How to play guitar chords

Picture yourself in this scenario: You’ve been learning guitar for a few months and you’re sitting in a room on a cold, bleak day holding a cheap acoustic guitar with old strings that are too high above the fretboard. It’s literally painful to play and the resulting sound is hardly inspiring. Hopefully it’s all “up” from here? It certainly can be!

In an ideal world, here’s what you can do:

  1. Invest in a good electronic tuner and make sure the guitar is well tuned. Tuners can be bought as a standalone device from music stores, or as a smartphone app. We recommend Cleartune, by BitCount (Android/iOS). Make it a priority to keep your guitar in tune and listen carefully to it. If a string sounds even slightly out of tune, question it and double check.
  2. Invest in a better instrument. Cheap guitars and older instruments have poor intonation and will not tune well, no matter how good you are. Understandably, it is not always easy for those on a budget, however even a reasonably affordable, brand new instrument will be a worthwhile upgrade, provided it is not bought from a bargain bin, second-hand, or as part of a cheap guitar package.
  3. If your strings are too high above the fretboard (this distance is called ‘action’) then consider having your instrument adjusted professionally at a guitar repair/servicing store. This will make the guitar much more comfortable to fret notes and play.


Upgrade Your Guitar Chords Technique!

Granted, practice is a big part of what learning the guitar is about. However, if you have been playing for a few years and are still not satisfied with the sounds you’re getting then make sure you’re observing the following:

  1. Make sure your fretting fingers are placed just behind the fret for each note of the chord.
  2. Place just enough pressure on the string to avoid buzzing. Too much pressure can cause the string to go slightly sharp and you’ll sound out of tune.
  3. Many guitarists make the mistake of not listening to every note of the chord. Play each note individually before strumming, to be sure they can be heard. The more you do this, the more your fretting hand will find the optimal position for each finger and you’ll build muscle-memory.
  4. Use a heavy pick. A heavier pick will encourage better technique, greater volume and fuller tone, since it gives more resistance against each string. This forces your strumming/ picking hand to use greater accuracy when strumming & picking. The thickness of the pick will allow for greater volume, while your tone will not sound thin or “plastic-y” as is common with light picks.
  5. Your strumming hand should use wrist-motion, not arm-motion. You’ll be able to play faster and gain greater control this way.
  6. Practice strumming the guitar quietly and loudly. When playing in general, strum moderately loud, so that you’re projecting well.
  7. Strum gently, but consistently. Smoothly brush the pick across the strings, but not too slowly. Avoid digging in and ‘crunching’ them together or creating so much movement that the strings vibrate against the fretboard. With practice, a gentle but consistent strumming motion can still generate decent volume, so don’t be concerned that it won’t be loud enough. This will ease tension on your muscles as well.

Guitar Chords to Try!

Let’s take a simple chord progression like this:


Here are a few ways to make this progression sound sweet to the ears. Use open guitar chords for this exercise.

  1. Bar 1 – strum the G chord, observing all that was said above in the Technique section. It should be sounding bright, loud and clear.
  2. Do the same for the Em chord. When you reach C, make sure you strum only the top 5 strings. It will sound much cleaner than strumming all six strings, as the bass note of the chord will be a C (the same as the chord name) rather than an E. To help you achieve this, place your third finger (which is currently on the lowest note of the C chord) in a position where it slightly mutes the bottom string. The edge of your fingertip need only touch the bottom string to do this.
  3. Lastly play the D7 chord on the top 4 strings only, using the same root-note principle as with the C chord. It would be possible to play the 5th string as well and still have a regular D7 chord, but because the lowest note is then an A instead of D, the chord is not as clean and defined. Practice strumming only the top 4 strings.
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Where To From Here?

Contrary to what you might think, the open chords (within the first 5 frets) are some of the best sounding chords you will ever learn. The famous American guitarist Chet Atkins once joked, “Don’t play above the fifth fret… there’s no money there.” The open chords do have a particularly strong sound to them and are well suited to sustained rhythm playing and fingerpicking. Here are some more ways this progression can be brought to life:

  1. Using a pick, slowly and evenly play the lowest note of each chord (G, E, C and D respectively) followed by the top 3 strings, in the order of 3, 2, 1, 2, 3, repeated twice in each bar. For example, the first chord would be played as low G (6th string) followed by strings 3, 2, 1, 2, 3. Repeat that chord before moving to low E, followed by 3, 2, 1, 2, 3 etc. Make sure each note is loud and clear. It should create a nice arpeggio effect.
  2. Pick each note loud and clear and let them ring as long as you can before the next chord change. This can be used to add dramatic effect on ballads and fingerpicked music.
  3. Try different voicings of these chords, such as the ones suggested below. Over time you’ll learn more voicings and substitutions which can spice up a chord progression. Try the following, using the same picking pattern:



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What Are Maj7 Chords

Before you begin your study of maj7 chords on the guitar, let’s take a look at a definition for these commonly used jazz chords that you can study and use as the theoretical basis for these shapes.

