One of the coolest things about being a guitar player is that we have the ability to play single-line melodies and chords – sometimes at the same time!
However knowing how to build, use, and find chords across the fretboard can be challenging during the initial stages.
This article will help you learn more about how chords work on guitar, and how to start making your own!
What makes a guitar chord?
This first question may seem basic, but we need to have a solid understanding of what a chord is before we try to build one ourselves.
In its most basic form, a chord can be defined as the sound created when three or more notes are played together at the same time.
- Chords are a great way to support a melody sung by a vocalist or played by another instrument.
- The guitar is a fantastic instrument to discover and create chords on, and so many exciting options are available on the fretboard.
Building your first chord
Chords are built like a sandwich – you need at least three layers 🥪
- The root note is our first piece of bread – it gives the foundation for everything else to go on top.
- The 3rd gives our sandwich some flavor — it decides if the chord is major or minor.
- The 5th is the top slide of bread – it’s an important layer for structure, but doesn’t really change the taste.
Memorizing this ‘triad’ (three-note) chord structure is essential for understanding more complex chords.
Finding chords across the fretboard
Every hero has their nemesis and unfortunately, the guitar is no different.
Although we play the coolest of all instruments, there are a few logistical issues that make it more difficult to find chords and notes.
Here are some of the main obstacles when finding chords on the guitar fretboard:
- All the frets look exactly the same.
- There is symmetry on the neck, but it takes a while to learn/visualize it.
- It’s hard to see across all the strings unless you crane your neck.
- It feels like there are lots of shapes to memorize.
Don’t worry! If you struggle with any of these – we’ve got you covered with some upcoming tricks and techniques.
The guitar is a pattern-based instrument that can be conquered with just a few visualization tricks.
How to read chord charts
Chord charts are a simple and effective way to help you memorize chord shapes using diagrams. Think of chord charts as the bird’s-eye view of the fretboard.
Let’s cover the ground rules about chord charts and you’ll be serenading your friends and family with new songs before you know it!
- The strings from the left to the right indicate the lowest to the highest pitch.
- In basic open chord charts, the numbers inside the circle tell you which fingers to use for each fret.
- The black bar at the top of the diagram indicates the ‘nut’, which is essentially where your open strings start.
Here’s an example of what a chord chart looks like:
Why are these chord charts so affectionate?! 😘 🤗
Unfortunately, those X’s and O’s aren’t kisses and hugs. Sometimes chord charts will guide you toward which notes to play, and which notes not to play.
- X’s indicate that you don’t play the string.
- O’s indicate that you should play an open string.
Why use chord charts?
- Chord charts can be super useful for working on your fretboard visualization skills.
- They’re great for helping you remember that cool chord voicing you discovered one afternoon in your practice session!
- They’re easy to draw and annotate in case you forget.
- Every guitar player can read and use them.
10 must-know chord shapes
Now that you know how to build chords and read charts, let’s get you started with 10 must-know chord shapes!
You’ll definitely want to lock these 10 guitar chords down as they’re crucial for learning almost every song that you can imagine!
Bonus points if you can commit these shapes to memory.
Open major chords
Open minor chords
First bar chords
Patience is the name of the game!
Guitar chords can feel tricky and complex initially. Take your time as you work to memorize each of the 10 shapes.
Once you’ve got them down, we’ll step up the chord challenge in the next section!
Bar chords vs open chords: What’s the difference?
When it comes to building chords on the guitar, there are two types of chords that you’ll want to know the difference between. Introducing the beginner guitar player's final boss: Bar chords!
- Bar (sometimes ‘barre’) chords are a particular type of chord voicing used by guitarists.
- We make the by using our index finger and barring across all 6 strings.
- Your index finger is basically working as a moveable nut.
Below are a two chord charts for G major. On the left is the open chord and on the right is the bar chord version.
The two shapes sound quite different from each other, even though they’re playing the same chord.
Now that you know the ‘how’, let’s find out the ‘why’!
Why use bar chords?
As you can see and feel, bar chords are built a little differently to open chords.
Lots of guitarists will graduate from open chords and switch to bar chords once they have the finger strength because of how ‘moveable’ the shape is.
The main difference between open and bar chords is:
- Open chords use the open strings and only work in one area of the fretboard.
- You can test this by taking a C open chord and shifting it up the neck - doesn’t sound too great, right?
- Bar chords are fully ‘transposable’ meaning that you can take the entire chord shape and move it anywhere along the fretboard.
Bar chords and open chords both have their own uses. Lots of singer-songwriters and fingerstyle guitarists will use a capo instead of playing bar chords.
- The capo allows them to use open strings while allowing the capo to do all of the barring.
- It’s much easier on the hands and allows you to maintain that gorgeous, open-string sound.
Still struggling with getting bar chords down? Our Beginner Learning Pathway has a series of excellent exercises to help you master it in no time!
How to use the number system system
Learning this number system helps you become a musician people can count on!
It’s a great tool that every musician benefits from and makes playing and remembering chord progressions a breeze..
- If you know a little about the major scale and where chords come from, this should be pretty straightforward.
- Many professional musicians save time by using simple numerals instead of spelling out each chord.
- It’s another transposable system that works for any key.
Below, you’ll see a diagram of the major scale and each of the numerals for the seven diatonic chords.
- Notice how the numerals are upper case for major chords and lower case for minor chords.
- Although the names of the notes are different in every major scale, the order of major and minor chords is always the same.
- When referencing the V chord in a major scale, it’ll always be a major chord, regardless of the key.
If we were to build a I - vi - IV - V chord progression in the same key, this is how it’d look:
Let’s test your newfound number skills.
Using the C major scale diagram from above, can you build the following chord progressions?
- vi II V I
- iii IV I vi
- IV V vi iii
Why learn the number system?
Learning chords on the guitar is initially a little tough, but over time you’ll start to recognize how lots of songs recycle the same progressions over and over again.
If learning songs is your goal this system will be your best pal.
- It’s much quicker to describe a chord progression using numbers rather than the specifics of each chord.
- It’s a language that most musicians (not just guitarists!) use when teaching each other chord progressions.
- It’s super easy to apply to the guitar fretboard when combined with bar chords!
But we’re not quite done there! If you want to find out more about the numbers system, the Music Theory Learning Pathway is a ‘one size fits all’ course that can help you go deep on these gold-plated music tools.
Building extension chords
Ready for one last hurdle? This final section will be sure to push your chord knowledge to the edge!
- Extension chords are created when taking a regular, three-note triad and adding a 9th, 11th, or 13th to the chord.
- Extension chords are often used to add a different flavor to basic triads.
- They’re often heard in jazz, neo-soul, R&B, and blues guitar styles.
Extensions are usually added onto 7th chords. Here’s how to build a C major 7 chord:
Once you’ve got the 7th in your chord, other extension notes can be added to create different tonal colors in the chord.
It should be noted that because the guitar only has six strings, we often substitute the 5th of the chord for a more interesting extension note – this is known as a shell chord.
Each of these chords can be used in place of a regular C major chord:
Nice job getting all the way to the end! By now your mind should be bulging with all kinds of new chordal information.
It can be difficult to wrap your head around it all at first, but that’s totally normal. As you progress through open chords and bar chords and start using them in different songs, it’ll start to feel more natural.
Stick with the tools in this article, like chord charts and the number system, and you’ll be flying through complex progressions before you know it!
Beginner Learning Pathway
Learn the fundamentals of guitar playing.Learn more
Featured Pickup Music Instructor
Begin your guitar journey or build up your rock skills with Joey's straightforward, music-first library of step-by-step guitar lessons.Explore Lessons