Beginner Guitarists, Learn Chords Fast!
By Kurt Echols
Learning to play guitar chords can seem intimidating, especially if you're a beginner. But with the right approach and a little practice, you can learn and play many guitar chords in just a month. Here's how:
Start With The Basics Before you jump into learning chords, it's important to make sure you have a solid foundation in the basic elements of guitar playing. This includes things like proper hand positioning, comfort with basic down/up strumming technique, and understanding how to read chord diagrams (aka chord tabs).
Having a knowledgeable guitar teacher to walk you through the basics is more important than you may realize. Having a teacher to start you off right sets the stage for a far smoother and more efficient learning experience, better understanding of terms and related theory will save you a wealth of time and money.
Use Chord Tabs Chord diagrams (more commonly referred to as chord tabs), are visual representations of the finger positions you need to play a particular chord. They can be a helpful reference as you're learning to play different chords. Look for chord tabs online or in guitar lesson books and use them to guide your finger placement as you practice.
Chord tabs are a great resource when searching for the right chords to play a song for some basic music. The downfall is chord tab usually do not reference finger placement. As chords become more complex, understanding finger placement becomes more challenging. For advanced players, chord choice relies more on voicing and placement on the fretboard.
Side note: Voicing refers to the notes used and the order they are laid out within a particular chord position. Let’s take C major:
Instead of the basic “open” C major voicing, maybe you want to hear a few other options for a C major sound:
The above C major variations are a few examples of what advanced players may consider for different chord in a composition or performance. Certain voicings and dynamics of how they’re played, among other things, breathe life into a musical piece. To learn all of these variations, one strategy would be to take a song you may already know, pick one of the dominant chords played throughout the song and look for more chord tab variations to try on for size. You may find more than one that you like and can work.
Practice Regularly Although this phrase is cliché, it is cliché because it is true! The key to learning and playing guitar chords (to learning ANYTHING, really) is consistent practice. Set aside a specific time each day to practice, even if it's just for a few minutes. As you progress, you can gradually increase the amount of time you spend practicing.
In my experience as both a learner and a teacher, learning through songs is the best and fastest way to learn chords. I recommend, if you haven’t done so already, listing out all the songs you enjoy listening to or that have come up on your radar now that you are learning to play guitar.
Regardless of whether the guitar part in a song you like is far too complicated for you right now or if there’s a guitar in the song at all! Every song has a basic function; rhythm, tempo, a key or perhaps multiple keys, and can therefore be assigned chords to make it function. If you’re just starting out, I recommend trying to find a song that does use guitar and sounds basic. You want your first song(s) to be very simple gradually working into more complex arrangements.
The song(s) you choose should motivate you to want to pick up your guitar daily, so you build up a routine. Many new learners experience the honeymoon phase. Inevitably, when you find something you enjoy, in this case, guitar, you want more. More, however, takes a little more work and a little more time and energy to continue learning.
One reason is, you must make sure you maintain what you started with, then build on top of that. A guitar teacher comes in very handy here to help keep you motivated and on track. The deeper you find yourself digging to learn more about playing guitar the quicker you can become overwhelmed and unsure which direction to go. Regular practice will help you see where your strengths and weaknesses lie. There you can begin to determine how you should practice and see progress.
But if you’re in this position already, you may be thinking “I have so many weaknesses and they each can take me in completely different directions!” Yes, that’s true. So, pick one weak area and start working from there. When you make some progress with it, develop some further understanding, you need to determine when to mark your stopping point and address a new weak area. This ushers in a scatter forward method.
Here is one way to consider using the scatter forward method when considering your weaknesses: list out your weaknesses in perhaps five broad categories. As mentioned previously, pick one and work on it for a select amount of time, then mark where you stop so you can come back later. Next, pick another weak area and do the exact same thing. Keep in mind, however, that as you start doing this with the first weakness category, you WILL discover off-shoots, subcategories of your weakness that you can pursue. The fork in your road leads to a network of other forks looking more like a tree with hundreds of branches. Musicians of all walks face this reality. In the words of the Mandalorian, “This is the way.”
Fork in the road leading to many forks
Beging with Simple Chords It's important to start with simple chords when you're first learning to play the guitar. This will help you build a strong foundation and make it easier to move on to more complex chords. Some good chords to start with include C, G, D, A, A minor (Am), E, and E minor (Em):
For students with no guitar experience, I start with these basic open chords because:
they are easier to play
they are similar in shape
they prepare you for advanced chords
The chords above are referred to as “open” chords because they use open strings. A little further into learning chords, when beginners advance to the next level, they are introduced to barre chords. Without getting in too deep on explaining barre chords, I use basic open chords, finger exercises with scales, and riffs from songs to help beginners develop hand and finger strength and the right feel for fretting notes and chords to successfully play barre chords.
