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How Many Guitar Chords Do I Need To Learn?

How many guitar chords do I need to learn? The answer depends upon the styles of music that you want to learn to play. Most styles of music and songs for guitar only involve a few chords.   

Basic Chords

There is a term called three-chord rock and roll. Three chords are the foundation for the most popular styles of music including rock, pop, blues, folk, and country. The basic chords are sometimes called open position chords or cowboy chords. Sometimes I see online guitar charts that contain way too many chords and a beginning guitar student has no idea which chords to learn first. Although there are hundreds of thousands of possible chords on the guitar, you only need to learn a handful to play lots of songs.

Here is a link to a basic chord sheet of 12 of the most commonly used chords: Basic Chords

Bar Chords

After you learn how to play the basic chords you can start learning some bar chords. Bar chords are physically more difficult to play and can take some time for your left hand to adjust to them. The advantage of learning bar chords is that they can be played anywhere on the guitar neck. This will enable you to be able to play more songs and play in any key without the use of a capo. Once you know a combination of basic chords and bar chords you can play most songs.

Here is a link to a sheet of three commonly used major and minor bar chord shapes: Bar Chords

Seventh Chords

Beyond learning major and minor bar chords you will want to learn some seventh chords. Seventh chords are commonly used in jazz, blues, r&b, and Broadway show tunes. Major and minor chords only contain three different notes. Seventh chords contain four different notes making the sound of the chord more rich, deep, and complex. The main three types of seventh chords are dominant (7), major (maj 7), and minor (mi 7).

Here is a link to a sheet showing you three common ways to play seventh chords: 7th Chords

Ninth, Eleventh, and Thirteenth Chords

Once you’ve learned basic chords, bar chords, seventh chords you may want to start learning ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth chords. Typically these chords are found in jazz standards and cool rock bands like Steely Dan. These chords are more complex sounding than seventh chords.

Here is a link to a sheet of some common ways to play ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth chords: 9th Chords , 11, 13 Chords

Why should I learn a lot of chords?

I like to think of chords the way an artist might think of a color palette. Major and minor chords are very black and white. Seventh, ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth chords give you more colors to choose from. Once you’ve learned how to play these chords you begin to recognize them by ear in songs and styles of music. If you want to be a songwriter, knowing a lot of chords gives you more freedom to express yourself. Maybe you want to play or write three-chord rock songs but you may also want to play or write a jazz composition. Once you’ve learned a variety of chords and the different sounds and emotions they create you will have a greater understanding of music overall!

I hope this inspires you in your quest to learn how to play the guitar!

Please feel free to email me any questions at howto@learnguitaronline.com.

Thanks for reading!

Andrew Morrison,
Learnguitaronline.com  (co-founder)