Where to Begin?

A frequent question from beginning guitar students is “where do I start?” There’s so much to learn on the guitar that it can be hard to know what to learn when. Should you start by learning to read music? Or by studying theory? Or by learning scales? Or by learning basic guitar chords?

The real answer is “it depends”. It depends on things like your musical goals, prior musical knowledge, your interests, and so on. But for the average beginner who wants to be a well-rounded player, a really good way to start is to focus on learning a handful of basic guitar chords.

A good thing about jumping right into chords is that, with a little practice, most people can get from zero guitar playing ability to playing some of their favorite songs fairly quickly. And that’s really motivating for most players in the early stages.

So here are the basic guitar chords and a rough guide to the order in which you should learn them. Obviously, everyone is different and what is simple for one person might be tough for someone else, so this isn’t going to be the perfect list for everyone. But the basic order should be pretty accurate overall.

The Unofficial List of Basic Guitar Chords

If you spend a decent amount of time working on each of these chords, you’ll go a long way toward being able to play many, many songs. In the list below, I’m just going to name the chords, show chord diagrams (explained in this lesson), and add some commentary. For detailed instructions and videos on how to play any of the chords, check out the individual lessons that are linked throughout the text.

Here’s the list of chords:

Let’s quickly run through these one at a time:

Em

(E minor)

I think E minor is the easiest chord to learn—you only have to put two fingers on the fretboard, and they’re right next to each other—so I recommend it as the first chord to learn if you’re starting from the very beginning.

E

(E major)

Once you’ve learned E minor, you can easily play E major just by adding one finger. So go ahead and learn this one next.

Am

(A minor)

And now that you know E major, A minor is a cinch because it’s the exact same fingering, with each finger moved over one string.

D

(D major)

D major is pretty easy to play and appears in many well-known songs.

A

(A major)

The A major chord tends to be a little easier for people with smaller fingers, since you have to cram three fingers together on the same fret. But in the A chord lesson, I show an alternate fingering that helps those of you with large paws.

G

(G major)

G major is easy for some people and challenging for others, mostly because it requires a bit of stretch between the 2nd and 3rd fingers.

Dm

(D minor)

This is similar to D major but harder for most people to finger. It’s also not as commonly used as the chords discussed so far.

C

(C major)

Ah, good old C major. A common chord but quite a bit harder to play then most of the chords above. But it’s an important one to learn early.

Bm

(B minor)

This is the first chord that’s not an open chord. It’s a barre chord, meaning you flatten out your first finger and play multiple notes on a fret with the same finger. So this is a step up in difficulty but you can get it with a little practice.

F

(F major)

Another barre chord. In the F chord lesson, I show two forms—the full barre chord and a partial barre, which is only played on four strings. This chord is hard to finger because (a) barre chords are physically hard to play at first and (b) this is an especially tough barre chord because it’s played on the first fret, where the string tension is high. If you’re playing on a very cheap guitar or a guitar that is not set up correctly, this will be harder to play than it should be. So make sure you’re practicing on a decent, correctly set up guitar.

B

(B major)

The B major chord is another barre chord that is tough because there’s no simple way to finger it. You either have to (a) barre three notes with your flattened third finger or (b) play each of those three notes with a separate finger, which requires a big stretch in the left hand. But, as with the F barre chord, once you get this chord shape down, you can play any major chord up and down the whole fretboard.

The last three chords on this list are technically not “basic beginner chords” because they’re all barre chords, which are almost always more difficult for beginners. But I include them here because there’s really no other way to play those chords without using barres. And those chords are important and frequently used. The benefit to learning these chords is that, once you’ve mastered them, you’ll be able to move them all over the neck to play all kinds of different chords. This will open up so many other possibilities to you as a guitar player.

Practice!

The individual chord lessons give specific information and tips for how to overcome the challenges presented by each chord. But my overall advice for each chord is the same:

  1. Be patient. Nothing worthwhile happens overnight. Some chords will come easily but others will be frustrating. No matter what, don’t get discouraged. If you don’t give up, you’ll conquer them all; it’s really that simple.
  2. Practice a little every day. Playing chords is not one of those things that you can cram into a couple of 8-hour practice sessions and master. Your muscles and nervous system need some time to adapt, even when you’re not actively practicing. So it’s much more important to practice a few minutes every day consistently. Overdoing it on any one day is not really going to help and will probably make your hand tired and increase your frustration. Commit to a practice schedule that you can actually stick to. This is 1000% better than intense bouts of practice that you give up on after a week.
  3. Ask for help. If you’re really struggling with a chord, post a question in the comments on this site and I’ll try to help out. Or ask a question on reddit, stackexchange, or some other website. Just don’t suffer alone for too long because I guarantee that whatever issue you run into, someone has run into it before and probably has advice that will help you make progress.

Good luck!