Open chords are the first chords people learn on the instrument. They are called open because they incorporate open strings with fingered notes as well.
It is easiest to start by learning 8 common open chords. These are E, A, D, C, G, Em, Am and Dm.
We’ll show diagrams for each of these chords below. There’s a couple of steps involved in learning the chords. Firstly is to learn to finger the chords with your left hand so you can strum it and have all the appropriate notes ring out.
After being able to finger the chord while allowing yourself time to move your fingers to the appropriate fret and position a major skill you will need to learn is to be able to transition between the chords smoothly. For example, a typical chord progression may hold each chord for say 4 or 8 beats and you will then need to be able to change to the next chord quickly end efficiently so that there is no break in the music between chord changes.
This skill can take some time to develop. I recommend starting to learn this with basic chord progressions that involve what we will term “pivot fingers” to make the transitions between chords easier when your first learning to change chords. These pivot fingers are a finger that does not change fret or string between two consecutive chords. As you are already fingering the first chord, you can simply keep your pivot finger in place while you adjust your other fingers to the next chord in the progression. This means you have one less finger to worry about in finding the next chord as its already in place.
After presenting the 8 common open chords below, I’ll include a number of chord progressions that use these chords and involve pivot fingers in the transitions between chords. These progressions should be simpler to pick up than progressions that do not involve using pivot fingers.
I recommend to learn to finger and strum the 8 common chords and as you do this, work your way through playing these progression that utilize pivot fingers.
As you work on these progressions, you will need to be utilising a strumming pattern to strum the chords with with your right hand and your pick. This topic of developing different strumming patterns can become quite involved but the way I would approach it at this point is to learn a few different strumming patterns and then be able to apply any of these strumming patterns you have learned to any of the chord progressions we present.
You can see some basic strumming patterns that can be used for this in our basic strumming patterns resource.
Once you are able to play these “pivot finger” progressions with different strumming patterns and transition between the chords smoothly you should be in a good position to start to tackle chord progressions that utilize these 8 common open chords but don’t necessarily have pivot fingers to help the transitions. At this point there are heaps of different songs you will be able to strum along to. After presenting our “pivot chord” progressions, I’ll include a number of chord progressions based on the 8 common open chords and indicate a song that utilizes each of the progressions, you should learn these progressions with the various strumming patterns you have learned and you might also like to play along with the recording of the song and try to figure out the strumming pattern that is used in the actual recording.
Once you can do this, you will have a reasonable grip on playing with open chords, you can then start to learn more open chords and strumming patterns to increase you vocabulary. At the bottom of the article we present some more open chords to learn following the 8 common ones. It will then be up to you to learn to finger the new chords and find progressions that involve the new chords to practice with as you increase your chord vocabulary. It is my hope that by learning the 8 common chords in the method above, you will have the skills to learn more open chords, progressions and strumming patterns yourself.
So now, down to the material we’ve talked about.
The 8 Common Open Chords
These are the 8 common open chords that can be used to strum along to countless songs.
First, some notes on reading the chord diagrams. Take a look at this C chord diagram:
The diagram represents a vertical fretboard. The leftmost string is the low E string and the rightmost is the high E string. Each diagram represents the first few frets of the guitar plus the open strings. Each black dot shows where you need to fret the corresponding string and the number in the dot indicates which finger you should use to fret the note. The fingers are numbered 1 for the index finger, 2 for the middle finger, 3 for the ring finger and 4 for the pinky.
Also, when a string does not have a black dot on it there will either be a cross or a circle above the string. These strings do not have any fretted notes. A circle indicates the string should be allowed to ring, playing as an open string while the cross indicates the string should not ring out during the chord and should not be strummed with your right hand during the strumming pattern.
For each of the 8 common chords, here is a chord diagram and photo of the chord being played.
A few things to note when looking at the photos are the angle at which the wrist is bent as well as the angle of curvature in the knuckles and finger joints. This will be different for each player depending on the size and shape of their fingers and hands but seeing the examples in the diagrams should still be useful. Feel free to experiment a bit to see what you find comfortable.
As you try to play these chords, a few points to note:
- For the most part, you want to try and press the string down with your finger tips rather than the flesh on the front of your finger.
- As you play each chord, check for each string that each finger is only pressing the desired note and is not touching the other strings that would result in dampening, or muting the string and stop it from ringing out.
- Pay special attention that as you strum the chord, you are only strumming the desired strings and not strumming any of the strings that have a cross above them in the diagrams.
- As you first learn the chords, allow yourself to slowly find a good hand position to finger the chord with your right hand and then when its sounding clearly, practice some of the basic strumming patters shown here while holding the chord down. This will help you learn the strumming pattern in preparation for applying it to the below chord progressions without the additional difficulty of having to change chords while learning the pattern.
