Basic Acoustic Guitar Chords For Beginners – Four Chords That Made a Million

I remember being really obsessed with the guitar when I just started out. One Saturday I played eight hours straight and I couldn’t play the next day because my fingers were too hurt. Looking back at it now, it was a wonderful period, because I learned so much in such a short time. But at the moment, it didn’t feel so wonderful. I wanted to progress too fast. I skipped important steps because I was too impatient. I learned some chords the wrong way. After some failed attempts, I even tried to cheat myself out of playing some chords.

This lesson is all about getting you started the right way. And I think the best way to get started is by learning some basic acoustic guitar chords.

What Are Chords?

Chords are the foundation of everything you’re going to learn on acoustic guitar. No matter how advanced, you will always fall back on chords. Learning how to play a single chord can be hard and sometimes very frustrating, but once you’ve mastered it, you will benefit from it for the rest of your musical journey.

So what exactly is a chord? A chord is a combination of three or more notes, played at the same time. That’s really everything you’ll need to know for now. There’s a lot more to it, but I’m gonna keep this lesson as simple as possible.

Chords can be played anywhere on the neck, but in this blog, I will focus on basic chords, which are located close to the nut.

Basic Guitar Chords.

When musicians use the word “basic”, they don’t just mean “easy”. A lot of the basic chords in fact are easy once you’ve figured them out, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important. They’re the base the acoustic guitar is built upon.

In this blog, I’m going to learn you four basic chords. Knowing how to play these chords will take you a long way. Steven Wilson once wrote a song called “Four Chords That Made a Million”. There are hundreds of songs that can be played with just these four chords.

Bbsus4/Ab, Bm7/add11… WHAT???

Reading chord names can be daunting at first. Sometimes you’ll see crazy kind of names for chords with cryptic symbols, numbers and sometimes even quotations. Don’t get too impressed by those.

We’ll start with the basics and go from there. I’ll be doing my best to lead you towards easier songs to get started.

For now, it’s important to know that there are major chords (example: A, B, C, D, E, F, G) and minor chords (example: Am, Bm, Cm, Dm, Em, Fm, Gm). This is not a music theory lesson, so I’m not gonna go too much into the theory of what makes them different, but it’s good to know that major chords have an uplifting sound, opposed to the sadder sound of the minor chords.

What Chords To Play First?

E minor

I always teach the Em first, because you only need two fingers to play it. It’s very commonly used, so it’s a fantastic way to start.

Use your middle and ring finger from the start as shown in the picture. It might seem easier to use your index finger because it’s stronger, but it makes a lot more sense to use the middle two fingers when you’re going to transition to other chords.

C major

The red line means you are not supposed to hit the lowest string. In time, you’ll learn to mute it with other fingers on your left hand, and we’ll focus on that in another lesson, but for now, just focus on simply not hitting the lowest string.

Notice how the middle finger is on the same place as it was in the Em chord. Keep that in mind when you’re going to transition between those two chords.

G major

There are a lot of ways to play this chord. I’m teaching you the classic way. It’s a bit of a stretch at first, but your fingers will get used to it after even just a few minutes of practice.

There are a lot of open strings in the middle that will ring out beautifully.

D major

It depends on the player, but this one seems to be the trickiest one to get down for beginners. The finger position is almost spider-like. Getting the finger position right is hard at first. That’s completely natural for every beginner.

Like the C chord, the top string should not get played, but in this chord, you also don’t play the second string. That requires attention when you’re transitioning between chords, especially when you’re coming from the G chord.

Tips and Tricks

  • If you’re having a hard time placing your fingers, try placing them one by one. Index finger first, middle finger second, ring finger third and lastly the little finger. Doing this every time will make it easier for your fingers to gain muscle memory. Especially the D will need this kind of special attention.
  • Don’t put your fingers in the middle of the fret. Going a bit to the right (to the iron of the next fret) will eliminate some buzzing.

  • Opposed to a piano, where when you press a note it already sounds pretty, the acoustic guitar can be a little frustrating in the beginning, because it will not sound good instantly. It’s not a disaster if every note doesn’t ring out beautifully at first. You’ll get the finger strength in time. Focus on remembering where to place the fingers first. Then find out which notes are causing problems and focus on those.
  • Pay attention to where you place your thumb. Don’t place it sideways on the neck. Place the thumb on the center of the neck as shown in the pictures.

