How to Play a C Major Chord on Guitar


The C Major chord is one of the first chords beginner guitarists learn. It is popular in a wide variety of musical styles.

This article will show you how to play a C chord on the guitar.

Other common chords are the D major chord, G major chord, and the A minor chord.

Ideally, we memorize these basic ‘cowboy chords’ early on. Then we practice switching between them on the guitar.  This way we can more easily play songs and learn pieces of music containing common chords.

How to Play the C Major Chord

There are many ways to play a C chord on the guitar.  But the most common is the one below.  This version uses three fingers and open strings to create a full, rich sound.

Here are the left-hand finger numbers we use on guitar:

classical guitar left hand

And a quick note on guitar diagrams:

guitar chord guide

How to play the C chord on guitar:

  1. Finger 1 –  First fret of the second string.
  2. Finger 2 – Second fret of the fourth string.
  3. Finger 3 –  Third fret of the fifth string.
  4. Strings 1 and 3 – Play the open strings. No finger required.
  5. String 6 – Do not play.

Keep the left-hand fingers curved and the wrist mostly straight.  The left thumb stays behind the fingers.  If you find yourself muting certain strings, adjust your hand.  This is in line with the “C” Shape hand position.

The Right Hand-Finger Names

On guitar, we generally use the right thumb and three fingers to play the strings. The little finger/pinky is not used much in classical guitar.

classical guitar right hand fingers

The right-hand finger names on a classical guitar are listed below. Many guitar books refer to the Spanish words for the fingers.  These are in parentheses.

  • P – Thumb (pulgar)
  • I – Index (indice)
  • M – Middle Finger (medio)
  • A – Ring Finger (anular)
  • C – Pinky (chiquito)

Here is a free course on right-hand technique.  Ingraining the proven right-hand movements takes time upfront.  But we advance to higher levels more quickly when we do.

How to Play the C Major Chord with a Right-Hand Pattern

Right-hand patterns are one of the joys of playing guitar.  With a chord in the left hand and a pattern in the right, we create ornate textures.  And classical guitar pieces are composed with this in mind.

How many right-hand patterns are there on the guitar?  Infinite.  We are limited only by our imaginations.  But some patterns are more common than others.  One of the most popular patterns is PIMA.  (Thumb, index, middle, ring)

To play the PIMA pattern, we dedicate each finger to a specific string.  The thumb may bounce between two or more strings.

  1. The thumb plays the fifth string.
  2. The I finger plays the third string.
  3. The M finger plays the second string.
  4. The A finger plays the first string.
  5. Repeat the pattern in a steady rhythm. The thumb may also alternate between the fifth and 4th strings on repetitions.

With a C Major chord in the left hand, the right hand plays the thumb, then index, then middle, then ring.  Then we repeat this in a steady rhythm.

As mentioned above, our hands work best when we use proper form, positioning, and movements.  But even a beginner guitarist can play this pattern slowly.

The Left Hand

Where and how we press the strings with the left hand affects the sound and ease of playing.  When positioned well, we can play the notes clearly, with no buzzes, and with minimal effort.

To press a string, play just behind the fret.  Not on top, but just behind.  This uses the least muscle energy to press and hold the string.

How to position your left hand

Earlier we talked about the “C” shape hand position.  This refers to the fingers all curved, with the thumb behind them.

left hand shape perfect guitar
The neutral left-hand “C” shape
perfect left hand shape guitar
Filling the taco

The left thumb does not curve.  The tip of the thumb stays extended straight.  And the meaty pad of the thumb touches the back of the guitar neck.

Keeping the wrist straight, we insert the guitar between the thumb and fingers.  Like filling a taco.

We then have the best range of movement on the guitar.  We are able to stretch our fingers away from each other further than we would in other hand positions.

 

Common Problems + Solutions

Stretch between fingers

One of the most common problems when playing the C Major chord is the stretch between fingers.

There are exercises that build strength and independence, though these take time.

Most commonly, the problem stretch is between the 2nd and 3rd fingers (middle and ring fingers).  If it feels difficult to reach the frets with both these fingers, we can change the angle.

If we approach the frets from a slight angle, instead of perpendicular, we can ease the stretch.  But keep the hand position as described above as much as possible.

If the chord is still too difficult, we can play a simplified version.

Here, we play only the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd strings, with the index finger on the first fret of the second string.  We omit strings 4, 5, and 6.  This version is not as resonant, but it contains all the necessary notes.

Muting strings

Occasionally,  we notice certain notes not ringing.  When we touch the string on accident, the string is muted.

This is usually a hand position issue. We can first check for the “C” shape in our left hand.  The fingers should be curved, at least a little.  We can also look at the wrist position, avoiding any extreme angles.

