Learning guitar is all about technique, chords, and progressions. If you’re an aspiring country guitarist, there are a few chords you need to learn. Here, Katy, TX guitar instructor Zachary A. breaks down the 12 essential country guitar chords you need to know.
Country music was derived from traditional Western folk music, and roots music that originated from the Mississippi Delta. When it comes to playing country music, there are 12 essential chords that you need to master. These chords are used in thousands of popular, well-known country songs.
Remember, mastering the guitar can take years of practice. You don’t have to be the best guitar player in the world when you’re just beginning your journey. When you’re learning chords, memorize the finger placement so you don’t have to refer back to the diagrams. Playing a series of chords in a progression is the most efficient way to memorize chords.
Country Music Theory
Now let’s look at the basic music theory behind country music. Country music uses a lot of major guitar chords. It also uses the dominant 7th chords. These chords can be built in any key using any scale with a tiny bit of music theory knowledge.
Building Major Chords
Major chords are made up of three notes: the tonic, third, and fifth interval. These three notes are pulled directly from the scale of the chord that you are playing. Let’s look at the C major chord as an example. The C major scale is C(1)-D(2)-E(3)-F(4)-G(5)-A(6)-B(7)-C(8). It consists of natural notes (no sharps or flats). To build the major chord, take the first, third, and fifth notes from the C major scale (C-E-G).
Here’s another example with the D major chord. The D major scale is D(1)-E(2)-F#(3)-G(4)-A(5)-B(6)-C#(7)-D(8). Take the first, third, and the fifth notes, which are D, F#, and A.
Building the dominant 7th chord is just as simple as building a major chord, but we add one more step to the process. First, take the first, third, and fifth notes from the desired scale. The next step is to take the seventh note from the desired scale.
For the D dom7 chord, use the D major scale (D-E-F#-G-A-B-C#-D). Use the first, third, fifth, and now, the seventh note. This gives you D-F#-A-C#.
For a minor chord, take the first, third, and fifth notes from the scale, but this time, use the minor scale rather than the major scale. Try this with the C minor chord. The C minor scale is C-D-D#-F-G-A-A#-C. When you pull the first, third, and fifth notes, you get C-Eb-G. This process is a lot easier when you memorize the major and minor scales. Remember the steps: W-W-H-W-W-W-H for the major scale, and W-H-W-W-H-W-W for the minor scale.
If you want to play and build a progression, select three or four of the 12 essential chords, and make up a progression or sequence. You can make up tons of different progressions with the 12 essential chords. Playing these progressions will help you transition from chord to chord. You can use any rhythm when you play. When you practice, you should focus on making smooth transitions (no gaps or hesitation) from one chord to the next. Start out slow, and then pick up the tempo.
Build Your Own Progressions
I will use E major to show you how to build your own progression. Use the E major scale, lift the tonic (E), third (G#), fifth (B), and the seventh note (D#). When you build a major triad over these four notes, you get the four chords of the I-III-V-Vii chord progression. This rule will work for any chord progression you want to build.
There are hundreds of songs out there that use the 12 essential country guitar chords. Alan Jackson’s song “Drive”uses G,D, and C, and repeats the G-D-C-C pattern for the majority of the song.
“Check Yes or No,” by George Strait, uses a I-IV-V chord progression in the key of D. The D-G-A pattern repeats throughout the song.
Now that you know the essential country guitar chords and the history behind them, it’s time to start practicing. You can use these classic country songs to practice the chords and perfect your technique.
Need some help perfecting your country guitar skills? Find a private guitar instructor near you!
Zachary A. is a guitar instructor in Katy, TX specializing in beginning and intermediate students. He is currently earning a degree in music theory. Learn more about Zachary here!
Photo by Atauri.