Don’t make learning guitar chords any tougher that it has to be! Read on to check yourself with some helpful advice from Stillwater, OK teacher Chris F...
I have been teaching guitar for several years now. Every now and then I evaluate the effectiveness of my teaching methods. What I’ve discovered is that there are many bad ways to go about teaching and learning guitar chords. Based off my experience, here are some ineffective ways people try to learn chords:
- They try to learn too many chords at once (and don’t learn any of them well).
- They don’t use a capo.
- They don’t use Roman Numerals.
Let me break these problems down one by one and suggest some alternative habits that will get you learning guitar chords and playing better in no time.
Trying to learn too many chords at once
95% of popular music is made up of four kinds of chords. Often, these chords are G, C, D, Em. These are the first four guitar chords that you should know like the back of your hand. Countless songs in all genres can be played with these four chords. If you can play these four chords quickly and well, you’re better off than someone that can play 15 chords just alright.
The next two chords you should learn are Am and F. Those six chords will open up countless songs. Keep in mind that you’ll run across chords like Em7 and Cadd9. Those chords have additional details which will be easy to add down the road. For now, just play the first letter in the chord. Similarly, chords like G/B and D/F# should just be read as the first letter for now. Don’t make the mistake of getting caught up in too many little details. Learn the six chords above and play as much as you can with them.
Not using a capo
A capo is a device for guitar and other fretted instruments that moves all the pitches on the guitar up a certain amount (e.g. up two frets or five frets). They are inexpensive and are absolutely essential for learning guitar chords and songs. With a capo, countless songs can be played with the six chords mentioned above. The songs are still playable without a capo, but much harder chords are required to play them. Fortunately, the six chords above are easier to play and sound better than the non-capoed chords. Invest in a capo and you’ll use it all the time.
Not using Roman Numerals
Roman Numerals in music is a way of thinking about chords like numbers. For example, when we’re in the key of G (all that means now is that we’re using G, C, D, and Em together), G = I, C = IV, D = V, and Em = vi. These numbers are based off of the musical alphabet. G is 1, A is 2, B is 3, C is 4, D is 5, and E is 6. These numbers represent something much more important than G, C, D, and Em. In fact, it’s these numbers (and no so much the chords) that are going through the brains of the pros when they’re playing through a song. Why these numbers are used will become more and more clear down the road. Memorizing and practicing them is the important thing to start with as a beginner.
To practice this, take ten or more chord charts and replace G, C, D, and Em with I, IV, V, and vi. For example:
You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy, when skies are grey. (G – C – G)
You’ll never know dear, how much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away. (C – G – Em – G – D – G)
You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy, when skies are grey. (I – IV – I)
You’ll never know dear, how much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away. (IV – I – vi – I – V – I)
If you get these numbers in your head now, you’ll learn songs much more faster down the road. It may seem pointless, but it’s one of the most useful things you can do as a guitarist. There is much more to be said about Roman Numerals, but that will have to left to another article.
Avoid these three mistakes and you’ll have a huge advantage as a guitarist and a musician. Happy playing!
Chris F. teaches guitar, piano, music theory, and more in Stillwater, OK. He has been active in collegiate percussion ensembles, marching and concert bands, various choirs, chamber music groups, jazz combos, an award winning jazz big band, bluegrass combos, drum and bugle corps, and private lessons on several instruments, as both a section leader and as a teacher. Learn more about Chris here!
Photo by simon_music