Chord Basics Part 1 

How to Read Chord Diagrams and Open Chords


Recommended Prior Knowledge:

  • Learning the Guitar String Notes and Tuning
  • Learning The Note Values & Counting

 

Below is a list of some of the basic open chords that every guitarists should know. Open chords are chords that utilise the open strings of the guitar; also known as chord shapes these positions can be movable with the aid of the 1st finger barre, which we cover in part 2. The chords in this section are your basic major and minor open positions. The difference between major and minor is best described by how they sound and feel: major sounds happy, minor sounds sad. Chords that have only one letter above it, for example E, they are major chords, if they have an m following it, for example Em, they are minor. 

 

Also included is a detailed description on how to read chord diagrams, I recommend you know the names of all the open strings before you start, which you can do on my  Learning the Guitar String Notes and Tuning page.

 

First up, reading a chord chart. The below picture outlines the features of a chord chart which include the strings, frets and finger positions. 

Diagram Example for open Chords.jpg

 

Once you are familiar with how to read a chord chart, try these open chords. 

There are countless strumming patterns that you can learn but before you attempt any of them you should try and get comfortable changing between each chord. Below is a simple exercise to get you changing chords, it requires you to play the chord thats written on beat 1 of each bar giving you 3 beats to change to the next. You’ll notice a bracket above each of the chord notes, this indicates a down stroke or down strum. I recommend playing this at a quarter note = 60 and changing up the chords once you are familiar with those in the exercise. 

 

Basic Open Chord - Strumming Pattern.jpg

 

If you are finding it difficult to get both the positions with the left hand and the strumming in the right, try leaving the right hand out and focus on the left hand changes. Be relaxed and deliberate with your changes, try and plant all the fingers at the same time.


Learning the guitar notes


Before you tune your guitar you must know the note names of each string and the tuning peg they are attached to. Here are some simple guidelines to get you started.

Standard Tuning: EADGBE

Learning the note names of each string is essential to tuning your guitar correctly. Looking down at your guitar the strings present themselves from the thickest string (E) to the thinest (also E). 

  • E - 6th string - thickest
  • A - 5th string
  • D - 4th string
  • G - 3rd string
  • B - 2nd string
  • E - 1st string - thinnest

I have found the best way for my students to memorise these strings is to assign a word for each string making a sentence like an acrostic poem. 

  • Eddie - 6th - thickest
  • Ate - 5th
  • Dynamite - 4th
  • Good - 3rd
  • Bye - 2nd
  • Eddie - 1st - thinnest
 
Guitar String Notes

In order to get these string names embedded into your brain I’ve made it into a rap below.

This is all you need to know if you’re tuning each string individually with a tuner, however if you would like to have a go at tuning your guitar strings mostly with out a tuner have a look at how to tune a guitar.

 

Back to Guitar & Music Theory Basics


FAQ


HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE ME TO MEMORISE THE STRINGS?

If you use the string note rap, not long at all. 


WHY DO I HAVE TO LEARN THE STRING NAMES?

Learning the string names is a necessity for every guitarist as it sets the foundation for tuning your guitar and also learning the notes of the guitar. Having an in tune guitar is also essential as it will help develop your ear in recognising how chords and note sound and relate to each other.


SHOULD I LEARN TO READ MUSIC?

Being able to read music is always a great asset for any musician. For a guitarists, this means they can take full advantage of over a century worth of guitar literature rich with all the guitar goodness. Learning to read also builds a level of comprehension that will ground your technique and musicianship in strong foundations proven with time.  As you can probably tell, I’m a big advocate of the musical language that is notation however, although these benefits are great, they aren’t a full necessity starting out as countless musicians have begun and continued there journey with out being able to fluently read. I would also argue that most great musicians who have started out this way and have gone on to achieve a high proficiency in their instrument, have then taken to learning notation and theory. Tablature is also a useful source for many guitarists as it’s quite easy interpret however, a lot of tablature doesn’t include rhythm and also won’t help you learn the actual notes of the guitar. I strongly recommend learning to read actual music notation as this will not only give you the skills to broaden your knowledge, but also help you identify the notes on the guitar.

