How To Play Guitar Chords: A Beginner’s Guide

Wondering how to play guitar chords? We’ve got your back. In this beginner guide we’ll break it down & explain how to play guitar chords simply.

how to play guitar chords

In this free guitar lesson you will learn

  • How to use stepping-stone chords to learn guitar at light speed
  • The 5 best beginner chords
  • Correct finger and thumb placement (left-hand technique)
  • The all-conquering importance of posture
  • Correct right-hand technique and 2 strumming secrets
  • How to use a pick & how to stay in time
  • How to read chordboxes

Sound good? Let’s dive in!

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National Guitar Academy

Before we explain how to play guitar chords we need to cover some basic guitar anatomy.

This is the fretboard:

how to play guitar chords

This is where we press down to make chord shapes.

This is the sound hole:

how to play acoustic guitar chords

We strum over this part of the guitar. (Ideally, strum directly over the sound hole, but it doesn’t matter if you strum an inch or so to either side.)

How To Play Guitar Chords: Left Hand Technique

Having the right technique when we play chords is vital.

I’m going to show you a couple of cool tips which are great for your left hand guitar technique.

When you play guitar chords your thumb should be halfway down the neck. You don’t want it be far over to the top, or too far to the bottom. It should be halfway sitting nice and comfortable.

how to play guitar chords thumb position

Press down with the tips of your fingers. (Not the fingerprints.)

how to play guitar chords finger tips

If you use the flat part of your fingers, flesh will block other strings and make your chords sound messy.

Play with the very tips of your fingers.

If you want to learn how to play guitar chords properly you must make sure your fingers stand up nice and tall on the strings.

how to play guitar chords straight fingers

This gives your fingers space between one and another and allows each string to ‘breathe’.

By doing this, we can hear each note clearly and the chord rings out.

When you know how to play guitar chords correctly you should be able to feel the wind blow through the space between your fingers and the fretboard. This big space makes is easier to be precise.

how to play guitar chords

It is essential that you have short nails

how to play guitar chords short nails

Long nails prevent accuracy because they force your fingers to be angled down more than we want.

Learning how to play guitar chords is hard enough without having a physical barrier to contend with. Trim those nails!

how to not play guitar chords long nails

Of course, sometimes having long nails on your RIGHT hand can be really useful for fingerpicking and classical style guitar.

Download a free beginner chord guide and learn easy versions of every chord

 Say goodbye to frustration and twisted fingers. Say hello to MAKING MUSIC.

  Learn beginner-friendly versions of every chord.

  This is one of our most popular guides and will improve your chord ability quickly. Click here to download the guide.

How To Play Guitar Chords – Right Hand Technique

When we first start out as guitar players, it can often seem difficult to know what to do with our right hand. Do we go for strumming patterns? Do we just go for it and hope for the best?

Guitarists use their right hand to strum the strings. The basic concept is to go from the top string to the bottom string and to hit everything in between.

We usually do this with a down and up motion.

  • When we go down, we go towards the floor.
  • When we go up we go towards the ceiling.

Strumming can be a tricky for beginners, but it’s essential that they master it because it’s strumming with the right hand that brings the musicality and rhythm to guitar playing.

This is one of our popular guides and a must-read for beginners:

How To Strum A Guitar

how to play guitar chords

How To Use A Guitar Pick

‘Picks’ and ‘plectrums’ are the same thing. Using a pick when we first start playing helps us learn how to play guitar chords quicker. It makes strumming easier.

I often see many beginners strumming with their thumbs across all the strings as it often feels ‘easier’ and sounds nicer than a pick. Although this is possible it’s almost as twice as hard in the long run.

Using a pick may feel hard at first, but if you stick with it for about an hour it will get easier.

Here’s how to hold a pick:

Do a thumbs up with your right hand…

how to use a pick

…now place the pick on top of your fingers with the pointy edge facing you…

how to play guitar chords with a pick

…now clamp your thumb down…

how to play guitar chords with a plectrum

That’s it. All together, your pick position should look a little like this.

It’s ok if your pick position looks slightly different to this (it’s a personal preference), but it really shouldn’t look very different to this.

A pick thickness of 0.65-0.73 is perfect for beginners. Any thicker and you will find it difficult to strum with fluidity.

Strumming is crucial to our guitar playing, when we strum we shouldn’t even have to think about what we do. It should just happen naturally. That should be your goal.

