The Complete Guide to Guitar Chords
Learning how to pick, strum, or pluck guitar chords is one of the coolest parts about playing the instrument.
There’s something about the sound of a strummed guitar chord that just sounds right.
And there’s no better feeling than finding the right chord shape to fit the song you’re learning, or writing.
Though they’re one of the best aspects of playing guitar, you can feel stuck playing the open chords you learned on day one.
Or, you get past open chords and don’t know how to expand guitar chords beyond open position.
In this lesson, you’ll learn essential guitar chords, from easy guitar chords all the way up to the more difficult shapes.
As well, there are exercises and chord progressions to use when learning guitar chords.
Whatever your aims with learning chords, this lesson helps you achieve those goals in the practice room.
No matter what genre you play, rock, folk, jazz, country, etc., guitar chords are essential for players of any skill level.
So, grab your favorite guitar and learn how to play these essential guitar chords.
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Guitar Chords (Click to Jump to Each Section)
- How to Practice Guitar Chords
- Popular Guitar Chord Progressions
- Open Chords
- Barre Chords
- CAGED Chords
- Closed Position Chords
How to Practice Guitar Chords
Apart from learning guitar chords, you want to work specific exercises that help you memorize each chord shape.
Then use these chords to play your favorite songs.
To help you get started, here’s a set of exercises to learn and apply guitar chords to your playing.
Here are 5 exercises that help you learn guitar chords for any experience level.
- Memorize each chord shape as you learn them.
- Once you have a few chords memorized, apply them to progressions.
- Move chord progressions to other keys.
- Learn songs using the chords you memorized.
- Practice open and barre chords over songs and progressions.
By learning guitar chords, memorizing them, and practicing progressions and songs, you’ll get the most out of your practice time.
Lastly, learning how to play chords on guitar isn’t that difficult.
Learning how to switch chords smoothly is hard to do.
So, make sure that you work chords over progressions.
Even if you just know two chords, play them back and forth to begin switching chords on the fretboard.
With time, you’ll nail those chords and learn to play your favorite songs on guitar.
Popular Guitar Chord Progressions
Here are 5 popular chord progressions with backing tracks that you can jam along with in your practicing.
After you’ve learned even your first major chords, practice those shapes over the I IV V I progression.
By practicing this way, you get the shapes under your fingers and practice moving between chords on the fretboard.
Switching between shapes is often the hardest part about playing guitar chords.
These progressions help you get over that hurdle, and learn some cool songs at the same time.
That’s a practice room win-win!
Each progression is written in one key, with a backing track to jam with when first learning these chords.
That gets you started, before you explore these progressions and songs in other keys.
I IV V I Chord Progression
The most popular chord progression in modern music, these 3 chords are found in more songs than is possible to list.
Here are some I IV V I songs that you can learn after you’ve gotten these chords under your fingers.
I IV V I Backing Track 1451 Backing Track
I vi IV V Chord Progression
Another essential progression to practice is I vi IV V.
Often called the ‘50s chord progression, as you couldn’t turn on the radio in that decade without hearing this progression, this is essential learning for any guitarist.
Here are a few popular songs that use these chords in one or more section.
I vi IV V Backing Track 1645 Backing Track
I V vi IV Chord Progression
Another popular chord progression, you can play countless songs with these four chords.
I V vi IV Backing Track 1564 Backing Track
vi IV I V Chord Progression
A favorite for power ballads, the vi IV I V progression has been a staple of rock radio since the early days of the genre.
Here are three examples of vi IV I V songs that you can learn once you have these chords under your fingers.
vi IV I V Backing Track 6415 Backing Track
vi V IV V Chord Progression
The last practice progression is featured in some of the most popular songs of all time.
Here are examples of vi IV I V songs that you can practice as you learn the guitar chords in this lesson.
- Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin
- All Along the Watchtower – Bob Dylan/Jimi Hendrix
- Somebody That You Used to Know – Gotye
vi V IV V Backing Track 6545 Backing Track
With these 5 popular guitar chord progressions, you’ll be able to practice many of the chord shapes in the lesson below.
As you’ll learn below, you can switch out chords for others, such as playing Cmaj7 or C6 instead of C.
After you’ve jammed these progressions as written, switch a few chords with extended 7th and 6th shapes, even sus2 and sus4 shapes, as you experiment with chord colors in your playing.
Often the first, and most important, chords you learn are found within the first four frets.
These essential chords are called open chords.
