Learning Open Chords and Strumming for Guitar

Woman sitting on sofa and playing acoustic guitar
Tetra Images / Getty Images

The third lesson in this series of lessons aimed at beginner guitarists will include both review material, and new material. We'll learn:

Lastly, as with the previous lessons, we'll finish up by learning a few new songs that use these new techniques we've learned.

of 08

Learning an E Major Chord

Playing an E-major chord is actually very similar to playing an A-minor chord; you just need to switch the strings you are playing the chord on. Start by placing your second finger on the second fret of the fifth string. Now, place your third finger on the second fret of the fourth string. Lastly, place your first finger on the first fret of the third string. Strum all six strings and you're playing an E-major chord.

Now, as in the last lesson, test yourself to make sure you're playing the chord properly. Starting on the sixth string, strike each string one at a time, making sure each note in the chord is ringing clearly. If not, study your fingers, and identify what the problem is. Then, try to adjust your fingering so the problem goes away.

of 08

Learning an A Major Chord

An A-major chord is a little tougher; you've got to fit all three of your fingers on the second fret, and it can feel a little crowded at first. Start by placing your first finger on the second fret of the fourth string. Next, put your second finger on the second fret on the third string. Lastly, place your third finger on the second fret of the second string. Strum the bottom five strings (being careful to avoid the sixth), and you'll be playing an A-major chord.

Another common way to play an A-major chord is by flattening one finger across the second fret of all three strings. This can be tricky, and initially, will be extremely difficult to play cleanly.

of 08

Playing an F Major Chord

The F-major chord has been left until last because of its difficulty. Many new guitarists have a problem with the F-major chord because it involves a new concept—using your first finger to press down frets on two strings.

Start by placing your first finger on the first frets of both the first and second strings. Now, slightly roll the finger back (towards the headstock of the guitar). Many people find this technique makes playing the F-major chord slightly easier. Next, place your second finger on the second fret of the third string. Lastly, place your third finger on the third fret of the fourth string. Strum only the bottom four strings, and you're playing an F-major chord.

Chances are, at first, very few, if any of the notes will ring when trying to strum this chord. Check to make sure your second and third fingers are curled, and not flattened against the other strings of the guitar. Although this chord seems nearly impossible at first, within weeks, you'll have it sounding as good as the rest of the chords you play.

of 08

Chord Review

Including the three new chords in this week's lesson, we've now learned a total of nine chords. That might not seem like a whole lot, but at first, they can be hard to memorize.

Getting these chords memorized is just the first step. In order for them to be useful, you'll have to learn to move from chord to chord fairly quickly. This will take much practice and patience, but you'll get the hang of it!

The main reason most beginners have trouble switching chords quickly is because of wasted movement in their fretting hand. Study your fingers when moving from chord to chord. Chances are, one (or a few) of your fingers will come way off the fretboard, and often hover in mid-air while you try to decide where each finger should go. This is unnecessary, and can really slow you down. Now, try again—play a chord, and before you switch to another chord, visualize playing this second chord shape. Picture in your mind exactly which fingers will need to go where, and only after you've done this should you switch chords. Pay attention to any small, unnecessary movements your fingers make, and eliminate them. Although this is easier said than done, your hard work and attention to detail will start paying off quickly.

of 08

New Strumming Pattern

Guitar strumming patterns

In lesson two, we learned all about the basics of strumming. If you still aren't comfortable with the concept and execution of basic guitar strumming, return to that lesson and review. This strum isn't much different from the one in lesson two. In fact, many guitarists find it slightly easier.

Before you try and play this pattern, take some time to learn what it sounds like. Listen to an mp3 clip of the strumming pattern, and try to tap along with it. Once you are comfortable with it, try it at a faster speed. Now pick up your guitar and try playing the pattern while holding down a G-major chord (be sure to use the exact upstrokes and downstrokes the diagram illustrates). If you're having trouble, put down the guitar and practice saying or tapping out the rhythm again, making sure to repeat it multiple times. If you don't have the correct rhythm in your head, you'll never be able to play it on guitar.

Remember to keep the up and down strumming motion in your picking hand constant - even when you're not actually strumming the chord. Try saying out loud "down, down up, up down up" (or "1, 2 and, and 4 and") as you're playing the pattern.

Tips for Strumming

  • Make sure all strings are ringing clearly.
  • Make sure the volume of your down-strums and up-strums are equal.
  • Be careful not to strum too hard, as this can cause strings to rattle and produces an undesirable sound.
  • Be careful not to strum too softly, as this will produce a "wimpy" sound. Your pick should be striking the strings with a firm, even stroke.
  • Think of your elbow as being the top of a pendulum; your arm should swing up and down from it in a steady motion, never pausing at any time.
  • Having said that, the bulk of the picking motion should come from a rotation of the wrist, rather than from the forearm. Be sure not to keep your wrist stiff when playing.
of 08

The Blues Scale

This blues scale is referred to as a "movable scale", meaning that we can play the scale anywhere on the neck. For now, we will play the scale starting on the fifth fret, but feel free to play it at the tenth fret, at the first fret, or anywhere else.

As with previous exercises, the blues scale requires precise fingering in your fretting hand in order for it to be most useful. All notes on the fifth fret will be played by the first finger; notes on the sixth fret will be played by the second finger; notes on the seventh fret will be played by the third finger; all notes on the eighth fret will be played by the fourth finger. One of the best ways to start working on the coordination in your fingers is to practice playing scales. Although they may seem boring, they will help build the strength and agility your fingers need to play the guitar well. Keep that in mind while practicing this new scale.

Count up to the fifth fret of your guitar—on most guitars, the fifth fret will be marked with a dot on the fretboard. Place your first finger on the fifth fret of the sixth string and play that note. Next, put your fourth (pinky) finger on the eighth fret of the sixth string, and again play that note. Now, continue to the fifth string, and follow the pattern illustrated above, until you've reached the eighth fret on the first string (listen to scale). Take your time and learn this scale well as it will be one that you use often.

Tips and Tricks

  • Use alternate picking.
  • Once you've finished the scale, try playing the scale backward—start at the first string, third fret, and play all notes in exactly the reverse order.
  • The key here is accuracy, not speed! Try playing the scale very slowly, making sure that each note is ringing clearly.
of 08

Learning Songs

The addition of three new minor chords to this week's lesson gives us a total of nine chords to learn songs with. These nine chords will provide you with the opportunity to play literally hundreds of country, blues, rock, and pop songs. Give these songs a try:

House of the Rising Sun, The Animals
This song is a little tough at first; it uses five of the nine chords we've learned. Ignore the picking pattern for now—instead strum each chord six times quickly with only downstrums.

Last Kiss, Pearl Jam
This song is quite easy to play, as it only uses four chords which repeat for the entire song. Use this week's strumming pattern for the song (play the pattern once for each chord).

Mr. Jones, The Counting Crows
This one might be tough, because it uses an F-major chord and because some chords are held longer than others. Playing along with a recording of the song should help. Although this week's strumming pattern isn't exactly what they play, it will work fine.

American Pie, Don McLean
This one will be hard to memorize! It's very long and has lots of chords, but it should be a good project. Ignore the 7ths—play Amin instead of Am7, Emin instead of Em7, and Dmaj instead of D7. Also, ignore the chords in the brackets for now.

of 08

Practice Schedule

Try to practice fifteen minutes every day. It's not a lot of time to play guitar, but even fifteen minutes of practice will yield good results over time. If you have the time to play more, it's highly encouraged—the more the better! Here's a suggested use of your practice time for the next few weeks.

  • Make sure your guitar is in tune (review how to tune).
  • Warm up by playing the blues scale, forwards and backwards, several times. Play slowly, use alternate picking, and make sure each note rings clearly.
  • Play the E phrygian scale from lesson 2 several times, paying careful attention to detail.
  • Review all nine major and minor chords we've learned. Practice moving from chord to chord quickly.
  • Spend some time working on this week's new strumming pattern. Also, be sure to revisit the lesson two strumming patterns. Try switching from chord to chord while using these patterns.
  • Try to play one or a few of the songs above. See if you can memorize part of a song, and the lyrics to the song. At this point, songs probably won't sound great when you try and play them, but with some patience, you'll be sounding like a pro within months!

As was suggested in lesson two, if you find it impossible to find the time to practice all of the above in one sitting, try breaking up the material, and practicing it over several days. There is a strong human tendency to only practice things which we are already quite good at. You'll need to overcome this and force yourself to practice the things you are weakest at doing.