Basic Chords and Progressions




The reason many people go to the effort of learning to play the guitar is to have a convenient way to accompany themselves singing. If you're going to do this, you'll need a general knowledge of chords. This isn't an exhaustive theory lesson or study of chords, however. If that's what you want, you should check out the theory lessons referenced below. This lesson focuses on the practical application of basic chord knowledge.


If you're just getting started in music and especially the guitar, you've heard all kinds of talk about "chords." You're not alone if you think playing a chord means you grab a fist full of notes somewhere on the guitar neck and strum across all the strings. That's not too far off but here's the real definition:

CHORD DEFINITION: 3 or more different notes sounding at the same time.

Guitar is one of only a few instruments that allows you to do this. Wind instruments, such as a saxophone, can only sound one note at a time. Bowed instruments, like a violin allow you to play up to 4 notes at a time but that's not the norm when playing an instrument like the violin or the cello. The 2 main instruments people think of when referring to playing chords are the piano, or keyboard, and the guitar.

As mentioned above, there is a series of lessons in the Theory area that go into chord theory in detail, but I'm going to give you a few theory pointers that might help you for now. Most songs you'll want to play and sing are written in what is referred to as a "key." What that refers to, for the purpose of understanding this lesson, is a set of chords closely related to each other.

Don't jump to conclusions and think that, for example, C and C# would be closely related just because the notes are close to each other. As a matter of fact, they are as distantly related as they can be! Here are the basic chords that are all part of the key area built around the C note. If you've heard people refer to a song being in the "key of C," these are the chords that fit that description:




Have you ever heard other musicians mention something about a "chord progression" and wonder what the heck they're talking about? Well, if a chord is 3 or more notes sounding at the same time, then a progression of chords is the movement of at least 3 notes sounding together to another group of at least 3 notes sounding together. So what? I'll tell you. Many times you'll hear a chord progression referred to as a sequence of numbers, like (1, 4, 5) or (1, 6, 2, 5.) Take a closer look at the chords in the key of C above. Notice that there are numbers directly above each of the chords. If someone asked you to play a 1, 4, 5, 1 chord progression in the key of C, based on the chords listed above, you'd play the following sequence of chords:



If you were asked to play a 1, 6, 2, 5, 1 chord progression, you'd play this sequence of chords:



Ok, focus. Go back and read that again because this is huge in your understanding of chords and chord progressions. Once you learn a chord progression in one key, you can play the same progression in another key just by using the same chord numbers from the new key!

Below are several of the most common chord progressions used by song-writers for years and most-likey for years to come. You should give this a try yourself. Try to use one of these chord progressions to write your own song!



All examples shown in the key of C

Be sure to check out the NOTATION window. It lists all the keys and the basic chords for those keys. Also, be sure to check out the video in the HANDS area to get some quick tips on the most efficient ways to position your hand for various chords and chord changes in the most common chord progressions.



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