The guitar is a gateway to the world of music and the musician community. At least part of the attraction to the guitar has to be the relative ease and speed in which a complete novice can bring a guitar home and transform into a level one guitar player — someone who can play rhythm guitar while they (or someone else) sing along.
Of course, this won't happen overnight, but it can happen quicker than you might think. Everyone can learn to play the guitar at a basic level if there has been even a small commitment to learning and practicing a handful of useful chords.
There are 16 basic guitar chords, but really most songs use a handful of those chords or slight variations of them. Once a new guitarist has practiced and mastered these basic chords and learned some essential strumming techniques, it becomes possible to make the jump from not being able to play anything on the guitar to being able to accompany almost any song they want to sing.
The sixteen basic chords are the masonry of the guitar; when you commit to learning the basic guitar chords, really what you're doing is laying a solid foundation to build on your musical ability. Once you have committed these chords to memory, your options for the type of musician you want to be open up.
You may want to be a really great level one guitar player. But if you want to expand your skill set, you are free to do so. You can learn to play with another guitarist (level two guitar player), or you can deepen your knowledge of music theory and learn the different pentatonic scales — which will be the basis of any guitar solos you might want to do in the future (level three guitar player). So there you have it.
Once you've put in the work to learn these chords, you can begin to grow your arsenal of songs and expand your skills.
Really, it's up to you how far you want to take your technical skill, but becoming proficient at playing rhythm guitar and singing along is an essential first step in that journey, and it's definitely within reach for anyone who wants it.
So think of it this way: once you've mastered the sixteen chords and some fundamental strumming technique, you basically become a musical chameleon, which is both pretty cool and empowering. Because the guitar is used in literally every single genre of music, you are free to deep dive into one genre you especially love, or dabble a little in them all.
Okay. So let's say you now know the sixteen basic chords, you've practiced them in some sort of progression, and you can strum; in other words, you're ready to start playing actual songs. Now what?
A really useful resource for guitar players at any level is ultimate-guitar.com. You can search for a specific song or artist, genre, decade, etc. You can choose to have the music shown to you in chords, so if you don't know how to read standard tablature, that's okay. There are also a few really helpful supports built into this website for newer guitar players. For example, each song you select, there is a visual model of how to strum and an audio example, which is really great.
Additionally, there is an option to simplify the song if you don't know chords like Asus or Gadd9 or the like. This site will be a go-to resource for you once you've set yourself up to succeed by learning the basic chords.
You probably picked up a guitar so you could play some songs, so let's get to it. A really good place to start would be learning a few songs that use only the G, C, and D chords.
First of all, these are the simplest chords to play; luckily, there are hundreds of songs out there that use this progression with no other chords in the mix. Additionally, they're the most frequently used chords. You'll notice that these chords show up in almost every other song. Lastly, an added bonus — the maneuver from the G to C chord or vice versa is reasonably easy to master for the brand new guitarist.
From there, try some songs that add in one or two more chords — the most logical next step would be A, Am, E, Em, or Bm. When your dexterity is developed enough to master the F chord, you can play almost any song you want. Here's a list of fifteen multi-genre songs that only use basic guitar chords.
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Here are a few songs to get you started that use the easiest chord progression:
#1 Blowing in the Wind by Bob Dylan
Any list without a Bob Dylan song seems incomplete. It's helpful to start with songs that you might already know, so this quintessential Dylan makes the cut. With only C, G, and D chords used, plus easy strumming, this one is a perfect place to start.
#2 Ring of Fire by Johnny Cash
This is such an iconic, classic country song that it's basically synonymous with the guitar itself. The chords here are mostly G and C, with a few D chords mixed in, so the progression is easy. The trick here is the strumming. It's pretty fast, but since the chords are simple, it's doable with some practice.
#3 Release by Pearl Jam
This one is as simple as it gets with its easy chord progressions and it's slower pace, you can probably get this one memorized fairly quickly.
Once you've mastered some variations of the C, G, and D chord progressions, you can try to throw a few new chords into the mix to get a new sound to build on your skill set.
#4 The Night We Met by Lord Huron
This song is a great place to start adding another chord into the mix because there is only one additional chord needed (Em) and the strumming is simple.
#5 Jolene by Dolly Parton
Another classic country song with staying power. This song has been covered hundreds of times, and it's a great song to learn for a few reasons. The first is that you have only four chords here (G, C, Em, Am). The second reason is that this is a major crowd pleaser that will have everyone in earshot singing along with you.
