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Four Chords That Will Enable You To Play Almost Anything On The Guitar

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If dealing with major sharp chords and minor flat notes leads to major headaches, then this article is your antidote:  Just Four Chords - 4 Simple Beginner Guitar Chords, without fancy or hard-to-remember fingering, that will enable you (with the help of a nifty little trick) to play thousands upon thousands of songs.  Literally.  No expertise required!

But first, allow me address your unwarrented
cynical responses
to these marvellous claims:
Okay, So What's The Deal With This Capo Thingy?

A Capo (Kay-Po) is an ingenious little invention that allows us, for this exercise, to keep things real simplistic and not to have to progress down the road from easy to simple to difficult to MyHandHurtsSoMuchIHateGuitarAndWillNowDestroyIt! 

You see, the four beginner guitar chords that I will teach you, are simple open chords, but with many songs, especially when they use different keys (depending on how high or low the vocalist sings) you have to be able to play dreaded Bar chords!  These do not work well with any of the minors nor drinking songs.  They are also difficult chords (for beginners) and require a lot of finger-dexterity and hand-strength.

If you have none of these superpowers in your possession, then a Capo will solve all your problems.  With a Capo you can keep playing our four regular beginner guitar chords and make them sound just as if you were playing more complicated chords on different portions of the fingerboard.
Step 0 - The Prelimenaries

In chronological order of importance, what you now need to do is:

(1) Venture into the attic/garage/underground bunker where you've kept (read: forgotten about) your guitar, and get it (dust it off).

(2) Ensure that all six strings are still alive - give each a pluck or a poke.  No sound = death by non-use.  If your guitar only has four strings it's a bass and you're on the wrong website.  If you need to restring, see my guide.

(3) Ensure that you know how to hold it, which part points forward and which hand goes where.

(4) Tune it!  The more dust on your guitar, the more likely that it is horribly out of tune!  If you don't have an electric tuner, use this one on my site.  You can also tune with a piano or by ear.

(5) If you want to play with a pick (plectrum) have it close by.  While it's true that all the cool guitarists on YouTube use it, you don't really need it for this exercise, and your hands will do just fine by themselves.

(Note: This article is essentially a condensed version of the entire 'Basic Guitar Chords' section of my site, so you're welcome to have a look at that as well, for more detail.)
The G CHORD - I'm actually starting to look like Eric Clapton!

Em was obviously way too easy, so we're progressing to something more challenging.  G is a nice happy sounding chord and the root chord of the progression that you're now learning (that means it's the big chief of the four, the one you'll usually use to start your songs with).  This is what it looks like:
The D CHORD - Well that's a lot of fingers in one place.

We're notching up the difficulty level with every chord so far and the D chord might seem tricky as it draws all your fingers to the bottom of the guitar and has you fretting three different treble (high sounding) strings.
The C CHORD - Pain! My hand is in agony!

This is the most challenging of the four chords you will learn as it streches over three different frets and requires some more intricate fingerwork then any of the others.
Strumming: Allowing the Guitar To Sing

Whenever your right hand (if you're right handed of course) makes one full motion, with a pick or your fingers, through all the strings of the guitar, it's called a strum.  Each arrow in this picture represents one strum - the blue ones a down strum and the red ones an up strum.  This strumming pattern therefore has seven strums.  Well, six actually since we're skipping 5th strum (a downstrum) - it gives the pattern a nice sounding rhythm.
A Small Sample Of Songs That You Can Now Play
Just Four Chords? Sounds Far Fetched...

Do you know what an anagram is?  It's when you take an existing word and jumble up its letters to form something else.  Kind of like how you can take the contents of ‘DORMITORY and have it rearranged to mean 'DIRTY ROOM' or 'Mother-In-Law' o mean Woman Hitler.  Yes, there are great truths hidden in words.
A Gazillion Songs? Yeah Right...

Yeah maybe not a gazillion-trillion.  Maybe not even 10,000.  No one really knows exactly, since I doubt if anyone has ever counted.  BUT!  If someone assigned this excruciatingly painful task to some prisoner confined in solitary captivity, he would probably arrive at a number in the 4-5 digit range.  Seriously!  The math goes like this:  Four (4) simple beginner guitar chords = thousands upon thousands of songs in the genres of popular and rock music.

But why?  Well it's not that pop and rock composers are unoriginal.  Actually, allow me to rephrase... It's not that rock composers are unoriginal, it's that because of established norms in music, settled over decades of international experience from Nashville to Calcutta, most melodies that sell records follow a recognisable pattern.  This is not necessarily a bad thing since it has led to the beauty of simplified chord progressions!

