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Open Chords For Guitar: Everything You Need To Know
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Learning the open chords on the guitar is a foundational skill that every player should know. The open chords are usually one of the first things a guitar player learns.
The primary open chords on the guitar are A, C, D, E, and G. Other open chords include the minor chords: Am, Cm, Dm, Em, and Gm, and the seventh chords: A7, C7, D7, E7, and G7.
Once you learn the open chords, you’ll have the tools to play many popular songs, and it will serve as a foundation for other musical concepts, such as the CAGED system.
Why are they called open chords?
Open chords involve one or more open guitar strings. These chords are all played on the first few frets of the instrument and are the basic chord shapes you need to know to master the fretboard.
What are the cowboy chords?
The open chords are sometimes called “cowboy chords” because they are used for simple songs that one might play around the campfire. Think of a cowboy gently strumming a ballad on an acoustic guitar while sitting around a campfire at night.
How to play the open chords
All of these chords are a little tricky to learn for beginners. Some chord fingerings may not feel natural the first time. However, after some practice, it will become easier to manage. Learn each chord shape gradually, and practice it before you move on to the next one.
How to fret a note
To play chords, you need to be able to fret notes on your guitar’s fretboard. With your fretting hand, place a finger just behind a fret (the metal strips along the fretboard).
Press down on the string at this point. Don’t press down too hard, or you can bend the note sharp. But press down hard enough so the note rings clear without any buzzing.
How to read a chord diagram
To learn these chords, you will need to be able to read a chord diagram. A chord diagram shows the six guitar strings and the guitar frets.
The notes you need to fret are represented with dots. Any open strings are represented with an open circle, and the strings you don’t play are noted with an X.
Chord diagrams are vertical, as if you are holding your guitar by the neck or looking at a guitar hanging from a guitar rack in the music store.
You might see both red and black dots in the chord diagram. The red dot represents the “root” note of the chord. And the black dots are other notes within the chord.
The fingers of your fretting hand are represented by the numbers 1-4.
With the basics out of the way, let’s look at some chords.
Open A Chord
We’ll start with the A chord, which is a little easier to play. There are a couple of fingerings for the A chord; we will cover the first one here.
The first fingering is what most people learn, and the second fingering can be found on the Justin Guitar website. This alternate fingering provides a pivot point for moving from the A to the D chord.
I find the first fingering more natural (or maybe it’s just an old habit), but you can use whatever works best for you.
Place your index finger on the second fret of the D (4th) string, your middle finger on the second fret of the G (3rd) string, and your ring finger on the second fret of the B (2nd) string. Strum downward from the fifth string through the first string. Do not play the sixth string or low E string.
It may sound rough the first time, but keep at it! You will eventually get it with practice. If it’s too hard with all three fingers, start with just one or two.
Open D chord
The D chord is the next chord you should learn. The D chord is played on the first four strings. The fingering can be a bit of a challenge for beginners. Your fingers are closely grouped together, with your middle finger on the first string.
For the D chord, place your index finger on the second fret of the third string, your ring finger on the third fret of the second string, and your middle finger on the second fret of the first string.
You’ll feel like you are playing the game Twister with your hand!
If you can’t get it with all three fingers, try with just two fingers on the second and third strings. You want to learn the chord using all three fingers, but it will take some practice. Stick with it, and you’ll get it.
Open C chord
After learning the D chord, the C chord should be easy to learn. The C chord uses the strings one through five, with the first and third strings played open.
With your ring finger, fret the third fret of the fifth string. Fret the second fret of the fourth string with your middle finger. And fret the C note on the first fret of the second string with your index finger. That last one may be a little bit of a stretch at this point.
If this is too difficult, you can play the C chord with one finger. Fret the first fret of the second string with your index finger, and strum strings one through three.
It’s not as exciting as the full C chord, but it’s a start.
Open G chord
If you’ve mastered the A, D, and C chords, the G chord will be a piece of cake.
The G chord is similar to the C chord. For the G chord, you will strum all six strings. This gives the chord a full and rich sound.
Using your middle finger, fret the G note on the third fret of the sixth string. Fret the B note at the second fret of the fifth string with your index finger. The second, third, and fourth strings will be played open. With your third finger, fret the G note on the third fret of the first string. This completes the chord.
