If you play guitar, or are thinking about playing guitar, you’ll love this article! Learn how to master your first chord on guitar in an hour.
You’ve got 15 minutes or less to form and play it down. The remainder of the hour is spent learning about a chord, reading a chord chart, and developing rhythm and timing.
About The Chord Chart
To play your first chord, let’s learn how to read a chord chart.
A chord is a set of at least three notes usually played simultaneously when strumming or in a sequence when plucking the guitar.
A chord chart or a chord diagram is a visual representation of a chord consisting of lines, circles and numbers. The diagram shows a picture of a fretboard in a vertical position with “Nut”(bold or double horizontal line) at the top with a grid of six vertical lines, the strings of a guitar; and about three to five horizontal lines, representing the fret wires.
Try holding your guitar in front of you in a vertical position with the strings facing you and you will find exactly the same picture you see in a chord chart.
Sometimes you can find the Open String Names (EADGBe), written on top of the Nut or the String Numbers starting from 6th string to 1st string (from left to right). You can also find indicators X and O.
- X – Do not play String
- O – Play the String Open (do not fret the note)
Remember our previous lessons,
- Open String Names or String Numbers – E A D G B e / 6 5 4 3 2 1
- Finger Numbers – Index (1), Middle (2), Ring (3), Pinkie (4)
Another indicator found in your chord chart are Fret Numbers.
Usually, a chord chart displays a four-fret chord diagram. Thus, fret numbering is done if you need to start fretting a chord on the 5th fret. Fret numbers, usually written in roman or numerical numbers, are found on the left side of the chord diagram.
How to Play Your First Chord on Guitar
Looking at the chord chart might overwhelm you at a glance especially when seeing a lot of barre chords. Hey, don’t fret to fret those strings! We’ll take one bite at a time.
Let’s go with the simplest chord in the chart, E minor open chord. E minor is made up of the notes E, G, and B.
E Minor Open Chord (Em)
- Place your 2nd finger on the 5th string/2nd fret
- Place your 3rd finger on the 4th string/2nd fret
- Play strings 6, 3, 2, 1 open
Before strumming the chord, you can do the pattern several times, fretting on and off so you can find your footing with your left hand. Then strum a few times and evaluate if the sound you make is clean or not. If you hear a buzzing sound then it is probably because you did not fret it the right way.
- Use the sweet spot of your fingertips when fretting
- Fret close to the fret wire, not on the middle nor on the fret wire
- Curve your fingers to avoid touching other strings
- Don’t fret too hard, just make sure the string touches the board when fretted
Try touching a string lightly then you’ll find that the string is likely muted. To avoid the frustration of hearing a buzzing sound or a dead note, you have to make it a habit as a beginner to check all six strings ‘INDIVIDUALLY” as you fret the chord. It means making sure that each string produces a clean sound when you’re picking it one by one. This way, you will break the bad habit of strumming the whole chord without minding if there are muted strings that are not meant to be muted.
For this chord E minor or simply written as “Em”, we need to engage all six strings. Thus all notes played completes the chord. All notes work together to complete the sound of that chord, so you must properly fret it. If all notes are properly fretted then you’ll find a big difference with the sound you’re making as you strum it again.
Just a heads up, now that you’re finally fretting notes carefully in this manner, checking the strings one by one, doing it repeatedly will soon make your fingers’ sore. This is why we only have one chord to learn for this lesson. We are not merely fretting and strumming but we want to do it properly, achieving a clean sound and establishing a good habit on your first chord.
The pain however is really part of the journey, but I assure you that as you practice fretting daily, the sore fingers will heal and be treated faster. It means that while your fingers hurt, it is also building callous around your fingertips until it doesn’t hurt anymore. So don’t despise the pain because it is only temporary.
Just like going to the gym for the first time, your muscles are also stretching differently for the first time and you gain muscle pain for the week and a few more days but if you continue exercising, the pain goes away and you’re stronger than before with your fingers hardened and thickened.
Now let’s get your right hand in place for strumming!
Counting The Beat
Before we strum our first chord, let’s learn how to count. The best thing about music, it commonly involves counting from one to four.
- Yes, counting 1 2 3 4!
Have you ever caught yourself nodding when a song is played or tapping your hand or foot along with the music? You are counting the beat unconsciously. In school, you probably remember your teacher getting the class to do “clapping exercises” using musical notes and rests with corresponding numbers of beats.
Using a 4/4 time signature we get the following:
- Whole Note – 4 Beats
- Half Note – 2 beats
- Quarter Note – 1 beat
- Eighth Note – ½ beat
- Sixteenth Note – ¼ beat
Some of the coaches would use notes and rests to guide you on your strumming. Don’t get confused, this is simply counting 1, 2, 3, 4.
Strumming Your First Chord
Now let’s use musical notes to determine the number of strums you have to make as you count your beat.
- Whole Note: Count 1, 2, 3, 4 repeatedly. Strum on beat 1 only; rest on 2, 3 and 4.
- Half Note: Count 1, 2, 1, 2 repeatedly. Strum on beat 1 only and rest on 2.
- Quarter Note: Count 1, 2, 3 and 4 and strum on every beat since this note receives 1 beat.
From whole note to quarter note, you will find that the frequency of strum is also increasing. For beginners, you can practice until quarter note. Remember, start with a slow pace and increase gradually.
- Strum downstroke
- Strum chord in unison, at the same tempo.
- Don’t strum with too much force to avoid breaking the strings.
- Check all strings one by one if properly fretted and with a clean sound.
For each note, do at least four to eight strums until you are confident with the speed, then you can move to your next speed. Slow is fast. We want to build the right muscle for long-term use.
As you start strumming, there are three things that you should also learn further; dynamics, time signature and tempo.
- Dynamics – loudness or softness
Dynamics can change suddenly or gradually (crescendo, getting louder, or decrescendo, getting softer.) This plays an important role in strumming. We can’t just play all we want because a particular music conveys a mood.
If it’s a happy song, we play with more energy and if it’s a ballad, we play more tenderly with less strumming.
- Time Signatures – the number of beats in a measure of music.
Time signature (also known as meter) tells the musician how many beats per measure there are, and what kind of note gets the beat.
The top number tells you how many beats there are, while the bottom number indicates the kind of note that gets one beat. For example, in 4/4 time (also known as common time), there are four quarter note beats per measure.
You can count measures by tapping your foot or clapping your hands along with the music. If you’re clapping, you’ll notice that each measure has the same number of counts. The time signature also tells you how many notes of each type fit into one measure.
- Tempo – time or the speed of a piece of music.
The speed or pace of a given piece. Measuring tempo is usually indicated in beats per minute (bpm). We use metronomes for accuracy; achieving a fixed regular pulse, metrical ticks or beats.
A metronome is a tool that produces a steady beat to help musicians play songs at a particular speed. They are very useful for practicing, especially when first learning how to play a new piece of music.
Always Play Your Chord Right!
Check if the sound produced is clear or not. If it’s unclear, most probably you are pressing the wrong strings or not pressing the strings enough.
There should be no buzzing sound when you strum the strings.
The sound should be ringing clearly.
These are some basic lessons around a chord. To know what and how you play is better than just playing without understanding what it takes to play. Now, this one bite gives you a full load to play your guitar better.