You’ve got your first guitar. Or maybe you finally dusted off a guitar you bought a while back. Whatever the case may be, you’re ready to learn some chords. But where do you begin?
There are nine essential chords every guitar player needs to know: six major chords and three minor chords. And if you have a capo, you can play just about any chord progression.
Keep in mind this is not an exhaustive list of every chord in existence. There are thousands of chords. You will probably never be able to learn them all.
These essential chords are are called “open” chords, because they include open strings. Sometimes they are known as “cowboy” or “folk” chords. They are fairly easy to reach and don’t require a detailed knowledge of the fretboard.
The beauty of folk chords is that you can learn them without really understanding what you’re playing. If the diagram says it’s a D minor, that’s all you need to know when a song calls for a D minor chord.
So grab your guitar and let’s dive right in.
- What Are Major and Minor Chords?
- What Are the 9 Basic Chords?
- How Does a Capo Work?
What Are Major and Minor Chords?
Every diatonic key (C major, G major, etc.) features seven basic chords. That’s one chord for each of the seven notes in the major scale. Each key has three major chords, three minor chords, and one diminished chord.
Diminished chords aren’t that useful for beginners. So we’ll pretend there are six chords in each key.
You’ve probably heard “major” and “minor” used to describe various chords. These terms don’t mean that one chord is more important than another. They are simply two different flavors of chords.
Major chords are often described as sounding “happy” or “bright.” Minor chords are described as “sad” or “dark.” That’s only partially true.
Either type of chord can be used to convey a positive or negative emotion. But if you’re playing a major chord and the song sounds too cheerful, you can always try a minor chord and see if it solves the problem.
What Are the 9 Basic Chords?
There are six major chords and three minor chords that every guitar player has to learn. It’s possible to skip a few of these, but it will require changing your capo position much more frequently.
Take a look at the table below. See if you notice anything about the chords that made the cut.
If you know a little bit about music, you might notice few things about the chart. First, there are no B chords. That is because there is no easy way to play B major or B minor in the open position of a guitar.
There also aren’t any flats or sharps.
We’ll go into more detail later about how to get around those missing chords.
The Major Chords
Each diatonic key—essentially a major scale starting on any of the 12 possible notes—contains three major chords. Even without using a capo, these six chords give you all three major chords in the keys of C major, G major, D major, and A major.
In case you’re still new to music theory, the major chords are built upon the 1st, 4th, and 5th degrees of the major scale. Perhaps you’ve heard of a I-IV-V chord progression. Here is a quick primer for which major chords fit which key:
- Key of C: C, F, G
- Key of G: G, C, D
- Key of D: D, G, A
- Key of A: A, D, E
The Minor Chords
The three minor chords fit into the keys of C major, G major, and D major. We get all three minor chords in the key of C, two chords for the key of G, and one for the key of D major.
Here’s where each chord fits in the three possible keys:
- Key of C: Dm, Em, Am
- Key of G: Em, Am
- Key of D: Em
As you can see, you’re pretty well set for any song written in C major or G major. That’s why so many guitar-driven folk songs use those keys.
How Does a Capo Work?
A capo acts like an extra hand. It’s essentially a clamp that holds the strings down at a particular fret. That’s great news if you only know a few chords.
It would be a long and tedious explanation to tell you every possible combination of chord shapes and capo positions. There are lots of them.
The simple way is to think about each capo position moving the chords “up” one half-step.
Let’s say we have the capo on the first fret. The C major chord you already know becomes a C# major. G major becomes G# major. Your E minor chord becomes F minor.
Moving the capo to the second fret, our chords move up another half-step. C major becomes D major. G major becomes A major. And now E minor is F# minor.
For more information about using a capo, check out this article.
Learning to figure out which chord is sounding when using a capo is a skill on it’s own. I suggest learning the notes on the fretboard (see Memorize the Fretboard With These 5 Exercises) so you don’t have to think about which chord you’re playing.
So how many chords do you need to know?
Learning a musical instrument is a process that never ends. While you can get pretty far with the nine chords outlined here, you will be much better able to express yourself on the guitar if you learn how chords are built and how they function in music.
Yes, you can spend your time memorizing lots of shapes and patterns. But it’s far more useful to understand how to play any chord anywhere on the neck. The shape you learned might clash with the bass or keyboard parts. Then what?
Instead of focusing on learning a certain number of chords, spend some time studying music theory. Learn scales, arpeggios, and basic harmony.