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Beginner To Advanced Level Guitar Chords: A Step-By-Step Guide

Entering the world of the guitar can be pretty challenging, if not intimidating, at first. Most of us who have picked up a guitar know the feeling of staring down at the strings while wondering how our fragile fingers will be able to push down all those complex chords that our heroes seem to play effortlessly.

While it might look challenging at first, it doesn't have to be that way. There's no reason for a beginner to have a terrible first few weeks trying to push notes down on the guitar. If we went about it systematically, we could avoid many of the pitfalls that so many aspiring guitarists fall into.

Your journey of learning to play the guitar can be a joyous ride, filled with anticipation and excitement about the material you're preparing for. Having clarity on what you're about to play and how to go about it is as important as knowing where to place your fingers.

In this article, we've delineated a step-by-step approach to going through the learning process of progressing from beginner to advanced level chords so that you can have the best learning experience possible.

Open Chords

It’s ideal for a beginner to start with open chords, as most of the heavy lifting is done by the guitar nut. You aren't expected to push down all the notes of the chord. Pressing down two to three fingers at the most will do the trick.

Starting with open chords is recommended, as once you can visualize their shape, you can move them to other parts of the guitar too.

It's also quite motivating to hear yourself be able to play chords immediately, which makes the learning process more exciting and fun.

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Preparation

Before getting into the names of the open chords, it's ideal to do a round of finger preparation and relaxation. This preparation can be done before playing each of the open chords to get you in the right frame of mind while starting a song.

Place your thumb on the back of the guitar neck, and allow your fingers to curl up against the frets you're about to push down. Relax your fingers and make sure that your muscles aren't tensing up.

Now squeeze the guitar neck with your thumb from behind the neck until your fingers from the front touch the strings. Make sure to be relaxed while doing so. You can pause and hold this hand posture for a few seconds.

This is the default hand posture that you're going to be coming to while switching through chords in your song, so make sure to feel comfortable while holding this posture.

The E and A Shapes

As 'mother' shapes on the guitar, the E and A shapes form the backbone of countless rock 'n' roll and country tunes. Knowing these two simple three-finger chords can get you playing songs in no time.

Both minor and major forms of E and A can be played in the open position. For ease of understanding, we'll proceed from the major form to the minor form.

How Do I Press Down on the E Major Chord?

As we discussed in the preparation section, we start by placing the thumb on the back of the neck. Now, allow your index, middle, and ring fingers to curl around the fretboard.

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The index finger needs to be placed on the first fret of the third string, or G string. Make sure that the index finger is right behind the 1st fret.

The next step is to bring your middle and ring fingers above your index and let them hover over the 2nd fret. The ring finger goes on to the 2nd fret of the 4th string or D string. The middle finger goes on to the 2nd fret of the 5th string or the A string.

Once you get this shape right, you will notice that your ring finger naturally gets tucked below the middle finger in the process. Make sure the fingers feel comfortable in this posture.

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Now try strumming this chord softly across all six strings. Don't worry if the notes you've pressed down don't ring out well. Once your fingers develop calluses, you should be able to get your desired sound.

Try to keep your fretting fingers relaxed whilst strumming at all times.

Go through the preparation process to check for tension in the fingers before proceeding to the next chord.

A Major

The A Major chord is easier to remember, as all three fingers fall on the same fret. You can start by placing your thumb at the back of the guitar's neck and curling your fingers in a relaxed manner.

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Place your index on the 2nd fret of the D string. The middle and ring fingers go on the 2nd fret of the G and B strings, respectively. You can leave out the low E string or the 6th string while strumming the A Major chord.

Just relax your fretting hand wrist as it might pop out while playing the A Major. No need to worry. This is common in the beginning, as you're trying to cram three fingers into one fret.

E minor

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Now that we've played the E Major, E minor can be played by just removing your index from the third string. The middle and ring stay on the 2nd fret of the D and G strings, respectively.

You can strum all six strings for the E Minor.

