Why (and How to) Learn Classical Guitar Chords

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 guitar chords often gets bumped to the back seat. Chords get tossed into the “maybe later” pile.

This is a shame, because the guitar is organized around chords. It’s what the guitar does really well.

Below you’ll find quite a bit of information, 2 videos and a challenge (are you game?), but first, a couple of quick personal stories are in order to illustrate why you should learn guitar chords.

The Building Blocks of Music

Outclassed by a 10-year-old!

Picture this: Here I am, in my senior year of college and just showed up to study in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

I have been steeping myself in classical guitar technique and repertoire for the last 4 years, and I think I’m pretty hot stuff.

That is, until an kid (couldn’t have been any older than 10) plays me under the table.

Completely shows me up. I couldn’t touch him.  I felt ridiculous. And the funny thing was, I had far more skills than he did. I was a better guitarist in every way but one…

He knew his chords.

He knew a basic set of “Brazilian” guitar chords that he could move around the guitar neck, and a couple of Brazilian right-hand rhythms.

Sure, I knew music theory. I knew Bach suites.   But in that moment, none of that mattered. In that situation, what mattered was having a few basic tools, and knowing how to use them.

He did. I didn’t. It was that simple.

Because he knew and could use a basic set of “building blocks” (chord shapes), he knew dozens of songs and could learn new ones easily and quickly.

It’s in this method that most people in the folk, pop and rock idioms learn as well:  Learn guitar chords and strike up a tune.

And here’s the kicker:   Even if you are not much of a song and dance type, it’s still very useful to learn guitar chords (more on this later).

Learn Guitar Chords to Help Musical Memory

It’s also advisable to learn guitar chords to help with musical memory and understanding.

Another story, then the challenge:

Superhero: The Memorizer

I was taking a 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 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.

“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 “cowboy” chords, and could switch between them fluidly.

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, 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.

The Memory Challenge

Try this: Give yourself 5 seconds to try to memorize the following letters:


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 jumped 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.

OK, I’ll Learn Guitar Chords, But Which First? (there are so many!!)

Baby Steps Through Learning the 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.

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?” = “Donde está la biblioteca?”).

When learning chord shapes, it can be useful to learn and practice 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).

Learning in the this way trains your muscle-memory to move fluidly between chords, and allows you to remember easier because of the context.


Allen Mathews

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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