If you want to learn how to play guitar chords cleanly, a pick is very useful.

The biggest mistake a beginner can make is bad posture

The most common mistakes I see beginners make are all related to their posture. Having bad posture makes learning how to play guitar chords a lot more difficult.

How you hold the instrument is critical to your chances of successfully learning to play it.

‘Posture’ is the least sexy part of learning guitar, but it’s the most important.

Before we look at how to play guitar chords with our arms and fingers, we need to explain how to play guitar chords with our body.

how to play guitar chords correctly

How to play guitar chords with great posture (remember this makes it EASIER to learn guitar)

Here’s 3 things you should avoid:

1) Don’t slump down into a low sofa

This restricts your movement and makes the guitar harder to play.

best way to play guitar chords

2) Don’t sit in a chair with arms

This restricts the movement of your arms and encourages you to keep your left elbow tucked in. This is a big no-no.

how to play chords on guitar

3) Don’t perch on a high stool

Low stools are fantastic to play on but high stools (eg kitchen island stools) are awful.

On these higher stools the guitar will slide away from you while you play because your thighs tend to slope downwards. You will get into a situation where you are ‘chasing’ after the guitar or having to pull it back towards your body mid-song. No! 🙂

Learning how to play guitar chords can be tough. We don’t want to have worry about the guitar sliding away.

how to play chords

A few other common mistakes you should avoid:

  • Don’t tuck your left elbow in close to your stomach. It should be raised outwards, away from your torso.
  • Don’t rest your left elbow or forearm on your thigh. This is very common and it’s a chord killer.
  • Your left arm should be free to float in mid air, this is what allows your wrist to move.

You play chords with your whole left arm, not just your fingers.

how to play guitar chords

The Thing You Sit On is important

Why? Because it affects the height of your bottom. This affects how the guitar sits in your body.

Your thigh should be at a 90 degree angle to your torso, or angled ever so slightly towards you. This makes the guitar ‘stable’ and stops it from potentially moving away whilst you’re strumming.

Both arms should be completely free from obstruction, this helps chord changes become easier and allows you to move your whole arm when changing chords rather than just using your fingers. Your left arm should be able to move around in any direction to help these chord changes easier.

These mistakes are very common. You will be making some of them. Check them out one by one. 🙂

Learning how to play guitar chords correctly takes time. Even after you nail this, you’ll probably relapse and make these mistakes again, but don’t worry, that’s all part of learning how to play guitar chords!

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To learn how to play guitar chords you must be able to read chordboxes

Here’s the chordbox for “A Minor 7”.

how to play Am guitar chord

  • The vertical lines are the guitar’s strings (the thickest string in on the left).
  • The horizontal lines are the guitar’s frets.
  • ‘X’ means ‘don’t play this string’.
  • ‘O’ means ‘play this string’.

The circles with numbers inside are showing you where to press your fingers and which fingers to use. Your fingers are numbered like this:

Guitar Finger Numbers

If you’d like to learn more about how to read chord boxes read this article of ours:

How To Read Guitar Chordboxes In 60 Seconds

Use Stepping Stone Chords

Stepping-stone chords allow beginner guitarists to learn how to play guitar chords faster.

Think of it like this: If you were training for a marathon you wouldn’t just jump in and try and run 26 miles. That would be crazy, you’d start with a really small distance then build your way up. This is exactly the same with guitar.

Don’t start with the hardest chords. Start with the easiest and work your way up.

Some hard chords you should avoid

Chords like C Major and G Major can be incredibly difficult to start with and put a lot of people off learning guitar.

If you want to learn how to play guitar chords you must know C and G, but these two chords can be big barriers for newbies:

G Major

how to play G chord guitar

C Major

how to play C guitar chord

These chords use 3-4 fingers and that’s crazy-hard for someone who has just picked up a guitar.

We can make things a lot easier by using stepping-stone chords that are different voicings of C and G.

Let’s look at some easier versions.

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How to play guitar chords quickly and easily

Check out these easy stepping stone chords.

G6

G6 is a great chord for beginners, as it only uses two fingers but has a big sound.

So instead of playing the G major chord we looked at above, you can play G6.

how to play G chord on guitar

To play this chord you:

  1. Place your 2nd finger on the 3rd fret of the low E string.
  2. Place your 1st finger on the 2nd fret of the A string.
  3. Strum all the strings!