#6 Wagon Wheel by Old Crow Medicine Show
There is an incomplete version of this song, originally written by Bob Dylan back in 1973, but Old Crow Medicine Show completed it. Similar to the Lord Huron song, this one has C, G, D, and Em chords, but you need a capo on the second fret for this one.
#7 Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd
Who doesn't love this song? Here's a familiar tune that will challenge your base of chords by using C, G, D, A, Am, and Em with some support since you probably know how it's supposed to sound.
#8 Before You Go by Lewis Capaldi
Here's a pop song that uses D, Bm, G, and A chords. If you need a break from classic rock, country, or folk, here's a good one for beginner guitarists.
#9 Landslide by Fleetwood Mac
This song is for sure one of the most iconic Fleetwood Mac songs out there, and it's great for a guitarist who feels comfortable with G, C, Am, D, and Em chords, and who might want to try out finger picking.
Once you master this notoriously difficult chord, your options for songs really opens up. Here are a few softballs to get you started.
#10 Depreston by Courtney Barnett
It could not get easier than this one. First of all, there are only two chords, F and C, plus one very easy riff on the B string. It's such a simple song that you could have it memorized and ready to break out at your next campfire within an afternoon.
#11 Needle in the Hay by Elliott Smith
This song mixes in F, C, E, G, and Am, but the strumming pattern is simply a series of eighth note downstrokes, which allows you to focus more on getting the chords right, rather than having to think about the strumming rhythm. This one is a great song to help you master the F chord.
#12 I Need my Girl by The National
This song is another great place to start building your skills with the F chord due to its Am > F > C > G chord progression. These chords only need minor adjustments between them, so just put a capo on the third fret and you're ready. The hardest part of this song is imitating Matt Berninger's low voice.
#13 Stay by Rihanna feat. Mikky Ekko
This one is a bit more complicated as it uses more chords (C, Dm, Am, F, G,Em) and switches pretty quickly between them. This one might be for those ready to stretch their zone of proximal development, but it's a pop song that lends itself really nicely to the acoustic guitar.
#14 Skinny Love by Bon Iver
This song is by far Bon Iver's most popular one yet, and it's fairly simple with the chords Am, C, D, F, G and it has a consistent strumming pattern throughout. Singing in Justin Vernon's iconic falsetto is optional.
#15 Here Comes the Sun by The Beatles
Can you even create a list of guitar songs to play if you don't include a Beatles song? This is a song probably everyone knows, and it's a great one to stretch your progress. Even simplified, it uses seven different chords — D, G, A, E, Bm, F, and C — and you can move on from strumming to finger picking if you're ready.
There you have it. Fifteen songs that work well for anyone who can play the basic guitar chords; these songs are accessible to experienced guitarists, novice guitarists, and the occasional guitarist — someone who has to remove a layer of dust from their guitar because it's been a minute since it was last played.
Beginning guitarists — isn't it kind of reassuring that before you even get the iconic calloused fingers of a seasoned guitar player, that you'll be able to play almost any song that you would want to? Any time invested in practicing pays off fast with the guitar.
It should also be noted that if you're a novice guitar player, and you feel like you just can't get the hang of playing and singing at the same time — stick with it and go slow.
At first moving through chord progressions and strumming might feel like a challenge you have to think really hard about; remember being young and trying to pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time? Playing the guitar is a little like that initially.
Add singing and you might feel overwhelmed. Work on learning songs that just use G, C, and D chords before you move on. But above all, keep after it, and have confidence in the strength of your foundation. Learning the basic guitar chords is a huge step forward, so remember that if you feel like you're not progressing fast enough.
People might be drawn to learn the guitar because of its versatility and relative simplicity; knowing just the basic principles allow you to do a lot with the guitar. But, versatility and simplicity aren't why people continue to pick up the guitar and play everyday. Learning the guitar — or any instrument for that matter — is all about intentional, holistic connection.
Physically, fingers connect to the strings to play specific notes. Mentally, isolated skills connect into one cohesive sound. Emotionally, music at its core is all about connection to ourselves and each other. Music brings people together and creates a shared experience whether it's being played at a live show or just in a living room.
It's pretty incredible that all this connection is made possible from a foundation of sixteen basic guitar chords.
If you want to expand your skills with guitar lessons, send us a message, and we can get you scheduled. You can also visit our PDF guides page to find resources for teaching yourself how to play guitar.
This step-by-step guide starts from zero, so beginners can learn how to sing and play at the same time as quickly as possible. These are the basic instructions that should come with every new guitar, and it's what should be taught in every student's first guitar lesson as well.
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