8 Essential Open Chords and How to Use Them

Open ChordWhat is an open chord? Technically, it’s any chord employing at least one open string. With that definition, you could make thousands. However, the term “open chord” usually refers to one of only eight basic open chords, which I’ll cover in this article.

Also called “cowboy chords,” these basic open chords require only three fingers on the fretting hand: index, middle, and ring. And none of them contain notes past the third fret, so your hand won’t have to move anywhere when switching between them.

Get these chords memorized and under your fingers, and you’ll be well on your way to playing hundreds of new songs.

Open Major Chords

There are five open major chords: E, A, D, G, C. Below, you’ll find a chord diagram and a photo of each one.

To read the chord diagrams, the vertical lines are the strings (labeled E, A, D, G, B, E), and the horizontal lines are the frets (labeled I, II, III). The black dots are the notes in the chord. A “1” inside a black dot means fret that note with your first (index) finger, “2” with second (middle) finger, “3” with third (ring) finger. A “0” inside a black dot means do not fret that string; allow it to ring open. An “X” above a string means do not play that string at all.

Open E Major Chord Diagram E Major Open Chord
Open A Major Chord Diagram A Major Open Chord
Open D Major Chord Diagram D Major Open Chord
Open G Major Chord Diagram G Major Open Chord
Open C Major Chord Diagram C Major Open Chord

Open Minor Chords

There are three open minor chords: Em, Am, Dm.

Open E Minor Chord Diagram E Minor Open Chord
Open A Minor Chord Diagram A Minor Open Chord
Open D Minor Chord Diagram D Minor Open Chord

Hear Them Ring

Several of these chords require that you squash your fingers together on the strings you’re fretting without touching any adjacent open strings. This is tough, but you’ll get used to it. Take some alone time with each open chord, deliver some TLC, and make it sound great by itself. Pick through the chord slowly, listening to every note ring out. Make tiny adjustments with your fingers and see how you can make it better.

Progressions to Practice

I wrote an article called Pop Chord Progressions a few months ago on my other guitar blog, From the Woodshed. I detailed my efforts in creating a giant spreadsheet of 2-, 3-, and 4-chord progressions in the last century’s Western popular music.

Applying some of the most common progressions to our vocabulary of eight open chords, we can use a whole library of real songs to practice chord progressions. Most of these examples are not in the original key; they’ve been transposed so that nothing outside these eight open chords is required.

A D E D or D G A G or G C D C
“Beverly Hills” – Weezer
“Louie Louie” – The Kingsmen
“The Joker” – Steve Miller Band
“Undone (The Sweater Song)” – Weezer
“Walking on Sunshine” – Katrina and the Waves
“Wild Thing” – The Troggs
“You Shook Me All Night Long” – AC/DC

D C G D or E D A E or A G D A
“Born This Way” – Lady Gaga
“Fortunate Son” – Creedence Clearwater Revival
“Hey Jude” (nah nah) – The Beatles
“Lit Up” (verse) – Buckcherry
“Sweet Child O Mine” – Guns N Roses
“Thank You” – Led Zeppelin

G D Em C
“Africa” – Toto
“Can You Feel the Love Tonight” – Elton John
“Don’t Stop Believin'” – Journey
“Forever Young” – Alphaville
“Happy Ending” – Mika
“I’m Yours” – Jason Mraz
“Land Down Under” – Men at Work
“Life by the Drop” – Stevie Ray Vaughan
“No Woman No Cry” – Bob Marley
“Poker Face” – Lady Gaga
“Save Tonight” – Eagle Eye Cherry
“She Will Be Loved” – Maroon 5
“Take on Me” – A Ha
“The Story” – Brandi Carlile
“Under the Bridge” – Red Hot Chili Peppers
“When I Come Around” – Green Day
“Wherever You Will Go” – The Calling
“With or Without You” – U2
“You’re Beautiful” – James Blunt

G Em C D
“Crocodile Rock” – Elton John
“D’yer Mak’er” – Led Zeppelin
“Earth Angel” – The Penguins
“I Will Always Love You” – Whitney Houston
“Last Kiss” – Pearl Jam
“Total Eclipse of the Heart” – Bonnie Tyler

Em C G D
“Building a Mystery” – Sarah McLachlan
“Bullet with Butterfly Wings” – Smashing Pumpkins
“Grenade” – Bruno Mars
“Honest Mistake” – Bravery
“Rebellion (Lies)” – Arcade Fire
“Self Esteem” – The Offspring

G D Em Em or C G Am Am
“Another Brick in the Wall” – Pink Floyd
“Simple Man” – Lynyrd Skynyrd

D Em G A or G Am C D
“Young Americans” – David Bowie

Am Dm G C or Em Am D G
“Island in the Sun” – Weezer

A D Em A or D G Am D or G C Dm G
“Yellow Submarine” (verse) – The Beatles

C G D A E E E E
“Hey Joe” – ?

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  • Hey Joe (!)
    Nice intro to basic open chords and good to see lots of easy-to-play example – always a big encouragement for beginner guitarists.
    Beginners often have trouble forming the correct left-hand shape and tend to scrunch up their fingers and “over-grip”. My mate Kelvin (a guitar teacher) invented the Space Trainer to help with this! Check out http://guitar-gizmo.com for details – we ship worldwide (also on eBay).
    Many thanks and keep up the good work!
    Best wishes,
    Paul (aka @guitarmanuk)

  • Frank Garrett

    Great info Joe. I am a beginner and mess around with the guitar once in a while when I get a chance. I guess if it is only once in a while, I will be stuck in beginnerville. It is encouraging to know we can actually play along with some songs with just the basics. I like strumming along to some Jimmy Buffett songs DGAD progressions. I will have to check out your country blog and get a few more I can play to.

  • Nice to see, it’s almost a copy of the chords sheet my uncle gave in the late fifties. He only added six seventh chords, and another major, the one that made me tell him “There’s a chord that doesn’t work” (a full barre F :-).

    Thanks to these chords (and some more) I became a guitarist and later a musician and a tutor, and the guitar is one of the best parts of my life.

    Way to go, Joe. I don’t really need to read your blog, but I like to, for your commitment and originality, and will keep doing so.

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  • Bay Blart Shiatsu

    Olá, comecei agora e estou interessado! Encontrei a aplicação Guitar tuna, gostaria saber como gravar os acordes de uma musica fácil, para tocar guitarra e treinar.

  • Claudia Lenoir

    Thanks so much for this, Joe. Really appreciate your generosity.