If this fingering is too complicated at the beginning, skip the B note on the fifth string and mute that with your middle finger. Or, try the one-finger G chord.
For an alternate fingering of the G chord, use your pinky finger to fret the G note on the third fret of the first string and fret the D note on the third fret of the second string with your third finger.
Open E chord
The open E chord is a great chord to learn as it forms a basis for barre chords, which we will learn next.
As with the G chord, you strum all six strings for the E chord. The first, second, and sixth strings are open.
With your middle finger, fret the B note on the second fret of the fifth string. Fret the E note on the second fret of the fourth string with your ring finger. And fret the G# at the first fret of the third string.
When you learn barre chords, you’ll find that you can move this chord shape by barring the notes with your index finger.
The F and B chords
Once you have the primary open chords down, you can learn the F and the B chords. While these are not open chords, they will complete the musical alphabet.
To learn the F chord, you must know about barre chords. And to learn the B chord, it’s good to understand power chords.
The F chord is the same chord shape as the E open chord. Move everything up one fret, and press down on all of the strings at the first fret with your index finger.
For an easier alternative to the F barre chord, finger the notes on strings one through four.
The B chord is another barre chord played on five strings instead of six. To play the B chord, bar the first through fifth strings at the second fret with your index finger.
Use your ring finger to fret the notes on the fourth fret. For now, focus on playing a B power chord for simplicity.
Switching between chords
To be a good rhythm guitar player, one skill you need to learn is how to switch between chords quickly and accurately. Practice switching between the various open chords.
Learn to transition from one chord to another without gaps in your playing. For example, practice changing from an A chord to a D chord, or from a G chord to a C chord.
Keep a steady rhythm by tapping your foot or using a metronome. Practice slowly until you can switch between chords while playing in time with the rhythm.
Once you’ve mastered this, increase your tempo to learn how to switch between chords more quickly and accurately. You’ll be able to create smooth transitions when playing a song.
Learn a song that uses open chords, such as “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd. This will help you learn chord transitions and improve your ability to switch between the open chords.
Once you’re comfortable with the major open chords, it’s time to start learning some minor chords.
To play a minor chord, lower the third by one half-step. For example, an A minor chord would consist of an A, C, and E instead of an A, C♯ , and E.
Learn the minor open chord shapes such as Am (A minor), Dm (D minor), Em (E minor), Gm (G minor), and Cm (C minor).
Some of these shapes are easier than others and more common. With more complex chord shapes, using another chord form elsewhere on the guitar neck may be the best choice.
Once you have a handle on major and minor chords, you can explore other open chords, such as seventh chords.
The seventh chords consist of the root note, a third, the fifth, and the seventh. They can make your chord progression more dynamic and exciting.
Start with the easy ones, such as A minor 7, D minor 7, E minor 7, and C major 7. From there, you can start exploring other variations.
Where to Learn Open Chords
We recommend two easy-to-use apps to learn chords. Check out the Fender Tune app. The “Tools” section has chord charts and simple chord variations for beginners.
If you want a step-by-step approach to learning guitar, the Fender Play app has you covered. You’ll find a video breakdown of the open chords, seventh chords, barre chords, and other skills.
Both of these apps are available for Android and iOS. The Fender Tune app also includes chord charts and scales for left-handed guitar players.
The CAGED system
The CAGED system is an intermediate topic beyond the scope of this article. But it’s good to know that the main open chord shapes form the basis for the CAGED system.
This system was created to help guitarists link scale patterns across the fretboard. The CAGED acronym refers to the five basic open chord shapes, so it’s essential to learn them first.
Learning the open chords on the guitar is essential for any beginning guitarist. These chords form the basis of many songs and provide a starting point for learning basic music theory.
Mastering the open guitar chords also gives you a foundation for guitar technique. You will learn how to read a chord diagram, play chords, and rhythm guitar essentials.
Start by learning the major open chords and then move on to the minor, seventh, and other variations. As you practice, you’ll grow your musical knowledge and become familiar with different chord shapes.
When you are ready to take your skills further, learn barre chords and how the chord shapes relate to scale patterns with the CAGED system. This system will help link scales and chords across the fretboard.
Keep practicing, and good luck!