There are plenty of online resources, such as video tutorials and guitar lesson books, that can help you learn these basics (though I don’t put a lot of stock in learning solely from lesson books or cherry-picking YouTube guitar lessons).
Below are two supplementary videos I use with my students that I’ve made available to anyone reading this article:
Supplementary Lesson #2
Supplementary Lesson: More Chords
Playing along with songs is a great way to practice your chords, rhythm, timing, transitions, and getting a feel for how they all fit in musical context. When first starting, choose songs that use a limited number of chords and start by playing just the chords while singing or humming along. As you gain a little more comfort and confidence, try playing the full song.
When I was first learning, I started on countless Beatles songs to help me. There are many songs great for newer learners from bands and artists like The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, John Denver, Foo Fighters, Nirvana, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and many more.
Playing with a song is like training wheels for beginner musicians. You instantly know when you’ve played a wrong note or have strayed from the beat. Additionally, playing along with the songs that you want to learn helps you to further burn the details of the song into your memory. As a budding musician, you will start to notice, if you haven’t already, that you are beginning to hear things in songs you never used to notice before. This is a form of ear training. The more you focus on the song you’re trying to learn to play, the closer you get to the song itself.
Experiment With Strumming Strumming patterns are the way you play the strings of your guitar to create a rhythmic sound. There are many different strumming patterns you can try, and experimenting with different patterns can help add variety to your playing.
As previously mentioned in the last segment, take any song you are listening to that there is a guitar strumming chords, isolate what you’re hearing of that guitar part and try to hear the pattern being used. Of course, depending on the song and how popular it is, you may also be able to find a version on YouTube where the guitar has been isolated for you. While this is convenient, it also takes away from the exercise of training your ear to hear it and puzzle it out on your own.
I get it, though, not everyone has the kind of time to intently listen and puzzle out parts to a song. With limited time, not to mention the hurdle of limited experience, many of us just want as much as possible of a song to be handed to us.
Consider taking a song you want to learn and using your own strumming pattern. In some cases, you can use a completely different strumming pattern or a variation of the one the artist is using. In this way, you are learning to be creative and maintaining the main idea of the song. It won’t always work out easy, but that’s why it’s called “experimenting”.
Avoid Frustration It's normal to make mistakes and feel frustrated when you're learning to play the guitar. Try not to get too discouraged. Remind yourself, we learn from the mistakes. Consider your mistakes opportunities to discover new ideas.
It’s easy to tell someone “Don’t get upset” or, the extremely annoying “it takes time and practice” (I am guilty of using these lines…). I often find myself changing gears when I hit a wall in my playing. I’m so intent on playing a certain riff just right or getting the timing of a rhythm section right, but we all have days, weeks, and even months that things just aren’t going our way.
I try to stress to my students that you should be prepared for this and have a bucket list of songs or riffs you want to accomplish. It is inevitable that you will find yourself stuck and seemingly unable to progress any further. Don’t let it derail your motivation. Some people like to plot out to-do’s and wire themselves to believe they must complete the list in order and not deviate. This will be your undoing!
We are not machines so we must not treat ourselves as such. Don’t fight your own unique learning process. Understand it and find alternate routes to accomplish your goals. Oftentimes you will be required to coach yourself out of dead ends. And sometimes it just comes down to needing to put the guitar down and take a break. Allow your mind to relax for a day or two. Perhaps you just need turn to something you can play without even thinking about it, allow your hands to go into autopilot.
This article has covered several areas, each one could be an article of its own. Remember, if you’re trying to learn on your own, even as an experienced musician new to guitar, the learning process will be much harder and take significantly longer. Proper guidance from an organized guitarist with a careful eye to the details of learning through a process is key and will save you time, money, and a lot of frustration. Regardless of your current disposition, hopefully this article has given you some new ideas to experiment with in your personal practice!
About the Author
Kurt Echols is an American musician and the founder and Owner/CEO of Axtreme Guitar, a thriving Boston-based enterprise known for its guitar lessons and comprehensive maintenance and repair services. Kurt's exceptional talent as a performer captivates audiences, while his creative prowess is evident in his skillful composition of original music that deeply resonates with listeners. He actively collaborates with fellow artists, co-creating captivating musical arrangements.
Alongside his musical pursuits, Kurt is committed to fostering music appreciation among young individuals. Through Axtreme Guitar, he engages with the community by providing music appreciation programs in elementary schools, inspiring aspiring musicians and instilling a love for music. With his diverse skill set, unwavering passion, and impactful contributions, Kurt Echols continues to leave an indelible mark on the music industry, both locally in Boston and beyond. Axtreme Guitar also maintains a strong online presence with engaging content on YouTube at youtube.com/axtremeguitar and at Axtreme-Guitar.com.