These chords are the foundation for everything you learn going forward, including scales and arpeggios.
Open chords develop your knowledge of music, allow you to strum along with your favorite songs, and develop your coordination and dexterity.
None of the open chords in this section use barres.
So, they’re easily played by guitarists who have less than 6 months of experience.
While you may see these shapes called easy guitar chords, some open shapes take time to learn and become smooth in your playing.
Take your time with these open-position guitar chords.
Learn them, then play them over the progressions listed above to combine them on the fretboard.
Feel free to use this open-position chords section as a reference.
You can come back to it when you need to find a C6 voicing for the Beatles’ song that you’re learning, or the perfect G chord for a song you’re writing.
Open Chords – Major
Found on the I, IV and V of the major scale, major chords make up the most popular chord progression in music, I-IV-V.
Major chords are built with a root, major 3rd and perfect 5th interval, and have a bright sound as compared to their minor cousins.
Because they make up the most popular progression in music, major chords are the best place to start when beginning to learn guitar.
Here are the six open major chord that you can learn and practice.
Open Chords – Maj7
An extension of the major chords you just explored, Maj7 chords are constructed by adding a major 7th to the major triad.
When doing so, you create the intervals root, major 3rd, perfect 5th, and major 7th.
These chords are found on the I and IV of any major key, and are used mostly in jazz music, though they’re found in pop and rock as well.
After you’ve learned these chords, play the three-note version then the four-note version to compare how they sound on the fretboard.
An example of this would be playing C then Cmaj7 back to back.
By doing so, you see how both shapes are related, as well as how they produce a unique, sound on the guitar.
Open Chords – 6
Another variation of the major chord, 6th chords are built by adding a 6th to the major triad.
When adding this note to the three-note shape, you create the interval pattern root, major 3rd, perfect 5th and major 6th.
6th chords are played on the I, IV, and sometimes V chords of a major key, though mostly used on the I and the IV.
Now that you have three major-family chords under your fingers, play all three in a row to compare.
This means playing C, Cmaj7, and C6 back to back.
By doing so, you train your fingers to play these guitar chords, as well as get your ears used to hearing the difference between each chord.
Hearing slight differences between chord colors makes the difference between being comfortable and uncomfortable with chords.
Open Chords – 7th
Also called the dominant 7th chord, you now add a b7 to the major chord to create these new shapes, which are used on the V of any major key.
When building a 7th chord, you create the interval pattern root, major 3rd, perfect 5th and minor 7th.
As you can see, it’s also only one note different, b7 vs. 7, than the Maj7 chord you learned earlier.
In this case, the 7th is lowered by a fret, a half step, to form dominant 7th chords.
Though they’re only one note different, 7th and Maj7 chords sound completely different.
As well, they’re used in different musical situations.
Play them back to back to train your ears to learn the difference between both chords, starting with Cmaj7 and C7 for example.
Open Chords – Sus2
Since you replace the 3rd in a major chord with the 2nd to form a Sus2 chord, these chords often sound ambiguous.
Sus2 chords have the interval pattern, root, major 2nd and perfect 5th, and are built on the I, IV and V chords of major keys.
These chords are used to create an “open” sound compared to any of other chords you’ve learned so far.
They don’t sound major, but they don’t sound minor either.
Sus2 chords live between major and minor, forming a unique sound all their own.
Open Chords – Sus4
Using the same technique as Sus2, Sus4 chords replace the major 3rd with a perfect 4th to create the intervals root, perfect 4th and perfect 5th.
Again, this chord can be used on the I, IV and V of a major key, and produces a different sound than what you create with Sus2 chords.
Once you have these chords down, play the Sus2 and Sus4 chords back to back.
This helps you hear the difference between Sus chords, and the combination of Sus2 to Sus4 is often used in modern chord progressions.
Open Chords – Minor
Moving on to minor chords, this three-note chord contains the interval structure root, minor 3rd and perfect 5th.
Minor chords are found on the ii, iii and vi of any major key, and are also used as Im chords in a minor key chord progression.
You’ll notice that minor chords are only one note different from major chords.
In this case, there’s a b3 interval, compared to 3 in major chords.
Though they’re only one note different, major and minor chords sound much different.
If you’re new to guitar chords, think about major chords sounding happy and minor chords being sad.
This isn’t the most theoretical explanation of these chords, but this helps you differentiate these chords on the guitar.
As Nigel Tufnel said:
“Dm… the saddest of all keys…it makes people weep instantly.”
