When first learning guitar it’s important to learn and play songs. Scales and exercises that improve dexterity and coordination between your picking and fretting hands definitely have their place, but incorporating real music into your practice routine is essential to assist with your technique, and even more importantly timing. With that in mind, in today’s article, we’re going to take a look at the most common guitar chords. These are the chords most guitar teachers recommend learning first, as once you have them down you will be able to play a huge number of songs.
What guitar chords should I learn first?
While nobody, at least nobody I am aware of, has scrutinized every guitar-based song in history and calculated the most common chords, it’s a fairly safe bet to assume, that the most common chords on the guitar are:
- E Major
- A Major
- C Major (and Cadd9)
- G Major
- D Major
- A minor
- E minor
- D minor
If you are interested in learning how the above chords are constructed click here to read more.
Why are these the most common Chords?
Mostly because they feature in a huge number of songs, particularly G, C, and D Major which are the I, IV, and V chords in many popular songs, including two of the first songs many guitarists learn – Knockin on Heavens Door by Bob Dylan, and Brown Eyed Girl by Van Morrison along with a bunch of other songs that mostly center around these three chords including Ring of Fire (Johnny Cash), The Joker (Steve Miller Band), La Bamba (Richie Valens), Leaving on a Jet Plane (John Denver) and Hide your Love Away (The Beatles) to name just a few.
There are also a bunch of songs that only utilize C and G Major, or variations, including Paperback Writer by the Beatles and Give Peace a Chance by John Lennon. These are all great songs to learn on guitar, using simple open chords, proving that a song needn’t be complex to be memorable. Plus if you add a Capo, these simple chord shapes can take you a very long way.
What is I, IV, and V?
If you don’t know what I, IV, V, etc. means, the roman numerals refer to the chord numbers of a particular key. In the key of G for example, G is the root or I chord. If starting at the root, C is, therefore, the 4 chord, and D being five letters away from G in the musical alphabet is the V chord or dominant (most important in terms of resolution) chord. You can read all about chord function and the chord numbering system in more detail here.
The CAGED system
Another reason these are the most common chords and the chords you should consider learning first is the CAGED system.
If we reorder the first set of chords in our list above in the following order: C – A – G – E – D we get the word CAGED. Caged is an important term when it comes to guitar, as it represents a system that helps guitarists navigate the fretboard based on the relationship between Major chord and Major scale shapes.
While a detailed explanation of the CAGED system is beyond the scope of this article, in terms of chords the key takeaway is as follows. If you can learn these 5 basic open chord shapes, by then making a couple of simple changes to the order of your fingers and by replicating the nut with your index finger you can essentially play any Major chord on the neck, moving the same shape higher or lower based on the root note of the chord found on either the 5th or 6th string (more on this shortly), this is especially the case with both A and E major shapes.
We can also do the same with A and E minor shapes.
Both Major and minor shapes can then be used to build root 5 and root 6 chords respectively. Below is an example of a root 6 barre chord using the E major shape and replicating the nut at the 3rd fret to form a G Major chord.
What are Root 5 And Root 6 chords?
A root 6 chord has the root of the chord on the 6th string. A root 5 chord has the root note of the chord on the 5th string. Simple.
So, now that we have explained why these are the most common guitar chords, let’s dive into learning how to play them starting with E Major, E minor, A Major, and A minor.
E Major, E minor, A Major, and A minor
I recommend learning E and A major and minor shapes first as these are some of the easiest shapes to learn (especially E minor) and the most common shapes you will typically use when transitioning to playing moveable barre chords.
The chord charts for all four are below. Note, if you aren’t sure how to read guitar chord charts click here to read how in more detail.
Start by learning the Major shape and then transition to the minor version. As you can see, in the case of E Major and E minor we simply lift the index finger off the fretboard to transition from E Major to e minor.
In the case of A major and a minor, while the shapes look similar, to transition to A minor from A Major does require some reordering of the fingers to include the 2nd fret on the B string (C).
C, Cadd9, G, and D Major
As mentioned above, G, C, and D Major are arguably the most common chords so should be some of the first chords you learn on guitar. The chord charts for each are below. Keep in mind when learning these shapes to practice chord transitions between the three as they are often used in combination.
To effectively transition between chords look for an anchor e.g. a finger (or two) that doesn’t move between chord changes.
For example, if transitioning between G, and D we can keep the ring finger anchored to the 3rd fret of the B string (D).
If transitioning between Cadd9 (another chord I have included in our list above for exactly this purpose), G and D we can anchor the ring and pinky on the B and high E string respectively.
In this context, Cadd9 is often used as a substitute for C Major due to the ease of transition from G Major.
You might also notice, that G chord charts often do not include the fretted B string, and some Cadd9 chord charts do not include the fretted high E string. These are optional, but often simply adding repeated notes (the G is also the open 3rd string for example) makes the chord sounds richer.
Often not included in a list of most common chords, in my experience D minor is a very useful chord to know. And according to the composer, Schubert is the saddest of all.
D minor is a simple change to D Major, we simply play the first fret on the high E string instead of the 2nd fret. But much like our transition from A Major to A minor, it does take some reordering of your pointer and ring fingers as demonstrated below.
One tip I have seen repeated numerous times is to give your muscle memory time to adjust to new chord shapes. What this means is, practice a new chord for at least 30 minutes and then put the guitar down. When you come back the next day, more often than not (after warming up first) you will find the chord shape easier to play, and transitions between chords easier also. This works regardless of what you are currently working on, e.g. scales, chord shapes, fingerstyle arrangements, and even solos.
Learn the two remaining open chord shapes including F and B (both known for being tricky for beginners). Then learn your 7th chords. I have a series of articles explaining the theory and how to play 7th chords here.
By focusing on learning songs you will develop your sense of timing, which is perhaps one of the most important aspects of music along with developing a feel for the choices great songwriters make when composing. This will help you develop as a musician, rather than just a guitarist. So if you are new to guitar, and wondering what to learn first? learn the most common chords as listed above, which will allow you to play a myriad of songs. This will fast-track your development on the guitar and provide an easier pathway to songwriting and more advanced techniques.