Pivot Finger Chord Progressions
Here are the chord progressions that utilize a pivot finger where one finger can be held in place while you change chords. This makes the chord change easier as there is one less finger you need to worry about when changing chords.
For all these chord progressions, you can keep repeating the chord progression until it is feeling more comfortable.
We’ll start with progressions just involving two chords to make the changes between chords easier. You should learn all of these progressions, before moving on to the other progressions, and apply the strumming patterns we’ve talked about to them.
Two Chord Pivot Finger Progressions:
||: Am | | C | :||
This chord progression above has two pivot fingers, the 1st and the 2nd finger. To change chords you simply keep these two fingers in place and move the third finger to the desired location.
||: Em | | G | :||
For this progression the 1st finger is the pivot finger.
||: A | | D | :||
Once again, the first finger is the pivot finger for the above progression.
||: E | | A | :||
For this progression, the first finger is the pivot finger but you do need to slide the finger from the first to the second fret between E and A while holding it down. You then slide the finger from the second to the first fret to change back from A to E.
||: Em | | C | :||
The 2nd finger is the pivot finger here.
||: Am | | A | :||
Once again, a 2nd finger pivot.
||: Em | | A | :||
2nd finger pivot again.
We will now work on progressions with more than two chords. Each chord change involves a pivot finger similar to the above progressions.
||: Em | | Am | | C | | Em | :|| ||: Em | | Am | | C | | Am | :|| ||: Em | | C | | Am | | Em | :|| ||: Em | | C | | Am | | C | :||
For the next three progressions, the pivot finger needs to slide a fret while moving to and from the E chord as detailed above:
||: A | | D | | E | | | :|| ||: A | | D | | E | | D | :|| ||: A | | E | | D | | E | :||
||: Em | | A | | D | | A | :||
For virtually all of these progression, each chord is held for 8 beats. When you are comfortable with this try the same progressions but only holding each chord for 4 beats instead of 8. This will be a bit harder as you are having to change chords more quickly.
Something to note here is we are unable to present any pivot chord progressions involving Dm from the 8 common chords. This is because this chord does not share any common fingerings with the other chords. You will need to get used to Dm with progressions that don’t involve pivot fingers.
Chord Progressions From Popular Songs
Here are some examples of using only these 8 chords to be able to stum along to popular songs. Along with each chord progression, I’ll indicate which section of the song uses the chord progression and sometimes embed a youtube video of the track so you can try strumming along with it.
Knocking on Heavens Door – Bob Dylan
||: G | D | Am | | G | D | C | :||
This song uses this one chord progression through the whole track.
Runaway Train – Soul Asylum
Chorus Chord Progression:
|| C | | Em | | Am | | G | ||
This progression is used for the chorus at 1:05 and 2:15 in the video as well as repeating from the last verse till the end of the song from 3:04 in the video till the end.
Zombie – Cranberries
||: Em | | C | | G | | D | :||
This chord progression is used throughout most of the song, only occasionally reverting to the more simple:
||: Em | | C | | Em | | C | :||
A lot of this song uses different fingerings of the chords with distorted guitar, but these are still the chord progressions adopted and you can still stum along to the song with an acoustic or clean guitar sound. Strumming these chords on an acoustic would be a good way to do an unplugged version of the song.
Brown Eyed Girl – Van Morrison
Most of this song uses the progression:
||: G | C | G | D :||
Except the chorus at 0:39, 1:18 and 2:24 which uses the progression:
|| C | D | G | Em | C | D | G | D ||
Apart from these progressions, there are just a few other points that hold a single chord such as the second and third choruses that hold the final D chord for a couple of bars.
Sweet Home Alabama – Lynyrd Skynyrd
The whole song uses the progression:
||: D | C | G | :||
If your getting quick with your chord changes you can add in another C chord right before the repeat:
||: D | C | G | C :||
Bad Moon Rising – Creedance Clearwater Revival
The whole song repeats the progression:
||: D | A G | D | || || D | A G | D | || || D | A G | D | || || D | A G | D | || || G | | D | || || A | G | D | :||
Aint No Sunshine – Bill Withers
The following progression is used through most of the song:
||: Am | Am | Am | Em G || || Am | Am | Am | Em G || || Am | Am | Em | Em || || Dm | Dm | Am | Em G :||
The key to making this sound good is to carefully pick which strings you strum. For example, it sounds better without strumming the top E string on the G chord.
Once you’ve got these 8 chords working well, here are some other chords around the open position I find useful. There’s also an addition to the chord chart notation here. Take the F chord:
The curved line across the first and second string implies you should barre these strings with you finger as shown with the first finger holding down the first and second strings in the photo: