How to Learn Classical Guitar Chords (and Why They’re So Great)
Classical guitar demands that we build many skills at the same time. We need to learn to read music, understand rhythm, learn proper technique, learn common right-hand patterns, learn chords, weird vocabulary, left-hand exercises, and a host of other things.
Why Learn Guitar Chords?
The Memory Challenge
Which Guitar Chords Should You Learn?
Learning Beginner Guitar Chords
Chords that Sound Good Together
How Chords Make the Difference
Download the Guitar Chords PDFs
It shouldn’t be surprising that for adults who begin their guitar journey in the classical guitar realm, learning chords often gets bumped to the back seat. Practicing beginner guitar chords often gets tossed into the “maybe later” pile.
This is a shame because the guitar is organized around chords. It’s what the guitar does well. And this is true for playing classical music as much as for acoustic or electric guitar music.
Chords are one of the building blocks in nearly all musical genres, from rock and blues, to pop and classical music. Learning how to play commonly used chord shapes and mastering guitar chord progressions will give us access to countless songs.
One chord shape might be more difficult to play correctly than another. And most beginners find it challenging to smoothly change between chord shapes. This is completely normal, and there are many different ways to overcome it.
When we start practicing guitar chords with correct hand placement and a steady beat, we can master chord changes and feel comfortable doing so. Each guitar chord progression will feel more joined up.
Below is a beginner’s guide to learning and playing the most common chord shapes. You’ll find quite a bit of information, two videos, and a challenge. (Are you game?)
You’ll see chord diagrams and pictures of open chords. (“Open” means the chord uses strings with no fingers pressing. The string is “open”.)
And finally, you’ll hear an anecdote showing the power of guitar chords.
The Memory Challenge: Music and Language
Try this: Give yourself five seconds to try to memorize the following catchy letters:
Test #1: AOEULRCHKOUSNT
Got it? Great! (Yeah right.) Even if you did get this one, how well will you be able to recall it tomorrow?
Now do this one:
Test #2: The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog
Why is the second so much easier to memorize? Because the letters fall into recognizable groups. And the groups fall into an order that makes sense, and all work together to convey an idea. It seems to have a logical rhythm.
As I’m sure you realize, we can draw an analogy: The letters in the first example can be compared to musical notes on a page. The groups (words) in the second example are like chords. The order of the words are like a chord “progression” (a string of chords).
Letters = notes
Words = chords
Sentences = chord progressions
Of course, the words are easier to recognize and memorize than the string of letters, but only because we have so much more practice with them.
Which Guitar Chords Should You Learn?
In beginner guitar lessons, we often start with a C chord (aka C Major chord). From there we learn the G Major Chord, and the D Major chord. (Click here if you are interested in learning about the individual notes that make up a chord.)
These three (C, G, and D) are very common and popular chord shapes. (We’ll learn below why chords are found grouped together, and how their relationships form the backbone of songwriting.)
Practice strumming between these. Listen to the steady beat in your head and try to keep in time. This will get easier and quicker the more we stick to it.
Below is a chord chart (aka chord diagram) with dots representing finger positions for each chord.
- “X” means do not play that string.
- “O” (for open) means play open strings with no fret/finger pressed.
- And the 1, 2, 3, and 4 refer to the index finger, middle finger, ring finger, and little finger (pinky) respectively.
(Tip: You can enter your email address in one of the boxes on this page to download open chord diagrams and resources for your practice. And for a practice-along video tutorial to help you get started, see the Classical Guitar Beginner Toolbox.)
We’ve included the F major chord below, but it takes a bit more practice to perfect. Don’t worry if you find it difficult. We can revisit it when we’re familiar with some of the others.
Learning the Beginner Chords
In the movie “What About Bob”, Bill Murray’s character (Bob) uses the tactic of “baby-stepping” through whatever situation in which he finds himself.
The basic idea is that anything can be taken one moment, and one little piece, at a time. Including these easy chords.
Just as when we are beginning to learn a new language, it can be easier to memorize new material when it shares a context. In language, this would be sentences (i.e. “Where is the library?”).
When learning open chord shapes, it can be useful to learn and practice changing chords in groups that naturally and frequently occur together. Just like with words, this trains us to not only know the chords but to be able to move from one to the next (like words in a sentence). This is a guitar practice that works at any level or age.
Strumming chords in this way trains our muscle memory to move fluidly between chord shapes on the frets and allows us to remember them more easily because of the context.
Whether we’ve just started learning to play the guitar or we’ve been at it for a while, learning to play a pattern of guitar chords in this way also painlessly introduces an important concept in music theory: chord progressions.
When we’re listening to our favorite music, we might notice strings of chords cropping up throughout the song. Mastering guitar chord progressions may sound challenging. But luckily, there is a kind of rule book of common guitar chord progressions that we can follow.Okay! I’ll Take the Chord Packet
The most common types of chords on the guitar are major chords, minor chords, and 7 chords.
There are other types of chords, but these are the most used. When we see “Em” or “em”, it refers to an E minor chord. Just the bare letter, such as “E”, refers to an E major chord. Major chords and minor chords have a different sound and mood, as you’ll hear as you play them.
Chords are common to all types of guitars that tune to standard tuning. Electric guitar, acoustic guitar (steel-string), and classical guitar all have the same chords. We may use these basic guitar chords more or less depending on the style of music, but the same chord shapes sound the same on all guitars. (Unless we are using a capo. More about that here.)
So as we’re learning common chord progressions, we’re also practicing a skill that can serve us in the future, should we decide to play a different guitar. Practicing chords is also a great way of getting to grips with the basics of music theory.
And once we have these basic chords mastered, we can dive into using a capo, barre chords, and slash chords! For each basic primary chord shape, there is also a matching barre chord that can be useful in many situations.
For more on chords and chord progressions for beginners, click here.
Learn Guitar Chords to Help Musical Memory
Learning to play chords also helps our musical memory and understanding.
Here’s a story:
Superhero: The Memorizer
I was taking a lesson with a guitar teacher in Atlanta once.
He was a classical and flamenco guitarist, and the music store (Maple Street Guitars) had recommended him for a guitar lesson while I was in town visiting my sister.
I had some music I had been working on for months. It was close to memorized, but not quite.
In the course of our lesson, without even seeming to try, he memorized the entire piece. Every note – I was amazed!
“How’d you do that?!” I asked.
I felt it was some virtuosic trick or special power he got after being bitten by a radioactive spider.
“It’s a fairly simple chord progression. I just used the harmony and filled in the blanks.” He answered.
At this point, I had been playing guitar for several years (I was a couple of years into classical guitar after playing folk for several years).
I knew my basic primary and barre chords, and had my chord changes smooth.
But I hadn’t made the connection in my mind between knowing my chords and memorizing my classical guitar pieces.
It was a case of not seeing the forest for the trees.
From that point, I decided to start trying to notice when parts of the basic chord shapes I already knew, showed up in my pieces. Spotting a familiar major chord became quite addictive.
The chords weren’t always complete guitar chord shapes, but if I could notice the chord “fragments”, I could create a basic structure (like a plot in a story) that would help me remember where I was in the piece.
What I found was that by doing this from the start of the piece, I learned much more quickly, and memorized my pieces much more easily.
That is why members of The Woodshed® Classical Guitar Program use custom materials and techniques to train their brains to recognize chord patterns. It makes music make sense. And this helps them learn pieces much more easily. Click here to learn more about how joining as a member can help you elevate your guitar playing.
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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