If a fingertip is collapsing, we can increase the curve.  The 3rd finger (ring finger) may be the culprit.  If so, add finger exercises to daily practice to improve stretch and independence.

With time and attention, we tend to play chords more clearly and with greater ease.

Important: If anything ever hurts, stop immediately.  Take a break.  Then return and go back to basics – form, positioning, movement.

Small hands

If you have small hands, or want to make playing guitar a little easier, consider a smaller guitar. Full-size guitars can be too big for some people.

Compared to acoustic guitars, classical guitars have smaller bodies. However, the neck of the classical guitar is wider. This means that the distance between strings is slightly more than on a steel-string acoustic or electric guitar.

An acoustic guitar

Allen Mathews playing a traditional classical guitar

Regardless of our hand size, make sure to use proper left-hand technique.  And it also helps to hold the guitar in a way that is easier on the body.   Some very fine players have small hands and have managed to master the instrument.

The Capo: One guitar gizmo you can experiment with is a guitar capo. A capo clamps onto the guitar neck, shortening the string length. This makes the frets closer and easier to play.


 

 

Music Theory: What is a C Major Chord?

Music theory is like the grammar of music.  It labels the relationships between notes.  It includes the recipes by which we create scales and chords.

If we ask, “Why does the C chord contain these specific notes?”  We look to music theory for the answer.

To learn to play guitar, music theory is not necessary.  But it can be very helpful, especially if we’re curious about the inner workings of music.

The notes of the C major chord

The notes in a C major chord are C, E, and G.  We can play these three notes together in many places on the guitar neck.  And all are C chords.  But the most common version is the one shared above.  It is the most common.

Playing the C major chord above, we have 2 C’s, 2 E’s, and a G.  This helps the chord to sound full and rich on the guitar.

Why these notes?  The notes in a chord come from a scale.  The notes in a C major scale are CDEFGABC.  We call these notes scale degrees.

If we take the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes (scale degrees), we have our chord.  The chord is named after the first note, which is called the root or tonic.  And the three notes together are called a triad.

This is the formula to create chords from scales.  We may have more than one of the same note in the chord, as in the C chord on guitar.  Often, the doubled notes will be an octave (8 notes) up or down.

If we take the notes from a major scale, we get a major chord.  If we take the chords from a minor scale, we get a minor chord.  So our C major chord comes from the C major scale.

Chords that sound good with the C chord – the usual suspects

Most often, we find one or more of a small group of chords alongside the C chord.

The most common chords to play with C are:

  • D
  • G
  • G7
  • F
  • Am
  • Em

Many songs and pieces of music use these chords together.  And to answer the question of why we can turn again to music theory.

Music theory and chords in songs

Again, the C major scale has these notes:  CDEFGABC

The most common recipe for pieces of music uses chords (triads) based on the first, fourth, and fifth notes.  This is called a 1-4-5 progression.  A progression is a set of chords played one after the next.

So the 1-4-5 in the C scale is C, F, G.

We may also play the G as G7 because the V (5) chord is often played as a 7 chord.  It just sounds good.

When we see 1-4-5 written in music theory, we often use Roman numerals: I, IV, V.

When we play in the key of C, we use the C major scale as a reference.  In the key of G, we use the G major scale.

In the key of G, our 1-4-5 is G, C, D.  So the chords in the key of G include the C chord.

Added to these main chords, we may see the secondary chords of A minor, D minor, or E minor in music.  These chords also come from the C major scale, but not in the 1, 4, or 5 positions.

We can find the C Major Chord in many different styles of music. From Bach to The Beatles.

Some examples you might recognize are:

In C Major:

  • “Imagine” – John Lennon
  • “Valse – Op. 50, No. 7” – Ferdinando Carulli
  • “This Land is Your Land” – Woody Guthrie
  • “Prelude in C Major” – Bach (Ave Maria)
  • “Let it Be” – The Beatles
  • “Waldstein Sonata” – Ludwig van Beethoven
  • “Take the “A” Train” – Billy Strayhorn
  • “Hound Dog” – Elvis Presley (Originally Written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller)
  • “Hallelujah” – Leonard Cohen
  • “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” – The Tokens
  • “You’re My Best Friend” – Queen
  • “Another Brick in the Wall” – Pink Floyd
  • “The Star-Spangled Banner” – United States National Anthem
  • “Study in C” – Francisco Tarrega

1-4-5 Chord Progression

As mentioned above in the music theory section, the chord progression I, IV, V (1-4-5) is widespread in music. We can pick C Major or any other key and find songs such as:

The list could wrap around the earth.

If you like to learn songs by ear, you can listen to blues, rock, or pop songs. Try to figure out the chords. There is a great chance you’ll find an I, IV, V (1-4-5) progression somewhere in the mix.


Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 


I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.





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