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The first time you picked up your guitar there was probably a sense of excitement, of unending possibility, but mingled with that feeling was an overwhelming sense of being lost. When one embarks on such a journey, knowing where to start can be terrifying and downright confusing. The guitar has something going for it though which makes this process not quite as daunting. The simple act of learning three open chords will open the doors to hundreds of thousands of songs. You won’t be a virtuoso or shredder, but you will be playing music that will be a fun and entertaining way to practice while other areas of guitar playing bud and blossom.

What is a Chord?

Simply put, a chord is a minimum of three notes played together. You may have heard of “power chords,” which are only two notes yet still called chords, and yell in consternation at the confusing jumble of musical idiom. The term chord, when referring to power chords, is inaccurate, they are actually called dyads. A chord requires three notes to be played at the same time. Which three notes are played depends on which chord you want to play (A Major, G Major, etc) and what type of chord you want to play (Minor, Major, 7th, etc). In this lesson we will be focusing on major chords which use the root, major third and perfect fifth. Don’t fret if this makes no sense to you. Understanding is not required to play the chords, but it may be valuable information to have locked up in your mental vault for the future.

Finger Numbering

It’s important to understand how fingers are numbered before learning chords. It’s very basic.

  • The first finger is your index finger.
  • The second finger is your middle finger.
  • The third finger is your ring finger.
  • The fourth finger is the pinky.

A Major Chord

The A Major chord is easy to play, great sounding and widely used in songs from all musical genres. This chord is fairly simple to play. Take your 2nd finger and place it on the 2nd fret of the 4th string (D string), your third finger on the 2nd fret of the 3rd string (G string) and your 4th finger on the 2nd fret of the 2nd string (B string). The 5th string (A string) and the 1st string (high e string) will both ring open. For this chord you will not want to strum the 6th (low e) string at all, so be careful and precise with your strumming. There are of course other ways to finger this chord, but this is our preferred method as it will grant a solid foundation for the A shape barre chord.

Gently strum the chord and make sure all of the strings ring out bright and true. If one of them is muted, be sure to check your finger placement, and if that is not the issue make sure that you are not inadvertently muting the note with one of your other fingers. Those with larger fingers can find themselves accidentally doing so. Keep your thumb roughly between your 1st and 2nd fingers and make sure it is resting at the top of the hump on the back of the neck. For a visual representation of this please see the video above.

D Major Chord

The D major chord only makes use of four strings, so be sure not to strum the 6th (low E) or 5th (A) string when learning and playing.  Technically the open 5th string could be played as it is an A note, which is part of the chord, but it sounds better when the root of the note, which in this case is a D, is played as the bass note. To play the D Major chord place your 1st finger on the 3rd string (G string) 2nd fret, 3rd finger on the 2nd string (B string) 3rd fret, and the 2nd finger on the 1st string (high e string) 2nd fret.

(NOTE: Want to MASTER barre chords once and for all? Get JamPlay’s Barre Chord Cheat Sheet here for free!)

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Unlike the A major above and the E major below, which have many variations, this is often seen as the main way to play the D major open chord. There are other ways to play it, and they can be used in special situations, but this particular fingering is a favorite because it allows the 4th finger (pinky) to easily transform this chord from a D Major into a Dsus2 and Dsus4. Don’t worry if you don’t know what those chords are, just trust that this is a flexible and accepted fingering.

E Major Chord

The E Major is a rich and vibrant chord which allows all six strings to be strummed and resonate harmoniously. Be careful to resist the temptation to strum viciously in the face of this 6 string beast, your strum should still be calm and controlled.

To play the E major open chord place your 3rd finger on the 5th string (A string) 2nd fret, your 4th finger on the 4th string (D string) 2nd fret, and your 2nd finger on the 3rd string (G string) 2nd fret.  The 6th string (low E), 2nd string (B string) and 1st string (high e string) are all played in the open position.

There are other fingers of the E major chord that are both easy to play and proper,  however we consider this to be the optimal fingering to learn for beginner as it will provide a proper foundation for the E shape barre chord.

Chord Transitions

Once you have all three of these chords memorized and you can play them without muted or buzzing strings, it is time to move on and practice transitions. Being able to transition smoothly between chords takes practice and dedication, so don’t be frustrated if at first you find it a tedious process.

To begin, start by playing the A major and then the D major. Take as much time as necessary between each chord, at this juncture accuracy is all that is important. You can’t play something fast if you can’t do it slow, and being careful to play properly every time will ensure the chord is stored correctly in your muscle memory.

When that chord transition is mastered, shift from the A chord to the E chord. After that switch from D to E, and as a final step combine the chords in as many possible combinations as you can. When these transitions are smooth and the chords cry out happily you will have the knowledge necessary to play a shocking amount of songs. And this is only the beginning.

If you know of any exciting songs that make use of the A, D and E major chords please post them in the comments, along with links to tablature or lyrics and accompanying chords.

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