I've spent decades teaching guitar, and will be happy to advise beginners. One of the most useful things could be to use a capo.
I'm a guitar teacher and part-time college lecturer. As a result of many years of teaching guitar I can save you some time. See also the new hub, Guitar chords 101 part 2, which contains more info on improving these basic chord shapes.
Start with the easiest chords, probably Em and A for most people, then E, Am. E to Am is good as you can use the same shape and just move it across one string. Make sure your first finger is moved first, even if it looks as though they are all moving together.
Then look at D, followed by C and F, which are more of a stretch for most people.
Tip: Depending on the guitar (as many necks have a different span) and depending on your hand size, you might find C and F tricky at first. Try using a capo around the third fret to reduce the stretch and the string height.
In the chord pictures below I've tried to identify the essential chords, and these are probably the most used across all forms of popular music.
Chords in the key of C : C Dm Em F G7 Am (and Bm7b5)
Most songs will use these chords in combination, so it makes sense to learn them together.
C F G7 are the major chords, Am Em and Dm are the minor chords. You might notice that the root note of each chord is from the C major scale: C D E F G A B C. You will find this scale and these chords used together all the time.
Work on changing from C to Am (called the relative minor) and then changing from C to F. In both cases finger 1 stays down on the fretboard, and don't play string 6, the thickest string.
NB: Chord grids - the 6 vertical lines are the strings, the horizontal lines are the frets.
Easy acoustic guitar songs is another hub you might find useful.
Cleaning up chords
The easiest way to really improve the sound of chords is to eliminate unwanted strings. In general, the lowest sounding note of a chord should be the same as the chord name: so for Am or A minor we want an A at the bottom, open string 5. Don't play string 6. In the same way, the easy F chord shown needs an F bass note, found on string 4 - so we leave out strings 6 and 5, the thickest and the lowest sounding strings. Using this method you'll get cleaner and more distinct chords with a much better tone.
Chords in the key of D
Chords in D: D, Em, F#m, G, A7, Bm, C#m7b5.
Most simple songs will use D G A7, plus Em and Bm sometimes. Most Dylan songs, especially the early ones can be played with a very limited choice of chords.
The chords in this key follow the same pattern as those in the key of C listed above - that is, a chord is built on each note of the major scale, and the major and minor chords follow the same sequence.
As Bm is a barre chord it can present problems for the beginner. Check out my solution - Bm7. Just play the middle 4 strings and this will work well, and be quite easy to change to. A fix for F#m is to play fret 2 on strings 6,4,3, leaving string 5 (A) open. Ideally, mute this string by slanting your first finger over a bit.
Generally, the lowest note or bass note of a chord wants to be the same as the name of the chord. So Am has an open 5th (A) at the bottom and you don't play string 6 (E). Same applies to A and A7, or any variant of A such as A maj7.
In a similar way, D has open D (string 4) at the bottom, don't play strings 6 and 5.
C, or any of the variants such as C7 - don't play string 6. You want a C at the bottom of the chord, fret 3 on string 5. Having a low 6th buzzing away is probably the most common beginner mistake, but one that is very easy to fix!
When you can put this into practice it will really make things sound better, and clearer.
The guitar is tuned (low to high, thickest to thinnest string) E A D G B E.
If you need help in understanding music theory, such as why both letters and numbers are used in naming chords, see my new hub entitled Music Theory Basics.
Look at A7. It's just the same as A, with the middle note removed.
Look at E7. It's just the same as E with the middle note removed.
The 7 note actually means flat 7th, in musical code. In C: CDEFGABC is the major scale.
Count down from high C, note 8
B= maj 7th
So C maj 7 is CEG (the notes in a C chord) plus B
C7 is CEG plus Bb
C6= CEG plus A
Now let's look at D chords. Starting with common-or-garden D, if you move down the middle note in half-steps,or one fret at at time, we get D maj7, D7 - all strongly related chords.
Now try doing the same thing with an A chord. Moving the middle note down one gives you Amaj7, then moving down again gives you A7.