It should sound like this:

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To learn more easy ways to play G read this article of ours:

4 Easy Ways To Play The G Chord On Guitar

C major 7

Cmaj7 is an awesome chord for beginners as it uses two fingers, but also sounds nice and jazzy.

It sounds great when we put our C Major 7 and A minor 7 chord together, as they both have a smooth jazzy sound.

Whenever you see a C chord, you can use Cmaj7 as a substitute.

how to play beginner guitar chords

To play this chord you:

  1. Place your 2nd finger on the 3rd fret of the A string.
  2. Place your 1st finger on the 2nd fret of the D string.
  3. Strum from the A string.

It should sound like this:

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Here are loads of brilliant ways to play this essential beginner chord:

Easy Ways To Play The C Guitar Chord

E Minor

The Em chord is great for beginners, it’s small, simple and really easy to play.

how to play Em Guitar Chord

To play this chord you:

  1. Place your 1st finger on the 2nd fret of the A string.
  2. Place your 2nd finger on the 2nd fret of the D string.
  3. Strum all the strings!

Hey Presto! You’ve got an E minor chord.

Here’s what it should sound like

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For more Em chords, read this article:

4 Easy Ways To Play Em

A Minor 7

A Minor 7 is another great simple chord for beginner guitar players, it uses two fingers and sounds sweet.

how to play Am guitar chord for beginners

To play this chord you:

  1. Place your 2nd finger on the 2nd fret of the D string.
  2. Place your 1st finger on the 1st fret of the B string.
  3. Strum from the A String.

Here’s what it should sound like.

.

For more Am chords read this:

Am Guitar Chord For Beginners

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Dsus2

This chord is great for beginners as it uses just two fingers and sounds great.

Whenever you see a D chord, you can use Dsus2 as a substitute.

how to play D guitar chord for beginners

To play this chord you:

  • Place your 1st finger on the 2nd fret of the G string.
  • Place your 3rd finger on the 3rd fret of the B string.
  • Strum from the D string.

It should sound something like this.

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If you’d like to know more about other types of D chords you can play read this:

3 Easy Ways to Play the D Chord on Guitar

The importance of keeping in time

When learning how to play guitar chords we can’t just focus on our hands. We have to focus ‘inwards’ too.

Keeping in time is vital.

We never want to be too slow or too fast between each strum. We want each strum to be even and clear. If you lose time, it often feels like the music drags, or is rushed.

How do we keep in time?

Most of us know what a beat feels like, we’ve all grown up with music around us. When you hear music, you tap along to it. You feel the beat!

This is really important to know and understand as guitar players, because if we can feel the beat we can keep in time.

Usually the beat has a constant pulse, this is what we feed off and try to emulate.

A really useful tool for musicians is a metronome.

Metronomes are a time keeping device, they keep constant even beats and never go out of time.

You can get many metronome apps, like this one.

how to play guitar chords and stay in time

To help us practice our timing we can do a few simple things.

  • Firstly, set the metronome to around 60 bpm.
  • Listen to each click to feel and understand the placement of each beat.
  • Try to strum along with each one.

When you’re strumming, you can either use your favourite chord or strum all the strings.

What’s important here is that you focus on regular timing.

Learning how to play guitar chords is pointless if you don’t strum them in time! 🙂

Download this lesson’s worksheet to save or print for future reference

Find Out What You Should Learn Next With Our Guitar Map

If you want to understand where you’re up to in your guitar journey you should take a look at our Guitar Map. It will show you what you ‘should’ know by now (and also what you need to learn next to move forward as a guitarist).

Most people find that the Guitar Map shows them how everything fits together and best of all, it will help you identify gaps in your knowledge that are holding you back.

(There is often just one piece of information that holds people back, 1 key insight that they need to know so they can continue moving forward and improving in their guitar journey.)

I made the Guitar Map so people like you can quickly identify what you don’t know, that you need to know next. I hope that makes sense!?

NOTE: The Guitar Map is now included in our free special report: 'The 7 Steps To Guitar Mastery'.

Want free guitar tips and video lessons delivered to your inbox?

Join over 30,000 other guitar learners and subscribe to our guitar-tips-by-email service. (It's free.)

We'll send you a series of lessons that will move you to the next level of your guitar journey.

Learn how everything fits together quickly, easily and effectively. We share ninja tips (for instant fun!) but also timeless fundamentals that will deepen your understanding.

NGAEM

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