You’ve just picked up the guitar for a relaxing strum, only to realize you don’t know any chords. Stay calm!

There’s an endless list of chords out there, but before you google yourself into oblivion – let us show you the essentials.

By the end of this article you’ll,

  • Have a checklist of crucial chords
  • Know how to play a classic Bob Dylan song using open chords
  • Be able to rock through a Nirvana tune using power chords

We’ll also explain a little about triads for good measure.

If you’ve never sat down with a guitar before, read our introduction to guitar first.

What are chords?

Whenever you play more than one note at a time, it’s technically a chord. Single notes create melody, and groups of notes (like chords) create harmony.

How to learn new guitar chords

Chord diagrams are the easiest way to learn new chords. We’ll be using these diagrams throughout the article, so here’s how to make sense of them:

  • The guitar neck is displayed vertically, with the thick line at the top representing the guitar nut.
  • The 6 vertical lines represent the strings and the horizontal lines represent the frets.
  • The x above a string means that you don’t play that particular string.
  • The o means that you play the open string.
  • The dots on the fretboard show where to put your finger.
  • The number inside the dot tells you which finger to use for that note (1 index, 2=middle finger, etc.).
  • The letters (and sometimes letters and numbers) below tell you the name of the chord.

The most common chords for beginner guitarists

As a beginner guitarists you need to learn the two most common qualities (types) of chords – major and minor. They are both made up of three notes:

  • Major (root note, major third, fifth)
  • Minor (root note, minor third, fifth)

For example, below are chord diagrams for A major and A minor.

Try to play those two chords and listen carefully.

Notice the difference in sound between the major chord (A) and the minor chord (Am). Only one note is different, but they both carry their own unique emotion. Does one feel sadder than the other?

Which guitar chords should I learn first?

There are a few things that make some chords harder to play than others, for example, the number of notes you need to fret. We recommend starting out with these:

1. Essential for acoustic guitar: Open chords

Open chords combine open strings with fretted notes.

  • These are a singer-songwriter's bread and butter.
  • Open chords on an acoustic guitar produce a full sound.
  • Most open chords only require two or three fingers, making them easy on the hand.

You’ll get a lot of mileage out of the three major chords G, C, and D because they make up a common chord progression (it’s a I-IV-V for the theory nerds):

Hot tip: Nobody says you have to play all the strings. If your hand cramps up, or turns into a pretzel when you attempt these chord shapes, just play fewer strings.

For example, this is a simplified version of the G chord using only the four highest strings:

Once you’ve got the G, C, D and Am chords down, you can play Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door by Bob Dylan.

  • For the verse, alternate between these chord progressions: G-D-Am-Am and G-D-C-C
  • For the chorus, play: G-D-C-C

If you have trouble switching between chords, we’ve got you covered. Take a peek at our article “How to get better at chord changing”.

2. Essential for electric guitar: Power chords

Power chords are neither major nor minor, which makes them very versatile.

  • There are different ways to play a power chord but we’ll show you the three-finger version.
  • You can start on the lowest string (E) or the second lowest string (A).
  • Once you know the shape, you can play it anywhere on the neck.
  • Be sure to mute whichever strings you’re not fretting.

Here are the four chords you need to play Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana.

If you dig 90s rock and the sound of power chords, we have an entire article on that: “Power chords for beginners”.

There’s so much you can do with power chords, so get creative! Try adding open strings on an acoustic guitar. Check out the video below for more on that.

3. Basic moveable guitar chords: Closed Triads

Some people never learn triad shapes or they learn them very late. We think they’re worth learning early. Especially if you play electric guitar and want to shred in a band setting.

  • You only need to fret three notes.
  • Triads are great in a band setting as smaller chords leave more space for bass, keys or a second guitar.
  • They are a great foundation for improvising and writing melodies.
  • Triads allow you to play one chord pretty much anywhere on the neck – this gives you a lot of flexibility.

You can play closed triads combining sets of three strings.

Below are three versions of a C major chord (the last one is a repeat because we’ve reached the same notes just in a higher register):

In this case, the numbers in the dots refer to the function of the note in the chord:

  • 1 = root note
  • 3 = major third
  • 5 = fifth

If you want to play around with these shapes in a musical context, try out the backing track below.

Play literally any of the notes or shapes from the triads we’ve just shown and you’ll be golden.

Checklist for beginner guitar chords

Will you ever learn all the chords? We doubt it! No guitar player in their right mind would claim to know “all the chords”.

The possibilities are simply endless. (Well, at least it feels that way without involving a mathematician.)

Below is a list of open chords essentials that we recommend tackling first.

Open major chords: C, D, E, G, A

Open minor chords: Dm, Em, Am

That’s more than enough to get you strumming through some popular songs, or maybe even writing one of your own!

And if you encounter chords that you don’t know how to play, you can use our guitar chord library to look them up.

What’s next?

When you first start out, there are a lot of possible paths to go down – here’s what we’d suggest:

  • Learn more open chords including Sus4 and Sus2 voicings or even seventh chords if you’re feeling jazzy.
  • Expand your chord vocabulary by learning the closed minor triad shapes.
  • So-called tiny bar chords are worth looking into as well – they’re easier versions of those dreaded bar chords.

Or you could give our Beginner Learning Pathway a try using our 14-day free trial. You’ll get play-along daily practice exercises, interactive jams, and personalized video feedback on your playing. How about that?

Author: Julia Mahncke