Very commonly a 7th chord, also known as dominant 7th, resolves to the tonic or home chord in any key. So practice going from A7 to D, G7 to C, B7 to E and you will be doing some useful preparation for learning songs quickly and easily. If you really concentrate on this it will help in ear-training, which might well happen anyway without any effort.
Most simple songs, by which I mean folk,blues,nursery rhymes,most 1950s-era pop songs will use just three chords, which are chords 1,4,5 from the harmonised scale sequence. In the key of C these would be C, F, G7.
in the key of D: D, G, A7
in the key of G: G, C, D7
These are the basic building blocks used to create a song. Sometimes one of the minor chords is also used, often the relative minor - Am in the key of C. So a typical doo-wop Why must I be a Teenager? -type lament might go
C Am F G7 - endlessly!
If you play these chords in different keys you'll see that the sound is the same, the chord relationships and distances are the same too. It's only the pitch that has changed.
My new hub Guitar-advanced and jazz has info on more interesting chords, and pictures of the most important types.
My new hub Guitar- easy blues has chord pictures and chord charts, and will probably help with this section.
Blues is a form of music based on 7th chords. So a typical easy 12-bar sequence would go:
Play each chord four times for every bar.
E7 (4 bars) Count 1,2,3,4 for each bar
A7 (2 Bars)
E7 (2 bars)
B7 (1 Bar)
A7 (1 bar)
E7 (1 bar)
B7 (1 Bar)
Once this is sounding good, you could substitute 9th or 13th chords for any of the 7ths and it will sound more jazz or funky.
It's worth noting that early rock n'roll and rockabilly is basically a speeded-up version of the 12-bar blues - so most Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, Elvis songs from this era are just variations on a theme. A good theme though.
Learning the blues chords will enable you to play literally hundreds of songs like Blue Suede Shoes, Houndog, Sweet Little Sixteen, Johnny B Goode.
Playing in other keys: try using a capo. For instance, in fret 1 this would put you in the key of F, beloved by sax players, fret 3 would be G, fret 5 would be A. If you're singing, it might help you find a more comfortable key to play a song in. Personally, I'll always try out a few different keys until I find one that sounds good.
Chord pictures info
In the chord pictures below, the barre chords are shown with a wavy line. If you find these difficult, some of my other hubs have some workarounds, and even if you can't play them initially, hopefully you will get the concept.
More advanced chords
Chord Pictures Info
It's good to understand other chord forms, and thereby the rest of the guitar neck. Some basic scale info as well, to see the notes that fit with each key or set of chords.
Try to learn at least three ways of playing each chord.
Chords, Alternative Versions
Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on December 19, 2011:
Fair point - it was a bit too brief.
frankiefingers from Oregon on November 02, 2011:
Great Hub! A lot of good information. The 12 bar blues part is a little confusing though. Stating that "each chord should be played four times" may produce some bewilderment for a new guitar player in trying to create a 12 bar blues progression. Please take a look at my I,IV,V blues progression hub. It's my first hub and would appreciate any comments.
Thanks, keep rockin', or bluesin', or jazzin', or whatever . . . !!
Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on September 12, 2010:
Hi sligobay - here we go then. Any musical note is at its own frequency or pitch. A is 440Hz. As the frequency changes, the note name changes,using the letters A to G, then starting again. There are 12 notes in all (look at the piano keyboard) because some of them have flat and sharps in the name.
Maybe this will help, looking at piano definitely will.
sligobay from east of the equator on September 11, 2010:
Hello and thank you Jon. I have been writing Hubs with my poetry for a few years and wonder how to turn them to song lyrics. I figure that I should know something about music before I try to write a song. I bought a guitar to learn about this musical alphabet stuff, but its all Greek to me. I understand the cadence and rhythmn of poetry in its many forms but feel like I'm from Mongolia with beginning to learn this new language. Cheers.
Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on September 11, 2010:
Hi - just e-mail with any questions.
