9 simple tips for learning guitar chords

If you’re a beginner guitarist, it pays to start by learning chords. Sure, rock legends like Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen are famous for their majestic solos; however, you’ll never reach ‘guitar nirvana’ without first building a musical foundation. So, in this post, I’ve come up with nine simple tips for learning guitar chords.

1: Learn open chords first

As the name suggests, open chords are those where some of the strings are open (not fretted). Because you don’t need to hold down many strings, open chords are easier to play compared to barre chords. Actually, you like playing folk singer/songwriter material, you’ll probably find that you use open chords most of the time. I know I do.

2: Take it slow

When starting out (even when you’ve been playing for years), there always seem to be someone who plays guitar better a faster. Well, take your time, and play at your own pace. When learning chords, play them at a snail’s pace until you build muscle memory in your hands and fingers. Before long, you’ll begin playing faster without thinking about it. To learn more about muscle memory, check out this article.

3: Toughen up your fingers

Perhaps the biggest complaint new guitarists have is that playing hurts. Over time, though, calluses will form on your fingertips, and the pain will go away.

In the meantime, you can build calluses quicker by

  • dipping your fret fingers in salty water
  • every day, rubbing alcohol on the fingertips of your fretting hand.

To learn more about strengthening your hands, click here.

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4: Make a plan

In his song Any Road, the late George Harrison sang, “if you don’t know where you’re going any road will take you there.” And, you know what? He was right. Think about how much time you have for practice and set goals for what you want to achieve. Learning three chords a week should be realistic. However, it doesn’t matter as long as you have a plan.

5: Look away from your fretboard

When you’ve learned enough on the guitar to perform in front of people, staring at your hands instead of engaging with your audience isn’t cool. You’ll notice the pros don’t look at their guitars much—they don’t need to.  So, once you have become reasonably competent at playing a chord sequence, look away.

A similar post you may like: How to sing and play guitar at the same time

6: Don’t shy away from the tough chords

Most beginner guitarists struggle with the dreaded F. This is because you have to bar the high E and B strings with your index finger. However, without F, your playing will be extremely limited. So, as soon as you’ve nailed the common open chords (A, C, D and, etc.), bite the bullet and get stuck in. Mastering F is a stepping stone to the more challenging full barre chords, where you have to press your index finger across the entire neck of your guitar.

The dreaded F chord.

7: Learn to understand chord diagrams

Unlike the ‘dots,’ chord diagrams illustrate where to play the chord on the neck of the guitar and which strings to fret. Understanding them will allow you learn any chord you please as well communicate with other guitarists. To create your own chord diagrams, check out Chordpix.

8: Learn barre chords

You’d be amazed by how many reasonably competent guitarists can’t play barre chords. They seem to manage by playing a simplified version of F and using a capo. Not knowing barre chords is extremely limiting. For example, rock musicians use them all the time for power chords and choppy rhythms. Once you know all the shapes, you can play barre chords in any key by transferring the shapes up and down the guitar’s neck. If you’re struggling with barring chords, trust me, they get easier. And, if you master them on an acoustic guitar, when you play electric, they will be easy in comparison.

9: Make sure you know what you are playing

The beauty of music is that there all kinds of chordal variations. However, if you discover a chord by, for example, un-fretting your index finger when playing an open C, make sure that you know that you’re playing a Cmaj7. I once heard that the famously musically illiterate Paul McCartney asked a session guitarist to play that “pretty chord” when instructing him to play a major seven. It may be okay for McCartney, but your life will be much easier if you know the correct terms.

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Andrew Healey


Andrew is an Auckland-based writer and musician.

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