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A minor

The A minor shape is similar to the E Major, just transposed one string below. Your index falls on the 1st fret of the B string. Your middle and ring fingers fall on the 2nd frets of the D and G strings, respectively.

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You can leave out the low E string and strum the rest. Again, just make sure your fretting fingers aren't tensing up.

Playing the D Shapes

The D Major and D minor shapes involve a bit of finger twisting. They also involve strumming only four strings.

D Major

Place your index on the 2nd fret of the 3rd string, or G string. Now place your middle finger on the 3rd fret of the 2nd string or B string. You can now place the ring finger on the 2nd fret of the 1st string or E string.

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You can practice coming into the D Major position from nowhere as you need to get the shape correct. As far as strumming goes, you can skip the low E and A strings and strum the rest.

D minor

Place your middle finger on the 2nd fret of the 3rd string, or G string. Now place your ring finger on the 3rd fret of the 2nd string or B string. Follow this up by placing your index on the 1st fret of the first string or the E string.

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Similar to the D Major, you can skip strumming the low E and A strings.

Let's Begin With Mini-Barre Chords

Before we dive into the full-sized barre chords, let's get our fingers trained with two simpler shapes. These shapes, also called the C and F shapes, involve all four fingers. The F shape will introduce us to the world of barre chords.

The C Major Shape

You can start by placing your ring finger on the 3rd fret of the low E string. Tuck your pinky below your ring by placing it on the 3rd fret of the A string. Place your middle finger on the 2nd fret of the 4th string, or D string.

You can let the 3rd string or G string be played open as it's a note of the chord. Now place your index on the 1st fret of the 2nd string, or the B string.

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You can strum all the strings except the 1st string or the E string. Make sure to keep your wrist tucked in and nicely relaxed, as it's another one of those chords where the wrist tends to pop out.

The F Major Shape

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The F Major chord is similar in shape to the C Major. You can start by placing your ring finger on the 3rd fret of the 5th string, or the A string. Tuck your pinky under the ring finger by placing it on the 3rd fret of the 4th string or the D string.

Follow this by placing your middle finger on the 2nd fret of the 3rd string or G string. We'll have to barre with the index for playing the last two notes.

The Mini-Barre in the F Major Shape

Let's enter the world of barre chords by starting with a mini-barre chord. Place your index on the 1st fret of the 2nd string or B string. Now, straighten your index such that it can also press down the 1st fret of the 1st string or E string.

This might be difficult at first, as calluses haven't yet developed in your barring part of the finger.

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It's okay if your chord doesn't ring out clearly at first. But do not try to compensate by adding more pressure, as we want to avoid the pitfalls of having a bad technique.

Be patient. With regular practice, your index would form calluses, after which you can advance to the full-sized barre chords.

Full-Sized Barre Chords

Once you're comfortable playing the min-barre chords, we can venture into the world of full-sized barre chords.

The full-sized barre chords are based primarily on the E Major, E minor, A Major, and A minor shapes that we just learned. The nut acted as a bar when we played them as open chords. This meant that we just had to play all the notes other than the ones inside the bar.

Now, as we enter barre chords, we'll be playing all those open notes in the open chord with our index fingers.

This might seem intimidating at first. But, as the sides of your index begin to form calluses, it'll get a lot easier. But the important thing is to not apply unnecessary pressure on the barring finger, as this might lead to a tense fretting hand in the long run, which is detrimental to fast playing.

E Major Shaped Barre Chord

The E Major-shaped barre chord is played with the leading note or the tip of your index finger on the 6th string or low E string. Moving it around the 6th string will give you all 12 Major chords.

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We can start by playing the E Major barre chords on the 12th fret. Place your ring finger on the 14th fret of the A string. Now tuck your pinky finger inside the ring, playing the 14th fret on the D string. Now place your middle finger on the 13th fret of the G string.

Now that all three fingers are placed, the index can focus on its barring duties. Softly place the index on the 12th fret of the 6th string or low E string. Make sure your index is erect and covers all 6 strings.

