Guitar Chords Beginner Players Should Know

By Nick Kellie

Chords are usually the very first task for beginner guitar players. The problem is that some of those chords are difficult to play and not that usable. A simple Google search for “guitar chords beginner” will yield hundreds of results showing many different basic guitar chords, but none of them teach you how to build your own chords on guitar. As a matter of fact, many of the guitar chords for beginners players learn are not used that much. This guitar lesson will help every beginner player learn the right chords.

Basic chords for beginner players

Learning chords when you are a beginner guitar player can be a daunting experience to start with. Books teaching basic guitar chords tend to be a jumble of random chord in no particular order. Knowing which chords to learn first can be confusing without a good teacher to take you through them step by step. Some of the first guitar chords beginner guitar players need to learn are known as “open chords”. This is due to the fact that they all use open strings. More advanced guitar players will sometimes refer these chords as part of the the CAGED system for guitar players.

To start with, we should generally learn all the open major chords. Here they are below

beginner open chords

Don’t get me wrong, knowing how to play those basic guitar chords is useful. If you are a beginner guitar players and already can play those chords on the guitar you are ahead of the game and what comes next will only enhance your chord vocabulary. If on the other hand you are still working on learning how to play those beginner chords you are in luck, because what comes next will make those guitar chords for beginners super easy to learn!

basic guitar chord theory

If you are a beginner guitar player, you need to learn the previous basic guitar chords. Once you are familiar with those open Major beginner chords, you might be curious about other chords beginner guitar players should learn such as minor chords or sus chords. These are all chords that we commonly see in pop songs. I want to show you the chord types in a way that is laid out logically to correspond with each of the open beginner chords you learned. 

Before you learn better basic guitar chords, let’s talk a little about the theory behind chords. A chord is a series of notes played together. Each note of the chord has a unique function. There are 7 types of notes/functions in music as described below.

1Determines the name of the chord (ex: the root of a C minor chord is C)
2Can be Major or minor – often played as a 9th – adds a nice flavor to a chord
3Can be Major or minor – determines the nature of the chord
4Can be perfect or augmented – sometimes replaces the 3rd
5Adds more “power” to the chord (D5 is also called a D power chord)
6Can be Major or minor – adds a nice jazzy flavor to the chord
7Can be Major or minor – adds richness to a chord


Building chords on guitar

The five basic guitar chords you have learned (C A G E D) have a certain formula of intervals that make up the chord.  An interval is the distance between one note and the next. For example, C chords are made up of the intervals of 1, 3 and 5 which correspond to the C major scale. 

Relationship between chords and scale

Now that you see how the basic guitar chords and intervals work, you can take any of the chords beginner guitar players usually start with and change their intervals to build new types of chords on guitar. For example a C minor chord contains the intervals 1, b3 and 5. 
A b3 is simply a 3 lowered by 1 fret. In the case of C minor chord we get the notes of C, Eb and G.

Major minor chords in C

More interesting chords on guitar

Below I am going to lay out a table of the intervals of 4 common chord types…

Sus21 2 5
minor1 b3 5
Major1 3 5
sus41 4 5

In each case you will notice that the chords all contain 1 and 5 and the only differing note is the one in the middle: 2, b3, 3 and 4. This is what distinguishes each chord from another.

BASIC GUITAR CHORD SHAPES

Below I am going to lay out a table of the intervals of 4 common chord types.

Here is an illustration of this with chord diagrams for the D chord:

D beginner guitar chords

As you can see the previous basic guitar chords all contain 1 and 5 but the 2, b3, 3 and 4 are what change – in this case they are all on the high E string.

If you are a beginner, learning chords on guitar in this way makes for a more organized approach.  Now let’s apply this same approach for some of the other shapes we learned in the beginning of this article.

Let’s take a look at the C chords next.

C beginner guitar chords

You may notice we have a muted the high E sting in the previous chords. This is because that is the 3rd and we already have a 3rd that we are moving around on the D string to transform those guitar chords positions.

Next lets look as the A shape:

A beginner guitar chords

These guitar chords sit really nicely under our fingers and are very commonly used. They make great guitar chords for beginners because they are so easy to play.

Now lets look at the G Shape:

G sus chord shapes`

Notice that the only reason we are not playing the first two strings is for simplicity. Beginner guitar players might have a hard time playing the full chords which is why we opted here to not play those two first guitar strings.