Maj7 chords are four-note shapes that contain the interval construction Root, Major 3rd, Perfect 5th and Major 7th.

To help you hear and see these chords in action, here are two closed position maj7 chords, meaning that all intervals R-3-5-7, are played in order on the guitar.


While these two shapes sit well on the fretboard, most closed position chords are tough to play, which is why we shuffle around the intervals of the chord to form new shapes on various string sets of the guitar.

This will be the focus of this lesson, learning how to play maj7 chords in different inversions and on various string sets around the fretboard.

Maj7 Chords – 6432 Shapes

Now that you know how to build maj7 chords, let’s start taking that knowledge to the fretboard.

This first set of maj7 chords is played on the 6432 string set, with a string skip between the lowest two notes of the chords.

When playing these shapes, and any maj7 chord shape that contains a string skip, you can strum those chords while muting the 5th string, pluck them with your fingers, or play them with your pick and fingers (hybrid picking).

Here is the interval structure for each of these four inversions of maj7 6432 chords.

  • R-7-3-5
  • 3-R-5-7
  • 5-3-7-R
  • 7-5-R-3

Here are those four shapes on the guitar.


When you have these four shapes memorized, try playing them in as many keys as you can around the fretboard in order to get a full grasp of how these shapes sit on various parts of the fretboard.

Maj7 Chords – 5321 Shapes

The next set of maj7 chords is found on the 5321 string set, with a string skip between the lowest two notes, and contain all the same interval structures as the previous four chords.

Here is the interval structure for each of these four inversions of maj7 5321 chords.

  • R-7-3-5
  • 3-R-5-7
  • 5-3-7-R
  • 7-5-R-3

Here are those four shapes on the guitar.


When you have these four maj7 chords memorized, try playing the 6432 and 5321 shapes together in order to hear how each of these chords sound similar, yet contain their own unique texture, on the guitar.

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Maj7 Chords – 6543 Shapes

The next set of maj7 chords appears on the 6543 string set, and you will now play all four notes in a row on the guitar, there are no string skips as you saw in the previous two groups of maj7 chords.

These shapes can sound muddy on the guitar, as they are on the lowest four strings, so you might have to adjust your tone and pickups when playing them over a jazz tune so that each of these notes rings clearly and can be heard by other musicians and an audience on a gigging situation.

Here is the interval structure for each of these four inversions of maj7 6543 chords.

  • R-5-7-3
  • 3-7-R-5
  • 5-R-3-7
  • 7-3-5-R

Here are those four shapes on the guitar.


Once you have these four shapes under your fingers, try playing the 6432 and 6543 maj7 chord inversions back to back on the guitar, which will allow you to hear the similarities and differences between these two maj7 chord groups.

Maj7 Chords – 5432 Shapes

Moving on, here are maj7 chords on the 5432 string set, which contain the same interval structure as the previous chord shapes, 6543 string set, but now you have moved those four notes up one string each on the fretboard.

Here is the interval structure for each of these four inversions of maj7 5432 chords.

  • R-5-7-3
  • 3-7-R-5
  • 5-R-3-7
  • 7-3-5-R

Here are those four shapes on the guitar.


Once you have these shapes memorized, try playing the 5321 and 5432 maj7 chord shapes back to back in order to hear how they all have the same chord quality, but bring a different texture to maj7 chords when played on the guitar.

Maj7 Chords – 4321 Shapes

These maj7 chords contain the same interval structure as the previous two groups of chords, but they are now found on the top four strings of the guitar.

Because they are in the higher register, legendary jazz players such as Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, and others commonly use these maj7 chords in chord melody and chord soloing phrases.

Here is the interval structure for each of these four inversions of maj7 4321 chords.

  • R-5-7-3
  • 3-7-R-5
  • 5-R-3-7
  • 7-3-5-R

Here are those four shapes on the guitar.