 

Back to Guitar & Music Theory Basics


How to tune your guitar by ear


The first most essential step of being a great guitarist is being able to tune your guitar. This step is fundamental to developing your musical ear by hearing your chords and scales in tune. Before you tune you must know the note names of each string which you can easily pick up on my learning the guitar string notes page. Once you know the string names you can then tune each string individually with a tuner. However, you can also tune the string by ear using the low E String (6th) as the reference pitch. Below are some instructions on how to tune your guitar by ear with having only the low E string (6th) in tune.

 

1. Tuning the low EString - The 6th String (thickest)

This method of tuning really requires your low E string to be either in tune with a tuner, or with another instrument such as a piano. If you haven’t got a reference pitch don’t stress as you can still tune your guitar to itself using the method below; although you can achieve relative pitch, this is only recommended if you are flying solo as you won’t necessarily be in tune with anyone else.

 

2. Tuning the A String - 5th string.

Make your way to the 5th fret of the low E string (6th), this note is the same note/pitch as the A string. Alternate between the two strings to identify if they are the same, If not, adjust the A string accordingly via the corresponding tuning peg/machine head, to correct it to the same pitch as the 5th fret of the E. You will be using your ear to judge this so it may take some time and practice to get it right, it is generally much easier to sharpen or tighten the string to the right pitch then it is to flatter/loosen it. I recommend taking the A down before bring it up to the required pitch, do this as many times as you need to be convinced that it is the same note. 

 

 

3. Tuning the D String - 4th string.

The process is the same for the D string as it was for A. Find the 5th fret  of the A string, which is a D, and compare the pitch of this note to the next string as shown below,. Alternate between the two as you tune the D string to help identify when the notes sound the same.

 

 

 

 

4. Tuning the G String - 3rd string

The process for this sting is the same as the previous. Find the 5th fret of the D string which is a G and alternated plucking both the D and open G string until you have aligned the G with the 5th fret of D.

 

 

 

 

 

5. Tuning the B String - 2nd string

This is the only anomaly in this tuning method as the interval between notes G and B are a 3rd not a 4th, this means that the fret on the G string that is the same pitch as the B string is the 4th fret. So place your index finger on the 4th fret of the G string and tune the B to this pitch.

 

 

 

 

6. Tuning the E String - 1st string

Back to the original process of placing your finger on the 5th fret and tuning the next string to that pitch.

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 

 

Now your guitar should be in tune. This process takes some time to master but is a great way to develop your ear so you can identify when you might be out of tune.  Knowing the notes of each string definitely helps which you can do here Learning the Guitar String Notes.


FAQ


My strings keep breaking when I tune, how do I fix this?

 

In most cases the cause of a string breaking is that it is either being over tightened or there is a sharp abrasive part of the nut or tuning key that is cutting it. If the strings you are breaking are the high B and E strings, you are not alone, these are the most likely to break due to their small diameter. Special care must be taken to not over tighten these strings when putting them on, I recommend not going overboard with tightening your string until you have put them all on and are ready to tune with a tuner, this will ensure you don’t over extend them. Another cause could be that the string is defective or too old, strings aren’t very good at hiding their age especially if they’ve been exposed to the elements; you’ll see dark marks on the strings and general discolouration. The solution to this is to just get another set of strings, I recommend Elixir as they are very well made, sound great and last much longer than regular strings. 

If the string is breaking up near the nut (near the headstock, to learn the parts of the guitar visit the guitar), then I would suggest checking that the string grooves in the nut are smooth and not too narrow. My best recommendation to fix this would be to see your local guitar technician. If you’re keen to give it a go yourself then you can use fine grit sandpaper, folded in half, to remove a portion of the nut or the rough edges. Remember that doing yourself comes with the danger of removing too much of the nut and thus cause your action to be too low and strings to forever buzz, you can’t put back what you’ve taken out.