And finally lets look at the shapes for the E chords:

E sus chord shapes

Here you will notice that the Esus2 chord shape is different from the other chords. This is because of the nature of the guitar which doesn’t allow us to use the same shapes for each chords.

Adding the 7th…

So now we have sus2, minor, major and sus4 out of the way, you might be wondering about 7th guitar chords. Essentially there are 3 main types of 7th chords (excluding minor7b5 chords which we will not cover here). The chords we will explore here are Major 7 (Maj7), Dominant 7 (or just 7 for short) and minor 7 (m7).

Let’s look at the interval formula for Major 7 chords. Major7 chord is comprised of 1 3 5 7.  Essentially it’s just a major chord (1, 3, 5) with 7 added to the end. 7 refers to the 7th note in the Major scale.

Lets look at the Major 7 chords beginner guitar players should learn first:

Major 7 chords

easy Blues chords

Next we’ll talk about Dominant 7 guitar chords (or just 7 for short). The Formula for that type of chord is 1, 3, 5, b7. Very similar to Major 7 chords except that the 7 is flat. In the case of C7 the notes would be C E G Bb. In order to play the Bb we have to situate that note on the 3rd fret of the G string as B is the lowest note on our open B string. We also have to sacrifice the 5th as that would have occurred of the open G string. Generally, if we need to leave out any note of the chord, the 5th is the most common to leave out. Those basic guitar chords are really good blues chords.

Here are the Dominant 7 chords beginner guitar players should know:

Dominant 7 chords

Finally, let’s talk about minor 7 chords. Minor 7 chords have the following formula – 1, b3, 5 and b7. As you can see it is simply a minor chord (1 b3 5) with a b7 tagged on. Due to the nature of the open position chords its not really feasible to play each open chord as minor 7 which explains why the Gm7 is played in its barre position below:

Minor 7 chords

Chord progressions for guitar

Now that we have learning all these chords, you might be wondering what to do with them all. The next logical step is to memorize what we call “chord progressions”. These are groups of chords put in a certain order. 

There are many standard chord progressions for guitar that each musician should memorize when starting out. One of the most common of all is the 1, 4 ,5 blues chord progression. This one should be extremely familiar as it is used in many popular blues songs as the example found below. 

Example of a I IV V chord progression…

The progression gets its name from the order that the chords appear within a given key. For example, in the key of C we have the notes of the C major scale which are C D E F G A B. That is 7 notes in total.  If we give each one of those 7 notes a number we end up with C as 1, F as 4 and G as 5. So a 1, 4, 5 (or I, IV, V in roman numerals) in the key of C is C, F and G. This system of giving numbers to chords is called the Nashville number system.

USING THE NASHVILLE NUMBER SYSTEM

The Nashville number system enables us to transpose chord progressions on the guitar to other keys easily! For example, if we want to play a 1,4, 5 blues chord progression in the key of G, all we need to do is apply those chord numbers to the scale of G. So 1, 4 and 5 in the key of G is G, C and D respectively.

Following are a few examples of what these blues chord progressions might appear musically:

I IV V in the key of C

CFGG

I IV V in the key of G

GCDD

I IV V in the key of A

ADEE

I IV V in the key of D

DGAA


TYPICAL BLUES CHORD PROGRESSION

Another really important chord progression that we should learn as guitar players is the 12 bar blues chord progression. This progression is also comprised of a I IV V chord progression only this time we will dominant 7 chords. For example, a blues in G contains G7, C7 and D7. 

As you can see, this is still a I IV V but using a different chord type in place of our plain major chords. The other difference in a 12 bar blues is the fact that the chord progression has 12 bars. As well as memorizing the three chords it contains, we must also memorize the order in which they appear. 

Here is an overview of the 12 bar blues chord progression using I IV V:

IIII
IVIVII
VIVIV

The last 4 bars is known as a “turnaround”and this has the most chord movement. Our blues chords in G were G7 as I, C7 as IV and D7 as V. 

Here is the 12 bar blues in the key of G:

G7G7G7G7
C7C7G7G7
D7C7G7D7

Experiment by putting this blues chord progression into as many keys as you can.

Going Further with guitar chords

There are many more chords to discover on the guitar. The best way for beginner players to learning chords on guitar is to understand how chords are built. This allows you to build chords on the fly, even if you’ve never seen that chord before. If you are interested in the topic, you should take a look at my Chord Builder guitar course which teaches you how to fully master chords on the guitar.

By Nick Kellie