Guitar Chord Progressions 101 – A Beginners’ Guide

As guitar players, some of the first things we ever learn in our playing career are the parts of the guitar, the names of the strings, first couple of melodies, and so on. After that, we often learn our first chords and, subsequently, our first chord progressions.

Playing through progressions seems like an impossible task at first. We can barely get every note in a chord to sound how we want and switching from one chord to the next seems even more difficult. There are so many systems and methods out there claiming to be the ultimate method while asking for a bunch of your money.

I’m here to tell you that with a little bit of elbow grease and some good fundamentals, you will be playing chord progressions in no time. In this lesson, I will discuss some of what I have noticed has helped my students most effectively throughout my teaching career as well as in the early stages of my playing.

In order to understand the material that we will be covering here, it is necessary that you are able to read chord charts effectively. Don’t worry, these are actually very simple to understand.

Basically, the way to read these diagrams is by thinking of it as if the fretboard is upright facing you. The vertical lines are the 6 strings and the horizontal lines are the frets. Every black circle you see on the diagram is a fret that is to be played. A “0” above a string means that string is played open. An “X” above a string means the string is muted. Lastly, and arc or a black line across several strings means that those strings are barred.

Here’s a diagram covering all of what I just mentioned above:

For the purposes of this lesson, we will stick to chords belonging to the keys of C and G major as those two seem to utilize the most open position shapes. Open position shapes are those chord shapes that use open strings and the first four or so frets. These shapes are sometimes referred to as “cowboy” chords. I also recently learned about the “CAGED” system that covers a lot of this material. I will not be discussing that as it is not the way I learned, but if it works for you, go for it! Anyway, let’s move on.

Here are the first four shapes we will be discussing:

As mentioned earlier, this first stage can be incredibly frustrating. It is important to be able to get a clear sound out of each note in the chord. When you are first practicing these, play each note in the chord individually. You will definitely get one or two notes that are muffled or muted. This is completely normal in the early stages, but it’s something you have to work through.

These are some necessary considerations for improving in this area.

Posture: Sitting up straight is very important. It is very easy to slouch in the beginning. I’m not really sure why this happens, but it does. This causes your arms and, consequently, your wrists to bend in all sorts of weird ways, leading to bad technique and muffled notes.

Grip: Imagine that you are holding the neck as if it were a tennis ball or a baseball. Use the very tips of your fingers to fret the notes and avoid palming the neck. There is a place for barring notes but we will not be covering that here.

DIP Joint: Avoid bending your fingertip joint. This is called the distal interphalangeal joint (did I spell that right?!) Bending this joint can cause unwanted muting as well.

Next, we will get into playing some actual progressions. To get started, we will simply use the progression provided above.

To practice this, simply take a metronome – there are tons of free ones online as well as in smart phone apps – and set it at a very slow tempo. Don’t rush through this, it is more important that you get a clean sound out of each chord than it is to play through them quickly. Next, take the chords in pairs and practice them that way. Let’s go over that.

Let’s say your metronome is set to 70 BPM, play the G chord four times, then switch to C and play that one four times. Go back and forth between the two chords until you feel comfortable, then repeat the process for each subsequent pair.

Your practice will look something like this:

G to C, C to Em, Em to Am, and Am back to G.

Strumming patterns are not super important at this stage. Simply using downstrokes is enough for now. We are trying to get clean transitions here. Remember, the most important thing here is clarity of notes and clean transitions. Don’t worry if you have to go extremely slow. This is normal and, in fact, I would recommend it.

Now let’s add a few more chords to your arsenal.

With these new chords, let’s give you a few more progressions that you can use to practice.

These will sound very familiar and that’s because they are. They have been used over and over in tons of songs over the years!

  • G – Em – Am – D
  • C – Am – Dm – G
  • Em – C – G – D
  • Am – F – C – G

Always make sure that you practice these using the same method we discussed previously.

Play around with these, combine them with some of the shapes from earlier, and come up with your own progressions. It is important to be able to play through each and every progression and transition cleanly. Have fun with this. That is really the most important part of playing an instrument.

Lastly, I would like to discuss the importance of learning songs from your favorite bands and solo artists. Learning how people have done it before you is the best way to get good at anything. It’s a nice added bonus to being able to play some of your favorite songs!

About the Author

Marc-Andre Seguin

Marc-Andre Seguin is the webmaster, “brains behind” and teacher on JazzGuitarLessons.net, the #1 online resource for learning how to play jazz guitar. He draws from his experience both as a professional jazz guitarist and professional jazz teacher to help thousands of people from all around the world learn the craft of jazz guitar.

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