How to Learn Classical Guitar Chords (and Why It’s So Great)
Classical guitar demands that we build many skills at the same time. We need to learn to read music, learn proper technique, learn common right hand patterns, weird vocabulary, and a host of other things.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that for adults who begin their guitar journey in the classical guitar realm, learning basic open guitar chords often gets bumped to the back seat. Guitar chords get tossed into the “maybe later” pile.
This is a shame, because the classical guitar is organized around chords. It’s what the guitar does well. And this is true for classical music as much as acoustic guitar music, or any other..
Below you’ll find quite a bit of information, 2 videos and a challenge (are you game?). You’ll see chord diagrams and pictures of open chords. (“Open” means the chord uses strings with no fingers pressing – the “open” string.)
And finally, you’ll hear an anecdote showing the power of guitar chords.
The Memory Challenge: Music and Language
Try this: Give yourself 5 seconds to try to memorize the following letters:
Test #1: AOEULRCHKOUSNT
Got it? Great! (yeah right.) Even if you did get this one, how well will you be able to recall it tomorrow?
Now do this one:
Test #2: The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog
Why is the second so much easier to memorize? Because the letters fall into recognizable groups. And the groups fall into an order that makes sense, and all work together to convey an idea.
As I’m sure you realize, we can draw the analogy of the letters in the first example to notes on the page, the groups (words) in the second example to chords, and the order of the words to a chord “progression” (a string of chords).
letters = notes
words = chords
sentences = chord progressions
Of course the letters and words are easier to recognize, but only because we have so much more practice with them.
With time, we can recognize and recall notes and chords in the same way. As a beginner guitar player, we may struggle at first. But we improve with time and focused guitar practices.
OK, I’ll Learn Guitar Chords, But Which First? (there are so many!!)
In beginner guitar lessons, we often start with a C chord (aka C Major chord). From there we learn the G Chord, and the D chord. These three (C, G, and D) are very common and useful open chords. Practice changing chords between these. This will get easier and quicker in time.
Keep your thumb behind your fingers. And it also helps to have your guitar neck pointing up (not down). Click here for how to hold your guitar.
Below is a chord chart with dots representing chords. “X” means do not play that string. “O” (for open) means play strings with no fret/finger pressed. And the 1, 2, 3, and 4 refer to the index finger, middle finger, ring finger, and little finger (pinky) respectively.
(Tip: You can enter your email address in one the boxes on this page to download open chord diagrams and resources for your practice. And for a practice-along video tutorial to help you get started, see the Classical Guitar Beginner Toolbox.)
Baby Steps Through Learning the Beginner Guitar Chords
In the movie “What About Bob”, Bill Murray’s character (Bob) uses the tactic of “baby-stepping” through whatever situation in which he finds himself.
The basic idea is that anything can be taken one moment, and one little piece, at a time. Including these beginner guitar chords.
Just as when you are learning a new language, it can be easier to memorize new material when it shares a context. In language, this would be sentences (i.e. “Where is the library?”).
When learning an open chord shape, it can be useful to learn and practice changing chords in groups that naturally and frequently occur together. Just like with words, this trains you to not only know the chords, but be able to move from one to the next (like words in a sentence). This is a guitar practice that works at any level or age.
Learning in the this way trains your muscle-memory to move fluidly between chords, and allows you to remember easier because of the context.
The most common types of chords are major chords, minor chords, and 7 chords. There are other types of chords, but these are the most-used. When we see “Em” or “em”, it refers to E minor. Just the bare letter, such as “E”, refers to major chords. Major chords and minor chords have a different sound and mood, as you’ll hear as you play them.
Chords are common to all types of guitar that tune to standard tuning. Electric guitar, acoustic guitar, and classical guitar all have the same chords. We may use these basic chords more or less depending on the style of music, but the chords sound the same on all guitars. So as you’re learning chords, you’re also practicing a skill that can serve you in the future, should you decide to play a different guitar.
Learn Guitar Chords to Help Musical Memory
It’s also advisable to learn guitar chords to help with musical memory and understanding.
Here’s a story:
Superhero: The Memorizer
I was taking a classical guitar lesson with a guy in Atlanta once (I can’t remember his name).
He was a classical and flamenco guitarist, and the music store (Maple Street Guitars) had recommended him for a guitar lesson while I was in town visiting my sister.
I had some music I had been working on for months.
It was close to memorized, but not quite.
In the course of our lesson, without even seeming to try, he memorized the entire piece. Every note! I was amazed!
“How’d you do that?!” I asked.
I felt it was some virtuosic trick or special power he got after being bitten by a radioactive spider.
“It’s a fairly simple chord progression. I just used the harmony and filled in the blanks.” He answered.
At this point I had been playing guitar for several years (I was a couple of years into classical guitar after playing folk for several years).
I knew my basic primary and barre chords, and had my chord changes smooth.
But I hadn’t made the connection in my mind between knowing my chords and memorizing my classical guitar pieces.
It was a case of not seeing the forest for the trees.
From that point, I decided to start trying to notice when parts of the basic chords shapes I already knew showed up in my pieces.
The chords weren’t always complete shapes (sometimes just the bass notes on the E string for example), but if I could notice the chord “fragments”, I could create a basic structure (like a plot in a story) that would help me remember where I was in the piece.
What I found was that doing this from the start of the piece, I learned much more quickly, and memorized my pieces much more easily.
Hi, I’m Allen Mathews.
I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two stellar teachers – one focused on the technical, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully. Click here for a sample formula.
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