  • If you feel like you’re stuck, take a break. Your brain and your fingers will be thankful and you will notice it will go a lot better after even a short 5-minute break.
  • Don’t worry about your right hand too much for now. Chords come first, strumming comes after. There will be a lesson about strumming really soon!

Here Comes The Fun Part!

You learn the most when you’re having fun. So here are some songs that use the Em – C – G – D progression for a big portion of the song.

All the songs beneath can be played without a capo, together with the music. Clicking on the title will bring you its Youtube link.

Cranberries – Zombie (entire song)
The Cure – Maybe Someday (most of the song, except bridge/outro)
Gavin DeGraw – Chariot (main theme and verses)
Smashing Pumpkins – Disarm (verses)

Guitarists often use capos or tune their guitar lower to match the voice of the singer. Playing along to the music of these songs will sound strange because they are in a different key, but if you’re familiar with these songs you can play them on your own.

Beyonce – If I were a boy
Eagle Eye Cherry – Save Tonight
Damien Rice – Nine Crimes
John Legend – All Of Me
Jason Isbell – Stopping By
Coldplay – Paradise

You will notice that some songs I just posted have a few sections where the Em – C – G -D chord progression doesn’t fit. The chorus of “Disarm” by Smashing Pumpkins is an example of that.

Sites like ultimate-guitar.com are specialized in tabs and guitar chords. I challenge you to look for a song like Disarm (or any other song on this list) on there. You’ll see that even though they’re not playing the chords in the same order, 95% of the chords I taught you in this lesson are still being played, just in a different order. This is called a chord progression, and that’s something I’ll be talking about in another lesson.

Outro

That’s all for now. You’ve already come a long way! Don’t underestimate what you can do when you really master these chords. Of course, you’ll be learning lots of other ones as well, but those are for another lesson.

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave a message below.

Happy strumming,

Timo.

9 thoughts on “Basic Acoustic Guitar Chords For Beginners – Four Chords That Made a Million

  1. thanks for the tips timo,

    I am embarking on the mission of trying to teach my son guitar.

    I learned the hard way about a thousand years ago so I am trying to make it a bit more fun for my son.  He has a lot shorter attention span and I like your idea of keeping it fun.

    I am hoping once he learns a few songs his confidence will start to grow.

    1. Thanks for the reply, Remy!

      I definitely advise you to focus on music he likes. My father tried to teach me some church songs when I was 9 years old, and that just didn’t motivate me to keep pushing through. 

      The internet is your friend. A site like Ultimate-guitar.com has more than a million songs catalogued. 

      Good luck to you and your son!

      Timo

  2. Hello Timo. I am really happy that you shared this basic tips in playing a guitar. I have a mixed feelings after reading your article. I feel happy because I’ve learned something and at the same time, feel ashamed because all the while I was thinking that I have been doing it right. Like the Em, I’ve been using my index finger on the top string because it seems comfortable but it looks like a mess when shifting to another chord. Another blunder- To be honest, I just knew now about the mute string. When I played the C chord, I always strum the top string. Maybe this is what happens when we DIY. -without reading a lot. Hahaha what a shame. Your article is great. A checker one. 🙂

    1. Hi Joyce,

      Thanks for your comment. That’s so frustrating, isn’t it? Having to re-learn chords is like learning how to walk differently.

      Don’t feel ashamed though, it’s part of the process as a DIY’er and can be learned from 🙂

      Timo

  3. Hi Timo,

    Thanks for the really good artikel!

    I have only one question.

    When you say with the C major. That we can’t hit the lowest string. Do you mean we don’t touch it when using our left hand?

    Thanks for the help!

    1. Hi Mira,

      What I meant is that you don’t strum the lowest string with your guitar pick (or fingers of the right hand).

      I’ll edit my post to make this more clear. Thank you for your question! 🙂

      Timo

  4. Hey Timo

    I wish the Internet had been around when I first learned the guitar as a youngster. All I had was a grumpy guitar teacher and very sore fingers when I first learned chords!I Iremember struggling with the D for sure. 

    I think the biggest hurdle for beginners is impatience. One wants to be able to play songs before one has mastered the basics. Your post will definitely help beginners to master the basic chords fast and feel kike they are actually making progress.

    Mark 

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