One of the best things about the guitar is that you only need a handful of chords to unlock an impressive repertoire of songs. Open-string basic chords are where everybody starts when they first pick up the instrument, so whether you’re looking to learn classic songs or write material of your own, knowing these easy acoustic guitar chords is a must.
It takes some practice to be able to memorize chord shapes and switch between them quickly enough to play a song. The good news is that once you have just 5 basic chords down, you can play along with dozens of your favorite tunes.
In this post, you’ll learn how to read guitar chord grids along with the 5 important guitar chord shapes. We’ll take a look at one chord-change exercise that will help you get your chord playing skills up to speed in no time. And we’ll review some of the most popular songs that use these basic chords, so you can strum along!
How to Play 20 Guitar Songs with 5 Basic Chords
If you’re just starting out on the guitar, it’s good to be aware of some of the challenges that every new player faces. The fact is that everyone’s fingers feel awkward the first time they try to learn the guitar, but it’s important to stick it out at least until you have the basic chords down. Your fingers need to develop some strength and dexterity in order to switch between chords quickly, and the only way to do this is to keep on playing. Even five minutes a day for a couple of weeks will make a huge difference!
Understanding Chord-Grid Notation
Along with guitar tablature (or “tabs”), chord grids are an important shorthand method of notating guitar music. Although it is important for all guitar students to learn to read music notation eventually, tablature and chord grids are usually a better option for beginners who just want to learn simple rock, pop, or folk songs quickly. Remember, the notation is just a means to an end, and just another way to learn something you’ll play on your guitar.
With chord-grids, you are looking at a simple diagram, or snapshot, of the guitar neck. The guitar is oriented so that the headstock is pointing upward; horizontal lines represent the fret-wires that separate the frets (spaces), and the vertical lines are strings.
Dots inside the diagram represent left-hand fingers, which are placed over the string inside the indicated fret. For the ‘A’ chord pictured here, all three fingers sit inside the second fret. Set your fourth (pinky) finger on the 2nd string, your third (ring) finger on the 3rd string, and your second (middle) finger on the 4th string.
Often the left-hand thumb will stay anchored on top of the neck to deaden the sixth string. Alternatively, the edge of a fretting finger can be used to mute an adjacent string. This is called a flesh mute and allows the guitarist to strum all six strings so that only five strings are heard.
5 Open-String, Easy Guitar Chords for Beginners
Once you understand the notation, the next step is to get the chords down by memory. In some cases, these basic guitar chords can be remembered easily by comparing them to geometric shapes. If you connect the dots inside each grid, you’ll see that the ‘A’ is a straight line, the ‘C’ is a diagonal line, the ‘D’ is an equilateral triangle, and the ‘G’ chord forms an isosceles triangle.
After you have the chords memorized, it’s time to check each chord string-by-string to ensure all the notes are sounding. Pick through each string going downward from the bass strings to the treble strings. Listen closely to verify each note. If a string is muted, try resetting the fingers so they sit higher on the fingertips. Make sure the fingers do not touch against any open strings, thereby dampening them.
Chord Change Drills
Practice changing between any two chords using this simple drill. Play each chord on beats 1 & 3, lift the fingers completely on beats 2 & 4, and repeat. Make sure to set and remove all the fingers together (simultaneously). By doing this for a few minutes each day, you will learn to do fast and clean chord changes in the left hand, which is key to being able to play songs well.
20 Beginner Guitar Songs Using Only A, C, D, Em, and G Chords
Now that you’ve mastered the easy guitar chords for beginners, you can move on to learning dozens of new songs. When taking on a new number, start slowly and work your way up to the tempo of the song. Once you’ve got it down, try playing along with the recording or grab friends and ask them to sing along! Many songs will have small variations in how the chords are played, and you can explore that after you’ve got a grip on the basic chords.
Here’s a list of 20 easy guitar songs that use only these five chords:
1. Bad Moon Rising (Credence Clearwater Revival)
2. Eleanor Rigby (The Beatles)
3. Brown Eyed Girl (Van Morrison)
4. Catch the Wind (Donovan)
6. Sweet Home Alabama (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
7. Lightly Row
8. Amazing Grace
9. Time of Your Life (Green Day)
10. Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star
11. Heart of Gold (Neil Young)
12. Old MacDonald
13. Story of My Life (Social Distortion)
14. Louie, Louie (The Kingsmen)
15. What I Got (Sublime)
16. Free Fallin’ (Tom Petty)
17. Anything, Anything (Dramarama)
18. Rockin’ in the Free World (Neil Young)
19. Mary Had a Little Lamb
20. Viva la Vida (Coldplay)
These songs are just the beginning! If you need help mastering these chords or want to add more difficult chords (such as the F Chord) to your repertoire, the best way is to work with a guitar teacher near you. Taking guitar lessons is a great way to ensure that you’re building your skills on a solid foundation. Now go have fun rocking out!
Photo by BrianYuen