index finger is 1, the middle finger is 2, the ring finger is 3, and the pinky is 4. It’s that easy. With that in mind, this chart should make perfect sense:
This is a chord chart for the C major chord. You should recognize right away that the positions of Middle C and E are the same as in the scale you just learned. The other notes may not look familiar just yet, but don’t worry, they will soon.
The letters below the chart represent the actual note being played. So, with your “3” finger (that is, your ring finger) in the position indicated, you will be playing Middle C.
When your fingers are firmly in place, lightly strum the strings with your right hand. That is a C Major chord.
You will see in this chord, that there are certain strings (the ones with the circles above them) that are not being pressed down. These open strings play notes that happen to belong to the C major chord (C, E, and G) so it’s okay in this case to leave them open. The low E is optional, as indicated by the circle with an “X” in it, and can be played or not.
When a musician sees that a song is in the Key of C, he immediately knows, not only what scale the song is based on, but also what chords belong in that key. Of course, a song that is “in C” can theoretically include dozens or hundreds of different chords, but there is a standard set of chords that are constructed using the C major scale, and that are used in the Key of C more than any other chords.
These basic guitar chords are C major, which we have already seen, D minor, E minor, F major, G major, A minor, and B diminished. On a musical staff they look like this:
Every major key, whether it’s C, F-sharp, or A-flat, will have this identical chord sequence: major-minor-minor-major-major-minor-diminished. They will all begin with the “root” chord, and they will include all the notes, and only those notes, that are part of its major scale.
If you look closely, you will see that all the chords shown above only contain notes from the C major scale. Likewise, all the chords from the key of E-flat major, for example, will only contain notes from the E-flat major scale. Are there exceptions to this rule? Of course. But in general, this is how guitar scales are structured; this is how guitar chords are built, whether they are electric or acoustic guitar chords; whether you are playing Spanish Flamenco or Norwegian death metal, this is the starting point for all your guitar playing.
Before we move into the next lesson, take a look at the other chords from the key of C below. Try them out. You will notice right away that making guitar chords feels very awkward at first. Don’t let this discourage you; as you learn to play guitar, these chords will begin to feel quite natural with practice. Take some time also to get comfortable with switching from one chord to another, and keep these things in mind: