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Beginner Chords You Can Play with Just 3 Strings

By Gary Heimbauer for Guitar Tricks and 30 Day Singer

Many guitar players think that you need five or six strings to play most chords like G, C, or Em, but the reality is that these chords are made up of only three notes (a triad) and can often be played on only three strings! This is perfect for beginner guitar players. For instance, the notes of a G major chord are G, B and D. When we play the traditional six-string version of this chord in open position, from low E to high E, we are playing the notes G, B, D, G, B, G. That’s two Gs, two Bs and a D! What we can do instead, and what I recommend to very beginners is to first focus on the top three higher strings to play guitar chords

Four of the most common open chords in the most common guitar key of G major are the chords G, C, D and E minor. Here’s a graphic of these four chords, but I’ve highlighted just the top three strings.

As you can see, G and C can be played with one finger. E minor requires NO fingers, and D, being the hardest, requires three fingers and looks exactly the same as the “full” D. You might not find these fingerings on your everyday guitar chord chart.

See if you can play the G chord using your ring finger on the third fret of the high E string and only strumming the top three strings closest to your toes. Try to use the tip of your ring finger instead of pressing with the pad of your finger.

Now see if you can play the C chord with your index finger on the first fret of the B string, or the second string counting toes to nose, and strum the same three strings. Be careful on the C not to touch the third string or the first string with your index finger. Try to point it straight into the fretboard, pushing down on the string with the very tip of your finger.

Now for the E minor chord, just lift up your index finger and play the same three strings open, but don’t take your hand off the neck. Keep it ready to go to the next chord.

Ok, now comes the hardest one – the D chord! For this one, you want your hand on a bit of an angle so that your index finger can fret the second fret of the third string, and your middle finger can fret the second fret of the first string, while both of them are nice and close to the fret wire (just behind it without being on top of it). After that, curl your ring finger around to play the third fret of the second string! Now strum the top three or four strings counting toes to nose.

By playing these chords in the following order – G, D, Em, C – you’re playing what’s known as the pop progression. It’s been used over the last 50-80 years extensively from the Beatles to Jimi Hendrix, to Green Day, to Adele, to Justin Bieber, to Red Hot Chili Peppers. Focus on playing these four chords in this order over and over to a beat and making the changes in time without falling behind the beat. Don’t worry about any strumming patterns. You can start as slow as you need to. In the lesson video, I guide you through this activity. 

In the key of G, this chord sequence is called a I-V-vi-IV (1-5-6-4) progression. G is the first chord in the key of G, while D is the fifth chord, Em is the sixth chord, and C is the fourth chord.

If you look up on Wikipedia “the pop progression,” you’ll see a list of 100s and 100s of songs that use this progression but are in different keys. If you have a capo you can simply move the capo to a new key, but still play these four chord shapes I just taught you! All you have to do is find the note of the key on the low E string (string six, counting toes to nose) and put the capo three frets closer to the nut of that key. The logic here is that the note G is three frets up from the nut without a capo. So the new key has to be three frets up from the capo, which replaces the nut!

This is how many acoustic singer-songwriter-type musicians can play so many songs in so many keys with just a few open chords!

Watch the lesson video for a full demonstration on everything I went over in this blog post!

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