And we all know that Nigel Tufnel is never wrong about anything.
Open Chords – m7
As you extended the major chord, you can also extend the minor chord by adding a b7 to form m7 chords.
m7 chords contain the interval structure root, minor 3rd, perfect 5th and minor 7th.
These shape are used on the same chords as minor chords, ii, iii and vi in major and the tonic chord of a minor key.
Once you can play these m7 chords, play a minor chord followed by the m7 chord to get your ears involved with learning these chords.
m7 chords tend to show up more often in popular music than maj7 chords.
So, having a strong command of these chords will come in handy when playing pop, folk, or jazz songs.
Open Chords – m6
To finish your study of open chords, you’ll add a 6th interval to the minor chord to form a m6 chord.
When doing so, you create the interval pattern root, minor 3rd, perfect 5th and major 6th.
These m6 chords are used on the ii chord of a major key as well as on the Im chord of a tonic minor key.
Again, work these chords and then play the minor, m7, and m6 shapes back to back.
An example of this would be Dm, Dm7, then Dm6 to hear how each of those changes affect the color of each chord shape.
Once you’ve worked open chords, you’re ready to dig into barre chords.
Barre chords require you to play more than one string with one finger, which isn’t easy.
The barre is what makes these chords tough, especially when first learning to play guitar.
If you find your fretting hand cramping while working these chords, hurting, or feeling uncomfortable, take a break.
Stretch your hands and come back when your hands feel better.
This way, you’ll learn barre chords, but won’t risk hurting yourself in the process.
There’s no point in hurting your hands just to learn a new chord!
Once you can play these barre chords, mix them with open chords over the progressions at the start of this lesson.
This introduces barre chords into your playing one at a time, rather than overdoing it and burning your hands out in the process.
Barre chords are tough.
They open up your fretboard, provide you with new chord textureds, and build your hand strength at the same time.
That’s a practice room trifecta right there.
Barre Chord Fingerings
You’ll notice that some of the chords in this lesson will be easy to play, others difficult, and some almost impossible.
This depends on your hand size and experience level with barre chords.
If you find some shapes sound good, but are too difficult to play, drop one or two notes from the shape.
This keeps the vibe of that barre chord intact, but makes it easier on your hands to play that shape.
If you decide to drop a note from a chord, drop a doubled note.
So, if you see two 5ths, drop one 5th and then see if it’s easier.
When learning barre chords, play the first two shapes for each chord type as they’re the most popular shapes.
You can then keep the ones that are easy, and work on the ones that are a bit difficult to get them down over time.
Then, shelve the almost impossible ones for later, when you’re at a later point in your development as a guitarist.
Major Barre Chords
To begin your journey to mastering barre chords, you’ll learn how to play major barre chords.
Though these chords share a name, and interval pattern, with the open chords you learned, such as G and G, they’re much different to play.
Go slow with these chords, rest when needed, and work them into your chord progression practice one at a time.
To hear the difference that a barre makes, play open G followed by the G barre chord on the guitar.
Maj7 Barre Chords
Moving on, you can add in the major 7th interval to your barre chords.
While these chords are mostly used in jazz and fusion, you’ll find them in pop and folk songs.
Because of this, it’s worth learning a 6th and 5th-string shape for maj7 barre chords so you don’t get caught flat footed when you see a maj7 chord in a song.
Maj6 Barre Chords
The final major-family barre chord is the maj6 chord, which is built by adding the 6th interval to the major barre chord.
Now that you have all three major-family barre chords under your fingers, play them back to back to compare how they sound.
This mean splaying G, Gmaj7, Gmaj6, for example.
This helps your ears become used to the differences that these major-based barre chords produce on guitar.
Sus2 Barre Chords
As well as playing major-family barre chords, you can play Sus chords as barres, starting with Sus2 chords.
Some of these Sus2 barre chords will be tough to finger.
So, try a few out, pick one or two to focus on for now.
Then, as your hands become stronger, add the other Sus2 barre chords to your playing.
Sus4 Barre Chords
You can also play Sus4 barre chords, which you see in the examples below.
As was the case with open chords, once you have a few of these down, play them back to back with Sus2 barre chord shapes.
You can also play the open Sus2 chord, then play the Sus2 barre chord, to compare how they’re similar yet have different textures on the fretboard.
7th Barre Chords
You’re now ready to explore dominant 7th barre chords, which tend to be easier to play than maj7, maj6, or Sus barre chords.