PR_am from Oregon on September 11, 2010:
Very informative. I will be following your series. Thanks
Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on August 13, 2010:
Hi, you're welcome.
How to Get Him To Propose on August 13, 2010:
Nice blog...thanks for providing such a nice information....
Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on July 05, 2010:
Thanks Peter. I think the I IV and V chords in common keys are the best place to start.
PeterPatton on July 05, 2010:
I was just thinking a month or so ago of what I would consider the most important chords to learn because I see them more than any other. I think I came up with a list of about 17. And of my 17, I think 13 to 15 are in your list of 20 here. :D
You had about 5 that I know that I didn't have in my list. The one or two in my list that weren't on your list were in my list more for the formation than because I see them often... They're chords that when you learn them, can be moved up and down the neck to form others.
VIntage Gibson guitar on July 01, 2010:
Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on March 23, 2010:
moondive from Modena,Italy on March 23, 2010:
Good informations thanks!
Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on February 22, 2010:
Hi kylie - you're welcome.
kylie on February 22, 2010:
thankx for the tips ive played the guitar for 5 years but was never taught the cords or the names of them this info was very helpful as i want to become a great guitarist..:D
hanrianto on February 19, 2010:
thanks, It's a nice information
hanrianto on February 19, 2010:
thanks, It's a nice information
cel13 on February 09, 2010:
Tony McGregor from South Africa on January 05, 2010:
Thanks Jon for another very useful Hub.
Love and peace
Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on December 22, 2009:
Hi -it's easier to play them than explain them! The harmonised scale concept is what really works.
Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on October 29, 2009:
Hi Misstlkal1 and tyrrell123 and thanks. You Americans have strange names! All the best, Jon
tyrrell123 from Yorkshire, England on October 29, 2009:
Some really useful info well presented in your hubs, keep up the great work....
Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on October 18, 2009:
Thanks keira - if he has any questions just e-mail through hubpages, I'll try to help.
keira7 on October 18, 2009:
Hi Jon, my son just finish reading your hub and he said thanks for the info. He plays guitar a lot. Thanks Jon, take care.
Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on October 13, 2009:
Hi - have looked at the website. Craig is a good player,though I always despair when the shredding starts! Personally, I just don't have the patience for learning scales/modes all over the neck, and find the approach really boring to listen to, however technically accomplished. Jimmy Bruno is one of the best improvisers, and he thinks that scales are vastly overrated - learn some melody lines instead! And, not least, developing your own style is important.
Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on September 30, 2009:
Thanks Robert -
the next one is on Guitar DVDs and their effectiveness(or not)!
Robert Ballard on September 30, 2009:
Nice hub and useful information.
Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on September 21, 2009:
Hi Jim, jonty and nicksstuff. Thanks for your support. Please ask for other hubs if it would help - soon I'll be posting some video lessons with any luck.
nicksstuff from Going for a swim in the ocean. on September 12, 2009:
Totally cool hub man. This helps me understand a lot about guitar chords. The article I posted with basic chords helps but you have taken it to another level. Thanks for such a great hub. Awesome.
Sexy jonty from India on August 07, 2009:
Thanks for providing such useful information, and explaining it so clearly.
Jim Farguson on July 10, 2009:
thanks a lot..I like your information about incorporating the minor notes into the 1,4,5.
Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on June 28, 2009:
Thanks very much both of you. Good luck with your playing - the first 30 years are the worst!
best guitar courses on June 27, 2009:
Great tips Jon. I'll be taking a look at your other hubs too.
illminatus from Chicago, IL on May 03, 2009:
Jon I enjoyed it.. Just picked up the guitar.
jon green on May 01, 2009:
Hi Jen, you're welcome. One day I'll post some video too, in the meantime, have fun with your guitar.
Jen's Solitude from Delaware on May 01, 2009:
Thanks for the great info Jon
Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on May 01, 2009:
Hope you find this information useful. Please check out my other hubs, as they will help in understanding this material. For instance, all of this stuff can be applied to piano/keyboards, bass, etc.