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Now softly strum across all 6 strings. Don't worry if all the notes don't ring out, as it's bound to take time.

As you develop, pay attention to the index on the 1st and 2nd strings or B and E strings. This might be the toughest area to get the notes to ring out.

A Major Shaped Barre Chords

There are two ways to play this barre chord. You can choose whatever is comfortable for you.

A Major Ring Finger Barring Technique

In this technique, you can start by barring the D, G, and B strings on the 14th fret with your ring finger. Be careful not to barre the high R string with your ring finger. The high E string should not be touched.

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This may cause your ring finger to look slouched. But don't worry. As calluses develop on your ring finger, you can achieve this with minimal pressure.

Now barre the entire 12th fret starting from the A string. You can skip the low E string for this chord. If this feels too awkward, you can try the second alternative explained below.

A Major Shape With Only the Index Being Barred

Place your middle finger, ring finger, and pinky on the 14th fret of the D, G, and B strings, respectively. This might tilt your wrist a bit. Don't worry, as this is bound to happen.

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Now barre the entire 12th fret starting from the A string. You can skip the low E string. If this seems easier, feel free to skip the ring finger barring technique, as both of them give you the same sound.

E minor Shaped Barre Chord

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Place your ring finger on the 14th fret of the A string. Tuck your pinky inside your ring finger and play the 14th fret on the D string with it. Now barre the entire 12th fret with your index. You can strum through all six strings.

A minor Shaped Barre Chords

You can start by placing your ring finger on the 14th fret of the D string. Tuck your pinky under your ring and play the 14th fret in the G string with it. Place your middle finger on the 13th fret of the B string.

Now barre the whole of the 12th fret, except the low E string. You can strum all five strings, except the low E.

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These four barre chords can be played anywhere on the low E and A strings. The note played by the index finger's tip is the chord's name. These four shapes allow you to play all minor and Major chords starting on the E and A strings.

Entering the World of Seventh Chords

At this stage, we can enter the four main groups of Seventh chords: Major 7th, minor 7th, Dominant 7th, and Diminished 7th. Let’s take a closer look at each of them.

A Major 7th

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Start by placing your pinky on the 12th fret of the A string. The ring goes on the 11th fret of the D string, and the index is used as a mini-bar.

Place the tip of your index on the 9th fret of the G string while barring the 9th fret of the high B or 2nd string. Transpose this shape across the A string for different Major 7th chords.

E minor 7th

This is similar to our E minor-shaped barre chords. Place your ring finger on the 14th fret of the A string. Now barre the entire 12th fret with your index.

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You can strum all across the six strings. The added minor 7th note, D, is barred by the index on the 12th fret of the 4th string.

A Dominant 7th

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Start by placing your ring finger on the 14th fret of the D string. Stretch your pinky and place it on the 14th fret of the B string.

You can now bar the entire 12th fret, leaving the low E string. Now strum across all five strings starting from the A string.

E Diminished 7th

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Place your middle finger on the 13th fret of the A string. Now, barre the entire 12th fret with your index finger.

You'll only be strumming or fingerpicking the E, A, D, and G strings. Avoid hitting the B string by mistake, as it's a jarring note in this chord and would spoil the sound of your E diminished 7th.

Building Chord Progressions With the Chords We've Learnt

Once you're able to play these chords properly on time, we can move on to forming common chord progressions.

The numbers denote the note degrees of a scale. Play the chords on that degree of the scale to get your sound.

Practice switching between the chords, as that's vital to be able to play on time.

1 - 4 - 5 - 1

This classic blues progression is found in countless rock and country songs. The chords move from Root to Sub Dominant to Dominant and back home to the Root.

So if you're in the key of A min, the chords move from A min to D min to E min and back to A min.

You can start by playing these as open chords. If you feel you don't need such an open sound or you feel you can handle barre chords now, then progress on to the next step.

1 - 6 - 5 - 1 or 1 - 5 - 6 - 1

Just adding a 6th minor to the progression will give you a 1 - 6 - 5 - 1. As a common progression, you can play a large number of pop tunes with these. For example, F minor would be the 6th chord in the key of A Major.

You can again choose to play them as open chords or as barred chords.

1 - 6 - 2 - 5

Similar to the previous one, we just add a minor chord on the second degree of the scale. For example, in the key of D Major, the second chord will be E minor.

2m7th - 5 lDom7th - 1Maj7th

The classic jazz progression, which is instantly recognizable, is a staple of progressions using 7th chords.

In the key of D Major, you can play the E minor 7th as the 2nd chord. You can play the A Dominant 7th as the 5th chord and the D Major 7th as the 1st chord.

Following this progression will give you the classic jazz feel. We know it's difficult to be able to play all these chords one after the other, in time. But if you can simplify it by following the finger changes, it's possible to get the progression right.

Knowing this progression will have you playing most jazz tunes in their simplest version.

What Kinds of Songs Can I Play With These Chord Shapes?

You can have quite a versatile repertoire by playing songs that use these chord progressions. We've listed below some of the many songs that use the progressions that we discussed.

1 - 4 - 5 - 1

The following songs use this chord progression:

  • “Time is on My Side” by The Rolling Stones
  • “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd
  • Stir it Up” by Bob Marley
  • “I Love Rock and Roll” by Joan Jett
  • “Blitzkrieg Bop” by Ramones

1 - 6 - 4 - 5 or 1 - 5 - 6 - 1

The following songs use this chord progression:

  • Last Kiss” by Pearl Jam
  • “Wonderful World” by Sam Cooke
  • “I Would Do Anything for Love” (chorus) by Meatloaf
  • “Purple Rain” by Prince
  • “All I Have to do is Dream” by the Everly Brothers

The Beatles’ Staple Chord Progression

As a staple of The Beatles, several songs have the same chord progressions. The following songs use this chord progression:

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  • “Glass Onion” by the Beatles
  • “A Hard Day’s Night” by the Beatles
  • I’ll Get You” by the Beatles
  • “Octopus’s Garden” by the Beatles
  • “This Boy” by the Beatles

1 - 5- 6 - 4

Called the Axis chords, these chord progressions can be found all across popular music. The following songs use this chord progression:

  • "Pictures of You" by The Last Goodnight
  • "No Woman No Cry" by Bob Marley
  • "Sex and Candy" by Marcy Playground
  • "She Will Be Loved" by Maroon Five
  • "With Or Without You" by U2

The Famous Jazz 2m7th - 5 lDom7th - 1Maj7th

This is a staple Jazz chord progression found in countless Jazz standards all over the world. These can be found in the Jazz real or fake books, which are called in the Jazz circles. The following songs use this chord progression:

  • “All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth”
  • “All I Want For Christmas Is You”
  • All Of Me” by John Legend

Progressing Beyond 7th Chords

Knowing how to play these chord progressions properly opens up a whole new world for you. As you go ahead, you can start to add extensions to your chords. For example, adding a 2nd and a 6th in the higher octave will give you a 9th and a 13th of a chord.

This kind of chord extension can add a new dimension to your sounds, making them more intricate and artistic.

Going From Beginner to Advanced Level Guitar Chords: Wrapping Up

Your journey of learning to play the guitar can be a joyous ride, filled with anticipation and excitement about the material you're preparing for. All we wanted to do was to make a step-by-step approach available for learners.

The most important aspect of mastering chords and chord changes is to know how to prepare for what you're about to play. For example, an athlete or a sports person would prepare for their upcoming game by running through their techniques before the game.

If you can get into such a frame of mind while learning these chord progressions, you should be well on your way to achieving your musical dreams.

Author

  • beginner to advanced

    My "day job" used to be teaching but I decided to give that up to play music full time. I have gigged all over the world playing in bands or as a solo act since then. I still have a passion for teaching others anything related to music. Writing content for InciteMusic.com gives me an opportunity to combine my love of music and education.

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