Make sure to learn the first two shapes to begin, as these are the most popular dominant 7th barre chords.
From there, move on to more difficult fingerings with last two shapes.
Minor Barre Chords
If you learn only two types of barre chords, major and minor barre chords are they way to go.
These shapes will get you through countless pop, rock, folk, and country songs on guitar.
Begin with the first two minor shapes, and then add them to your chord progression practice right away.
m7 Barre Chords
You can now add the b7th interval to minor barre chords to form m7 barre chord shapes on guitar.
Again, these are popular guitar chords, so make sure to apply them to chord progressions quickly in your practicing.
After you can play these shapes, practice them back and forth with minor shapes to hear how they’re similar, yet unique, on the fretboard.
m6 Barre chords
The final barre chord that you’ll learn is the m6, built by adding a 6th interval to minor barre chords.
Once you have this barre chord under your fingers, work them with other minor chords back to back in your practicing.
For example, play Bm, Bm7, then Bm6 as you work these shapes in your guitar practice routine.
When first learning chords on guitar, many players stumble upon the CAGED chord system.
While you may know the title, sometimes the theory behind these 5 shapes is a bit mysterious.
In this section, you’ll learn how to build CAGED chords, how to move them around the fretboard, and how to apply the CAGED system to songs and progressions.
What Are CAGED Chords
The term CAGED chords refers to the names of 5 open-position chord shapes that you learned earlier.
With the CAGED system, you move open chords up the neck to create 5 barre chord shapes.
This transforms open position chords to moveable shapes on the fretboard.
It’s a similar approach to learning barre chords, though you focus on 5 specific chords with the CAGED system.
These 5 open-position major chords are:
Hence the name of the CAGED chord system.
When moving these chords up the neck, the lowest note of each shape is the root, and dictates the name of the barre chord you’re playing.
So, if you have a C CAGED shape, the lowest note is on the 5th string.
You then find a D on the 5th string, use that as the lowest note of the C shape chord, and you have a D barre chord.
These same shapes can be altered to form three other common chord shapes in both open and barred position.
- Maj7 – R-3-5-7
- 7th – R-3-5-b7
- m7th – R-b3-5-b7
Now that you know how to build CAGED chords and move them around the neck, take them to the fretboard as you get these 5 shapes under your fingers.
The first CAGED chord you’ll explore is the C chord.
To help you see how CAGED chords move up the neck, the example is written in open position as C, and in barre position as D.
The lowest note is the root of the chord, which indicates the root note when moving this shape into a barre chord position.
After you’ve learned this CAGED shape, play it on other roots as you become familiar with sliding this shape around the fretboard.
As is the case for each chord you learn, use the C CAGED shape over the popular chord progressions at the start of this lesson.
Because CAGED chords are barre chords, working them into your playing one at a time is the best starting point.
The second CAGED chord you’ll learn to play is the A chord.
You can see the A CAGED shape written in open position as A, and in barre position as B .
The lowest note, A in open position, is the root of the chord and indicates the root note when moving this shape into a barre chord position.
Again, learn this chord in the keys below, then play it around the fretboard as you expand your studies of this important chord shape.
The third CAGED chord you’ll explore is G, which you can see written in open position as a G and in barre position as A.
The lowest note is the root of the chord and indicates the root note when moving this shape into a barre chord position.
The G CAGED chord is probably the toughest of these 5 chord shapes to finger.
Because of this, you might need to learn the other 4 shapes first.
Then, when your hands are used to those barre chords, come back and work on the G shape with increased finger dexterity and confidence.
The fourth CAGED chord you’ll learn how to play is the E chord.
You can see the E CAGED chord written below in both open position, as an E, and in barre position, as a F# chord.
The lowest note, E in open position, indicates the root note when moving this shape up the fretboard.
The last chord in the CAGED system is the D chord.
You’ll see that chord in the chord diagram below, written in open position as a D, and in barre position as an E chord.
The lowest note, D in open position, is the root of the chord and indicates the root note when moving this shape into a barre chord position.
CAGED Maj7 Chords
You can also play all five CAGED shapes as maj7 chords, which you can see in the example below.
When doing so, you use the interval pattern R-3-5-7, the same intervals used to build previous maj7 chords in this lesson.
As well, you can transform these shapes into barre chords in the same way you did the 5 open major chords.
You’ll then be able to move these maj7 CAGED shapes up the neck by using the lowest note as the root.
