If you are picking a guitar up for the first time it can be difficult to know where to start. This is especially true if you don’t want to pay for formal lessons. Learning chords is one of the most important parts of learning to play guitar. You can't just play riffs the whole time.
The truth is if you wanted to learn individual songs it could take months of practice at a time.
But! Did you know that there is a shortcut to learning songs? All it takes is 4 guitar chords and a capo.
You may not get the exact strumming patterns using this shortcut. Nevertheless, with these 4 chords, you will be able to play thousands of songs well enough for campfire singalongs. You could even get away with it for your first few cover gigs (provided you are a decent singer already).
A few years ago an Australian comedy troupe The Axis Of Awesome went viral with their stand-up sketch below.
If you took all those songs and played them in full you would have enough covers to fill 3+ hours of sets. They didn’t play anywhere close to all the songs you can play with these four chords either.
On top of that, if you change the order of the chords you will have access to even more songs!
I will note that they took a few liberties here just playing choruses. This is because some verses for these songs use more chords. Regardless, this sketch is a prime example of how the 4 chords work.
The guitar is the easiest instrument to bang out 4 chord songs on due to its ability to use a capo to change the key. Additionally, using a capo means you won’t have to play pesky barre chords. These chords are often very difficult for beginners.
It will of course be better for you, in the long run, to learn about keys and how to work your way around the fretboard. However, the following 4 chords will get you strumming along to songs in no time at all. There are a lot of variations of the 4 chords. We will touch on that later but I have chosen 4 relatively easy and open chords to create the pattern.
Major keys are for songs that have an optimistic feel or a “happy” tone. To use open chords, you can use these chord shapes to play 4 chord songs in a major key.
For a song that is in a minor key you can play the same 4 chords but with the minor chord as your starting point.
Ultimate Guitar is a tablature website that allows you to search for the chords to songs.
Here is an example search for Save Tonight by Eagle Eye Cherry. Once you have made your search you could click on any of the results marked “Chords”. The one with the most ratings is usually the safest bet.
Save Tonight is a classic 4 chord song but it is in the key of Am so it has an F chord in it. F chords can be difficult for a beginner and it’s not in our 4 magic chords. We have to take a few simple steps to fix this.
Firstly, to be able to play our chords of Em, C, G, and D we have to transpose the tab. This is a simple process. All you have to do is click on the -1 next to transpose on the menu hovering at the bottom of the screen. Keep clicking until the Am chords on the page change into Em. You can do this for any minor chord or remember the chord patterns and stop transposing when you recognize it.
In the above picture, you can see that the starting chord is now an Em and the song follows the desired pattern of Em, C, G, and D.
A second step is necessary to play the song in its original key. Just look at the little grey number next to transpose at the bottom of the page. This is how far down you have transposed the song. In the case above it says -5. We would therefore put our capo on fret 5 to play the song in its original key. In other words, whichever -number it says is where you place your capo. Simple!
Learning songs in this way can also help you to find a key that is comfortable to sing in. For instance, the original artist for Save Tonight sings quite low. If you have a higher range you could experiment with moving the capo up or down the fretboard. Try singing the chorus over the chords with the capo in a different position and find what works for you.
Sometimes you may not want to bother setting up Ultimate Guitar or you aren’t near your computer. In either of those cases, you can experiment and try singing a chorus of a song while playing the 4 chords.
Think to yourself, if the song sounds optimistic you can use the major key chords. In contrast, for songs that sound pessimistic try out the minor chord progression.
Here are some examples you can try. Remember to move the capo to find a key that is comfortable for you to sing in.
There are of course plenty of others. In addition, there are also songs that have the same chords but in a different order.
Experimenting while playing in this fashion will also help to train your ear. You should practice while intently listening to your singing. Hearing problems could mean that the chords are wrong. It could also mean that you aren't singing the melody correctly. Identifying either of these issues by ear is a skill every musician should learn. It could be a nice headstart to practice this skill early on.
If something doesn’t sound right, you could try switching the chords around. Even if you feel like you’re nailing it, you should still double-check with a tab to make sure you’ve got it right. At least as a beginner.
Technically the 4 chords could be a variety of actual chords depending on the key of the song. If you have found your way to this page I am going to assume you are a beginner so let’s break down how the chords work.
These roman numerals represent the chords in this progression i.e. 1-5-6-4. The roman numerals in capitals are major chords and the lowercase (vi) is a minor chord. We won’t get into detail about why certain chords in the scale are minor or diminished at this point. This is a post about making learning songs on guitar easier after all.
Confused yet? Let me explain. The simplest key to explain this progression is C major as it has no sharps or flats.
The notes in the C major scale are C, D, E, F, G, A, and B.
To play the I-V-vi-IV chords you just have to count which notes are the 1st, 5th, 6th, and 4th along the scale.
So the chords would be
C, G, Am, F
Accordingly, you can apply this method to find what the 4 chords are for any major scale.
To find the relative minor chords for the C scale above, we just have to switch the order of the chords. We change them to vi–IV–I–V which would make Am, F, C, and G. This will modulate the key to A minor.
Let’s not worry too much about the why of this yet. Just know that starting on the minor chord will give a “sadder” feel to the chords.
If you find the theory confusing for now, don’t worry about it. In my opinion, beginners should focus on the fun parts of playing the guitar. You know, like actually playing! Still, you will need to get around to music theory one day so it could be an idea to get a jump start on it.
I am going to give you some homework.
First, pick either the major or minor 4 chord progression to work with.
Next, try to get yourself transitioning between the 4 chords comfortably.
Once you have done this, practice singing a song while playing. You could use one of the examples that I gave earlier or find your own.
After you are comfortable with that create your own 4 chord mashup like The Axis Of Awesome did. Try singing some different choruses over the first song you learned.
Lastly, post a comment on this page and tell us what you came up with! Or even better link us a video of you playing through our contact page so we can put it on this post.