New Phrase: Like its name implies, a chord progression is merely a progression of specific notes that are recognisable and that works well enough together that no-one cringes when they are played (this is important for selling records).  It also means that newbies like you and me can quickly learn to play a multitude of songs simply by grabbing on to one of these chord progressions.

And that's exactly what we're going to do here - in fact, soon enough you will have mastered the G Chord Progression, which is (in my humble and somewhat experienced opinion) a great place for beginners to start on the guitar.
Fine, but I don't have a Capo (Yet)

You don't absolutely need a Capo for the rest of this exercise, it's just a nice-to-have that'll enable you to play even more songs at the right key (which means it will be in range with yoru voice so that you don't have to sing too low or too high).

On second thought, a picture is worth a thousand capos, and by studying the complex diagram to the right you will spare me the effort of explaining how a pencil with rubber bands (that are nice and tight and causes the pencil to press down hard on tht guitar's fingerboard) can also work for miser’s who refuse to spend money on musical equipment, or for those who simple haven’t had time to run to the music store.
A Guitar Lesson is fairly useless if you cannot see and hear what you should be doing.  So the video extract to the left (courtesy of Jamplay) has a guitar teacher playing the Em chord using a couple of different fingerings - have a listen.

By the way, I recommend that you later have a look at what I've written on Jamplay - they're vamazing in my book!
Notes on the Em Chord - This is a good place to start, since it requires the bare minimum from your hands and brain.  For the E minor chord you are simply using your 2nd and 3rd fingers (that's the middle and ring) to press the two strings indicated on the 2nd fret of the guitar.  The graphic above really explains it best so study it closely.

The trick is to press these two string only (and only at the indicated frets).  In the beginning you are going to be absolutely conviced that there is no way this is possible as your hands are humengously large, and the teenwy weeny little bit of space on the guitar is so tiny.  We've all been there, but you'll be amazed at how quickly your hands adapt, and you'll learn to press lightly and carefully so that your fretting is precise.  See this article for more on big fingers!.
Anagrams contain many hidden truths.
Now, think back to the very first word you ever learned to write.  Maybe you were a prodigy composing bilingual poems straight from the womb, or like the rest of us, you were forced to cling to a creepy looking pointy object and make weird squiggly movements on white paper. 

What you did not know back then, right as you discovered that the pen was mightier than the diaper, was that your name is most certainly an anagram.  Who would have thought that by writing the 4-8 letters of your first name, you already possessed the power to write dozens or even hundreds of other words, just by mixing up the letters?

If you're the embryonic prodigy in this story, then you already see wherw I'm going with this simile... Because that is exactly the way that music works, only a little simpler.  While English is silly enough to have (at last count) up to 26 letters in its alphabet, musicians are much smarter and have long ago realized that you hardly need more than 7.  It all starts with an A and the crescendo ends with a G.  This also means, coincidently that if you ever meet a music teacher instructing you about "H-shap", he's venturing into the apocryphal (i.e. contents not generally excepted by sane people).
I'm going to teach you four of these seven chords.  Three of them are majors (which means they're awesome), and one is a minor (which means you can't play drinking songs with it).  Don't worry about the technical aspects though - this is a practical lesson, so get your hands on and your guitar ready!
What is a Capo?
The capo, as the beautiful spring-loaded mechanical device that it is, essentially serves as a moveable nut in that holds down the strings at whatever fret you connect it to (See the pic above).  It's ideal for adjusting the pitch of your song without changing your chords and I (like many others) usually use it when performing live since I don't want to sing, strum and force myself to play C sharp minor sustained 7th (as example) - A chord that will certainly encourage my hand to bend itself into a pretzel.
Pencil Capo
The Em CHORD - Guitar is this easy?

The Em (E Minor) chord is not necessarily the youngest of the lot, in fact the 'minor' part of its name refers to the fact that it, like all its minor brothers and sister, is a sad sounding chord :(  They're essentially equivalent to the black keys on a piano and a great deal of country music and she-left-me-songs seem to love this one.
Ouch!  Yes, the Pain is normal - but minimize it!

By now you've probably realized that learning the guitar - even just four simple beginner guitar chords - is not without it's fair share of hand pain!