Once you can play these CAGED maj7 shapes, play them back to back with the barre chord maj7 shapes you learned earlier.
Some of which are in both systems, while others are new.
This gives you an idea of how these shapes sound in comparison to barre chords, then you can decide which ones to use in your playing from there.
CAGED 7th Chords
You can also play all five CAGED shapes as 7th chords, which you can see in the example below.
When applying the CAGED system to 7th chords, you use the interval pattern R-3-5-b7 for each chord.
As well, you can transform these shapes into barre chords in the same way you did major chords.
You take the open-position chord, then move that shape up the neck by using the lowest note to define the root of any chord.
As always, play CAGED 7th chords alongside open and barre chords to hear how they all offer unique approaches to dominant chords on the guitar.
CAGED m7th Chords
You can also play all five CAGED shapes as m7 chords, which you can see in the example below.
When doing so, you use the interval pattern R-b3-5-b7, which is the interval group for m7 chords regardless of their shape.
As well, transform these shapes into barre chords in the same way you did major chords, by moving them up the neck and using the lowest note to define the root.
Closed Position Chords
Closed position chords are for guitarists looking to explore jazz guitar chords, as well as challenge themselves with wider chord stretches.
While there are three fingerings for each chord below, not all of them will fit your fingers, depending on your hand size.
Try each one, keep the ones that are playable and forget the rest for now.
As you develop as a player, your fretting hand will reach greater distances on the fretboard.
Because of this, coming back to these chords is a good idea to see if you can grab a few new voicings.
Give these wide-stretch guitar chords a go in the practice room.
Some are beyond your reach, but others add cool-sounding chord colors to your playing and songwriting.
Maj7 Closed Position Chords
To begin your study of closed position guitar chords, you’ll learn maj7 chords.
Start with the root on the 4th-string as it’s the easiest to play.
From there, move to the 5th-string shape before attempting the 6th-string shape.
The 6th-string maj7 chord is a stretch.
But, the other two are playable by most guitarists, so give them a try and see what you think.
Maj7#11 Closed Position Chords
With these closed position chords, the 4th-string will again be easiest to play.
From there you can learn the 6th-string shape, followed by the 5th-string if possible.
The 4th-string maj7#11 chord shape is common in jazz and fusion.
So, if you’re exploring those genres, that’s a chord you’ll want to add to your repertoire.
7th Closed Position Chords
There are no easy closed position 7th chords, as all require a big stretch.
Work the 4th-string shape first, then the 5th-string, and lastly the 6th-string.
They may be out of reach now, but come back to these chords over time because as your hands become more dexterous, you’ll be able to cover those big stretches.
7#11 Closed Position Chords
With 7#11 closed position chords, work the 5th-string shape first.
That shape is pretty playable, especially higher on the fretboard.
After that, study the 4th-string shape, and lastly the 6th-string shape, as it contains the biggest stretch.
m7 Closed Position Chords
Depending on your hand size, both the 5th and 4th-string m7 closed chords should be playable.
Start with those two before attempting the 6th-string shape.
The 6th-string m7 chord is a bear to play.
If you can’t get it, no worries, apply the other shapes to your rhythm guitar playing instead.
m7b5 Closed Position Chords
Begin your study of these m7b5 closed chords with the 5th and 4th-string shapes, as they’re easiest to play.
From there, work on stretching your fingers by using the 6th-string chord in your rhythm guitar phrases.
Dim7 Closed Position Chords
Used in place of V7b9 chords, as you can play a dim7 from the b9, 3, 5, or b7 or any 7b9 chord to produce a rootless 7b9, dim7 closed chords are mostly playable.
Begin with the 4th-string shape, the move on to wider stretches with the 5th and 6th-string roots from there.
Though they’re spread out, these dim7 chords add a new color to your 7th-chord comping.
mMaj7 Closed Position Chords
Here, you’ll begin with the 5th-string shape, as it’s playable for guitarists of all experience levels.
After that, work the other shapes equally, as they both have the same level of stretching.
Closed chords aren’t for the weak of heart guitarist.
They can bring some very cool sounds to your rhythm guitar output, but have wide stretches at the same time.
Don’t shy away from these closed position chords.
Give them a try, find the ones you like and can play without hurting your hands, and bring those shapes to your guitar playing.
You never know when a new chord will inspire you to write a new song, or lift your rhythm guitar playing to the next level.
Closed position chords can do just that if you give them a chance.
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