Now that you have learned three groups of maj7 chords that do not contain a string skip, try to play through all 12 of these shapes over one chord, such as Gmaj7, to test your memory and hear how all of these shape sound when played in a row on the fretboard.

Maj7 Chords – 6532 Shapes

The next set of chord shapes fall on the 6532 string set, and as you will notice, contain a string skip between the lowest two notes of each chord.

As was the case with the first two sets of maj7 chords you learned, you can strum these shapes by muting the 5th string, or you can pluck each note with your fingers, or hybrid picking approach.

Here is the interval structure for each of these four inversions of maj7 6532 chords.

  • R-5-3-7
  • 3-7-5-R
  • 5-R-7-3
  • 7-3-R-5

Here are those four shapes on the guitar.


Once you have any of these shapes under your fingers, try playing between the 6432, 6543, and 6532 shapes on the guitar in order to hear how each of these shapes sound similar in quality, but have different textures.

Maj7 Chords – 5421 Shapes

The final maj7 shapes that we will look at in this lesson fall on the 5421 string set, and contain the same interval structure as the previous shapes, but each note is now found one string higher on the guitar.

Here is the interval structure for each of these four inversions of maj7 5421 chords.

  • R-5-3-7
  • 3-7-5-R
  • 5-R-7-3
  • 7-3-R-5

Here are those four shapes on the guitar.


As always, start by memorizing the root position chord in a number of keys on the fretboard, and then move on to the rest of the chords from there, memorizing each shape as you learn how to play it on the guitar.

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How to Practice Maj7 Chords

When learning how to play any of these maj7 chord shapes on the guitar, one of the best exercises to use is play these chords through the cycle of fifths.

By working on maj7 chords through the cycle, you’ll be covering all 12 keys in your practice routine, as well as work on moving between these shapes in time, which can be a tough task when first working on these shapes in your playing.

There are a few ways that you can practice maj7 chords through the cycle:

  • Pick one chord shape and work it through the entire cycle
  • Move between two or three chord shapes through the cycle, allowing yourself to choose between these shapes as you play through the progression
  • Pick a series of four inversions, one group of chords from the examples above, and move between those inversions in your playing over the changes. Which will allow you to play all 12 keys without moving your hand very far up or down the fretboard.

Whichever approach you take, working maj7 chords through all 12 keys will help prepare you to confidently use these shapes over jazz tunes when you take them to a musical setting.

If you are unfamiliar with the cycle of fifths, here is a chord chart and backing track that you can use in your studies.

Listen & Play Along maj7-chords-9

Do you have a question or comment about these maj7 chords? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

The Easy Guide to Jazz Guitar Chords

How to Play Maj7 Chords was last modified: October 11th, 2018 by Matt Warnock


In place of the regular three finger C chord you can start off using the fingering of an A minor chord. Another way to say this is to use just the two first fingers of the C chord and leave off the third finger. This actually makes and a minor chord, but if you strum just the top fourth strings it's the same notes of the C chord.

This is easier because you don't have to stretch the third finger over. I use this with students especially if their hands are small or their fingers are stiff. It's a good stepping stone to fingering the full C chord. It sounds pretty good also.

Eventually as the student gets comfortable with this I have them add the third finger to make the full C.

BeFunky_guitar with nature.jpg


Touching other strings when you're trying to play chord will mute the sound of the strings. This is common when you're first learning. A lot of this can be sold just by patience and persistence. Get the fingering of the chord the best you can and then practice changing from one chord to another slowly. Over time you will likely figure out how to keep from touching, or muting, the other strings  little by little. There here's a few pointers can help:

  • Hand position is important. You should have years fingers, as much as possible, go straight up and then straight down on the string. There is no exact angle, but many beginners tend to straighten out their fingers when fingering guitar chords more than his optimal. Here's a picture of what a good angle with the C chord will look like.
  • You'll want to press the string using mostly your fingertip and not the flat pad of your finger. Again it takes practice but it's something to pay attention to.
  • A good guitar chord exercise to start with is to just finger the chord, strum it once or twice, make a few adjustments, strum again, and then take your fingers off. Repeat this process about 20 times per practice session. It only takes a few seconds each time. As you do this over a period of a week or so you'll find the chord sounds better and better. The reason you want to take your fingers off after a few strums is that your handle start tensing and you want to break that tension.

If you'd like more help with this check out my blog post and lesson:

How To Avoid Muted Strings When Making Chords

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