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What are chords?

If you are just starting out playing folk-style guitar, you'll need to know how to make the chords. Here's a very brief non-technical explanation* of how these work.

The strings on a guitar are each tuned to a particular note (usually E,A,D,G,B,E from lowest to highest/thickest to thinnest). When you press your fingers onto a string on the fingerboard (neck), you are in effect shortening the string, and raising the pitch when it's played. Each fret marks one semitone, so you can play many different notes on each string, as you go further up the neck. Most basic chords are made in the first three frets.

Certain combinations of notes sound "right" to our ears; these are the chords. If we press down the strings in particular positions, we can reproduce the notes in these chords when we strum or pluck the strings. This makes good "backing" music for singing along to (we could also play a melody or tune by making individual notes and plucking the strings, but the chords are easy to play and great to accompany singing).

Folk songs, children's songs and many popular songs often have fairly simple melodies, so only need a few chords to accompany them.

What about keys?

The key of the music refers to a set of 8 notes that always go together (you can hear them when you play a scale). The key of C goes from C through D, E, F, G, A, B and C again. Other keys have sharps and/or flats (these are the black notes on a piano).

Sharps and Flats:

A sharp note is a semitone higher than a note, and is written as _# , e.g. C#;

a flat note is a semitone lower and is written as _b, e.g. Bb.

There is no semitone between B and C or between E and F, so the notes are, starting from A: A, Bb (or A#), B, C, C# (or Db), D, Eb (=D#), E, F, F# (= Gb), G, Ab (or G#), then back to A...

Note that Bb is the same as A#, and so on. If you look at the Key Transposer , you will see this sequence. There is a key for each of these (A through to G#/Ab).

Each key has a set of chords which are built on notes in the key.

The main or "tonic" chord in the key has the name of the key, e.g C is the main chord in the key of C. (It is built on the tonic note plus the 3rd and 5th note of the scale).

The "dominant" chord is built on the 5th note of the scale- so in the key of C, this would be G. The dominant 7th chord (e.g. G7)is often used, as this seems to lead your ear back to the main chord (the dominant 7th chord adds in the 7th note, but flattened).

The "sub-dominant" chord, e.g. F, is the other most frequently used chord. It is based on the 4th note of the scale (with the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes added).

Then there are minor chords, e.g. Am (also written as Amin or sometimes just a).

There are also various other less-commonly used chords, e.g. major 7th, (maj7), diminished (dim), and so on... but you'll pick those up later on.

You can play and sing in different keys, depending on what pitch suits your voice- i.e. if you have a high or low voice, male or female. You need to try out different keys to see which suit you.

Some songs are easier to sing than others, because they have a narrower range of notes in the tune, or the tune is more regular and predictable. If you're not used to singing, try to find some easier songs to practise on (the songs on this site in the easy range are good for this, too). 

*My theory is a bit rusty, and I'm trying to make this as simple as possible, so please forgive me any lapses...

                                              FIRST CHORDS

Here is a chart of first chords to print. Click on the link.

I'm assuming you're using your left hand to make the chords, and your right hand to strum/pluck the strings. This is the usual way. if you really need to play "left-handed", you'll need to reverse everything, and will need your guitar re-strung in reverse order... so it's better if you can learn the regular way, then you can pick up any guitar to play.

Here's how to use the diagrams:

Don't be put off by all the labels; the main things you need to know are: The name of the chord (at the top), where to put your fingers (the dots), and which fingers to use (the numbers). Remember that the top of the diagram is the head end of the neck. You can turn the diagram sideways if it helps.

Remember to press the strings down firmly, just behind the fret so the strings have a good clear ring when you strike them. Try to get your fingers as perpendicular as you can so they don't interfere with the other strings. Short fingernails are definitely recommended. Start off with your thumb near the middle of the neck at the back, so you can arch your hand around gracefully. It will feel awkward at first, but you should get the hang of it in a few weeks or so if you practise.

At first, you'll get sore fingertips (especially if you are using steel strings!). Try practising for no more than half an hour or so at a time, but a few times a day, until you build up some callouses on your fingertips. Also try not to tense your hand too much- relax your wrist. It is worth persisting!


So now you can make chord shapes with your left hand, what do you do with your right hand?

Simple- for now, just strum. Use your thumb, and drag it from the top to the bottom across the strings, near the sound hole.

Practise until this becomes smooth. Then you can try a little flick upwards between each downward strum, so that you can get a bit of rhythm going.

Once you are more confident, you can vary the pressure to mark the beat (DOWN up, DOWN up, if it's a song in regular 4/4 timing, or DOWN, down-up, down-up for a 3/4 song such as The Streets of Laredo.

Then you can try using your fingernails as well- perhaps just your thumb and first fingernail at first. Work out what's most comfortable.

If you really want to use a pick, you'll need to work out how tightly to hold it, and the best angle to use. If your guitar doesn't have a scratch-plate, I wouldn't recommend a pick. It's easier to pluck the strings with your fingers, too.

PLUCKING- This means using your fingers to sharply pull on one or more strings. Play around with this, using the chord shapes with your left hand.

You can do little runs up and down the strings (arpeggios), so that it makes a rippling effect. Later on, I'll add some right hand patterns. Remember to make it fit the rhythm of the song. Experiment, listen to other guitarists, and have fun!

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