The Elements of Guitar Chord Playing Technique

How to play guitar chordsEvery song you learn on the guitar will contain a group of chords. Some songs have only one or two, many songs have three chords, and a few songs might make use of half a dozen chords.

Learning Where to put Your Fingers

If you want to know how to learn guitar chords, there are three ways to begin:

  • the most effective but the most time consuming way is to learn to read music. If you can read standard music notation you do not necessarily need to know the names of the chords you are playing. You will have the ability to recognize and play musical notes without hesitation. To learn how to play guitar chords this way takes a long time but the ability to sight-read music will make learning how to play the guitar much easier.
  • another way is to learn to read tablature. Guitar tablature, or “tabs”, is another musical language. Tabs show you where to put your fingers on the guitar fretboard. It only takes half an hour or so to learn the basic idea behind guitar tab, and although it has its limitations, it is a good way to learn chords.
  • the simplest and most immediate way to learn chords is by using a guitar chord chart. Chord charts are basically pictures of the guitar strings showing you where to put your fingers.

Playing Your First Chords

The next step is the physical work of learning how to play chords on a guitar. The simplest way to begin is to strum the guitar with a pick while you make the chord shapes with the fingers of your left hand. The pick is held firmly between the thumb and first finger of your right hand. You must hold your hand so the pick strikes the strings cleanly without scraping.

When you first begin to play chords, it is a good idea to choose easy guitar chords that are not too hard on the fingers of the left hand. Such chords as the E minor or C major chord in the first position are good chords to begin with. When you have your fingers in the correct positions, try strumming the chord. The sound should be clean with each of the strings sounding without the left hand fingers brushing against them causing the notes to stop sounding.

You have now played your first chord. The next step is changing from one chord to another. Again, you should take care that your fingers only touch the strings they are supposed to touch, so careful practice is called for. When you begin to work on chord changes, you will find that certain changes are more difficult but slow, careful practice will make all chord changes easy in time.

Learning Barre Chords

In the early stages of learning guitar bar chords – or barre chords – are often big challenges. Beginners often suggest that they have individual difficulties with barre chords, such as small fingers, weak thumbs, or not knowing where to put pressure on the neck. These kinds of “difficulties” lead the beginner to look for easier alternatives to barre chords or to look for advice or tuition from experienced players to overcome their problem. In 99 percent of all cases, the solution is simply practice. Once you have learnt the basic chords in the first position, and are moving onto barre chords, make a point of practicing your chords every day. This will build the strength in your wrist and fingers that you need to play barre chords smoothly.

A simple exercise for gaining the strength and dexterity to play barre chords is this exercise:

  1. Hold your left index finger across all of the strings at the seventh fret.
  2. Strum the strings to make sure you are not muffling any strings.
  3. Holding your finger across the strings, play the notes shown on the tab, starting on the sixth string, and playing the exercise once on the fifth, fourth, third, second and first strings.
  4. Work back from the first string to the sixth.
  5. Do the same exercise holding your index finger at the sixth fret, and so on until you reach the first fret.


Practicing this exercise will give your left hand index finger the strength it needs while training your other fingers to act independently. You will find the exercise tiring and painful the first few times, but if you can practice it daily for a couple of weeks, barre chords will become second nature.

If, after a month or so of working on playing and changing barre chords, you feel that you have a particular problem you will probably find your answer on one of the guitar forums.