For beginner guitarists, reaching the point of playing your first song — and ultimately first batch of songs — is really important, for many reasons. The biggest one being that it means you’re applying the skills you’ve been working to develop and therefore you’re showing proven, tangible progress. This is not only rewarding, but encouraging fuel for the next steps too.
The great news is that so many fantastic songs are formed of only four chords (and sometimes even three). Not only this, but they’re very often ‘open chords’ — meaning chords including some open strings, not involving stretching any fingers across all the frets at once — that delightful hurdle is still to come!
For these reasons, it’s perfectly within reach to get playing some songs, fast. Go for it!
The chords you need
In short, the answer is ‘the basic open chords.’ In practice, this means the following chords:
Strumming, timing and changing chords
Before learning songs, make sure you can comfortably strum each chord from the correct starting string, both downwards and back up, for four beats, or two beats, before then changing to another chord from the list.
Some chord changes, such as C to A minor, or E to E minor, are very accessible as they only involve one finger switch. Others, such as D to G, or F to G, are more involved. If there are any changes you find particularly difficult, practice it in isolation to get it up to scratch.
The process of learning the song
Break this down into simple steps:
- The chords that appear in the song
- The sequence in which they appear (the ‘chord progression’ or ‘chord pattern’)
- The way in which the chords are strummed (the ‘strumming pattern’)
Generally, this last step is the only real potential stumbling block. It’s a good idea to start with a simplified version of the strumming pattern, then fill in the gaps in complexity as you advance. The main thing is playing the song start to finish, either along to the song, or as you sing, or playing with others.
Strumming in time
When you’re first learning how to play a song, or learning to strum, it’s really great practice to simply down strum each chord played in a song, to accentuate the beat. If you listen to the song “Let it Be” by The Beatles, you will notice that the piano plays very simple chords in the entire song. Every time you hear the song, you can simply play the corresponding chord with a down strum when the piano chord is played. Learning strumming patterns are easiest when you take it slow and try to find when the chords change.
In order to find the exact strum pattern of a song, it may be difficult to hear the difference between an upstroke and a down stroke so it’s good practice to try and find a live video of the song being played to try and imitate the up and down strokes. But for the most part, a guitar player will be able to hear something like muted strings since they’re easy to identify via their chugging sound. Listening to a song will also give you hints as to when the chord changes happen since the entire sound of the song will be different.
Perhaps the number one reason why strumming is so difficult is because usually songs are strummed alongside lyrics and it can be tough to get the timing of chord changes to match with the words. In this case, it’s good to play a song slowly, and listen to the words, so that you can cross reference the lyrics with the chord changes. This is a tricky thing but we definitely recommend counting the strums by saying “one – and – two – and – three – and – four”. Each number can be a down strum and each “and” can be an upstroke, it all depends on the song. There is no science to learning strum patterns, since there are so many songs and so many patterns to learn. But if you learn a song very slowly, and listen carefully you will have a better grasp of the strum pattern.
Suggested song list
The Beatles – Let It Be (Uses C, G, Am, F)
This classic from The Beatles’ album of the same name features very simple strum patterns and it can be played entirely with open chords. The chord progression was recorded with a piano, however anyone can easily play this with a single acoustic guitar. You can even skip the guitar solo since it’s not very long to begin with. The strum pattern can be entirely played via down strums on each beat.
Bob Dylan – Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door (G, D, Am, C)
Bob Dylan songs are not the most complicated songs to learn and can easily be played on an acoustic guitar, just like how the folk singer played it himself. This particular track is may be a little tricky simply due to its strum pattern which can take a bit of time to nail down. The strum pattern uses mostly down strokes when going from G to D to C, but after C you throw in a couple of down and up strokes before jumping back to the G. Once you get it, it’s not too bad as, there are only four chords to contend with, and luckily they are all open chords!
Johnny Cash – Hurt (Am, C, D, G)
This Johnny Cash song is super simple, and can be played by anyone who is starting to learn guitar for the first time. As with the other songs on this list, the chords are all open chords. The great thing about this song is that the strum pattern is fairly simple as they’re all just a couple of notes picked out before hitting the beat with down strokes. If you want to get fancy, there are some single notes you may want to pick to really play like “the man in black.”
Eric Clapton – Wonderful Tonight (G, D, C, Em)
Clapton is usually known for his electrified blues from his time with Cream and his solo work but “Wonderful Tonight” was the beginning of a new era for Clapton. The song is from his fifth solo album titled Slowhand. In addition to the four chords, it includes a short, but memorable lick. The strum pattern follows something like “Down – and – up – down – up – down – up – down.” The “and” is a short beat where you do not play anything.
…And so many more! There are loads of lists of brilliant songs using only four chords out there.
You also may have noticed that there’s a huge crossover between these songs. Because although there are five songs there, each using four chords, so 20 chords in total, there are only six different chords being used here.
Additional writing by Billy Saefong.