There are two kinds of pain, the first is muscle discomfort as your fretting hand starts making movements hitherto unknown to its dextrous abilities.  The second is good of fashioned sore fingertips - ouch!  Both are normal, if uncomfortable experiences for new guitar players.
Listen to the video on the left to ensure that you're getting the correct sounds from your guitar.  The Guitar teacher from Jamplay does it best!  Take note that he sometimes uses different fingerings from my charts above. Feel free to experiment.

As I've mentioned, have a look at Jamplay in more depth, later.
Notes on the G Chord - Slightly more complex, the G guitar chord needs your hand to stretch, as you're fretting both the 6th string (thickest) and the 1st string (thinnest).

Use your
1st, 2nd and 3rd fingers for this (though I sometimes swap my ring finger for the pinky with this chord - I suppose whatever feels more comfortable).

Again, you need to try and press only these strings - a good trick to test is to pluck the individuals strings of the guitar from top to bottom while fretting this chord.  Each note need to come out loud and clear (not muffled).  It takes some practice, which is what you'll be doing when you're starting to play songs!
Not sure if you're getting it right?  Let the Jamplay guitar teacher show you the way!  Note that he also illustrates a couple of different fingerings for this chord.  Use whatever works best for you!

More on Jamplay
Notes on the D Chord - One tricky element of the D chord that's common to many of the simpler guitar chords, is that the top string (the thickest string, tuned to E) should not be played.  You can accomplish this by, when strumming (more on strumming below), simply missing it with your hands. 

There's also a trick where you can use your thumb, and by bending it over the top of the guitar's neck, gently rest it on the string, which will automatically mute it when you strum.  The C chord also has this same phenomenon so have a look.
Not sure if you're getting it right?  Let the Jamplay guitar teacher so you the way!  The C chord has only one standard fingering so that's what the teacher on the video uses as well.

More on Jamplay
Notes on the C Chord - Not quite as difficult as F (which we're not learning here), but pretty close!  C is simply hard because it has a really freaking awkward shape that your hands will not be used to, and that will probably give you a couple of cramps in the beginning.  Speaking of which...
How To Deal With Guitar Hand Pain
Guitar Fingers Ouch
The Quickest way to rid thyself of this horribleness is to practice regularly and develop calluses!
Stretch and Massage - The former before you practice and the latter after!  Try a variety of hand stretches that work the different muscles.
Take Regular Breaks - Every 20 to 30 minutes if you're an absolute beginner.  If you keep playing longer than that you'll end up with some serious hurt!
Dip you fingers in this stuff - It's called Methylated Spirits / Denatured Alcohol, and it hardens the skin on your fingertips. Naturally, use caution if you've got skin problems.
How to play Em Guitar Chord
How to Play G Guitar Chord
How to Play D Guitar Chord
How To Play C Guitar Chord
Popular Strumming Pattern
The trick with this is not to stop the strumming motion when you reach the third count.  Keep the motion in your hand going, BUT lift your hand slightly from the strings so that you pick/fingers does not touch the strings.  In the video below I'm illustrating this popular strumming pattern (without pressing any chords so all the strings are open).  Have a listen...
And that, is basically THAT!

Four Beginner Guitar Chords

+ Capo

+ Strumming Pattern

= Thousands of Songs.
One More Tip: An idea for changing chords smoothly

As a guitar teacher, I have frequently found myself in the fascinating position of have to study the faces of brand new players as they (now that they've mastered a few chords) try to change between two of these things while keeping in time with the music.

The result is a mix of pained frustration and incredulousness, and thinking back to the days when I started out myself, I understand completely.  Switching between different chords within a very short amount of time (while continuing to strum) seems like a pretty tall order, and while after about two months of playing it'll be the most natural thing in the world, it's hard in the beginning.
So here's a tip to help out for starters:  It has everything to do with fingering-efficiency (which is a phrase I just invented) and it basically forces you to position your hand in such a way that it minimizes movements between the different chords - making it easier to switch between them speedily and in style.

Instead of trying, with long textual explanations, to show what that would look like practically with our chords above, I recommend you take 6 minutes to listen to Orville Johnson from Jamplay, in the video below.  He does a masterful job of illustrating the concept, so have your guitar ready...
Jamplay is Amazing
Learn Beginner Guitar Tabs
For more on the specifics on chords, strumming and other beginner guitar concepts, I recommend you have a look at what I've written on Jamplay

With dozens of video lessons for guitar songs, by professional teachers, I highly recommend their series.
Learn Chord Sets
Where to from here?
Songs Using G, D, Em, C Guitar Chords
Four Beginner Guitar Chords