Back to Basics – 3 Essential Chords

We started this series of basic lessons last time with the 4 essential rolls. Today, we’ll look at the 3 most common beginning chords.

What is a chord, anyway?
Without going into a good deal of music theory, you can think of a chord as three or more different notes played together. Simpler chords, such as G major and C major, otherwise just called G and C chords, are composed of three different notes. The G major chord contains at least one each of G, B and D. The C major chord contains C, E and G notes. As chord get more complicated, such as, say, a D7 chord, they may have 4 or more notes to them. A D7 chord contains D, F#, A and C notes. We’ll be playing these three chords in just a moment.

You can also have chord fragments when you are playing a song. This is where you don’t use all available notes in a chord as you are playing. Often, you’ll use the bottom two or three strings on a banjo to make a chord fragment. Doing so is a mostly a matter of efficiency; fretting two or three strings is quicker than three or four, especially if you don’t need all the notes of the chord.



Open G
Talk about an easy chord! With you banjo in open G tuning, strum across all 5 strings. There! You’ve done it! That’s a G major chord. It’s also why they call it… open G tuning!

Here’s what the diagram to the left means. Each of the vertical lines represents a string on the banjo; the leftmost string is the highest one as you hold it. Above each string is the note that that string makes unfretted; since this is for a banjo in open G tuning, this means GDGBD for the notes of all five strings. Those little four-part diagonals on frets 3 and five? Those are simply inlays, as seen on a typical banjo; they help you orient your self on the fretboard of most any strinChord-D7ged instrument.


There are several variations on the D7 chord. This is the easiest to do and only involves 2 fingers.

This D7 chord is seen in the diagram to the right. Notice that this one now involves using your fingers to fret the strings; the numbers in the black circles represent which left-hand finger to use to fret: 1 is the index finger, 2 is the middle and so forth.




Still a fairly simple chord, but if you’re totally new to fretting a stringed instrument, then you’ll probably need to practice this C major chord a bit more, as it involves three fingers.



If you’re having a difficult time making some of these chords, here is a great technique that is designed to help you be able to make them quickly and easily. It’s a 4 step process:

1 – Put each of your fingers above the string it is to fret. Don’t place your fingers on the strings just yet, but have ALL of your fingers ready to do so and right above the string.

2 – Now go ahead and fret all strings AT ONCE. Right after this also pinch or strum; whatever your right hand should do to actually make the proper sound.

3 – Right after the proper sound has been made, lift your fingers only enough to bring the strings off the frets. Keep your fingers in contact with the strings, though, so as to mute them. You may recognize this step as vamping.

4 – Bring all of your fingers back up to the first position; just above the strings and ready to go again.

Practice this over and over, very slowly for quite a while until you get the hang of it. It’s a bit unusual feeling at first, but soon you’ll start to see how useful it can be to help you get those more difficult chords down quickly.

So that’s it for the basics of chords. Yes, there are plenty of other chords, many using four fingers and some that require a good deal of practice in order to execute. We’ll save them for another day. Just know that you can get a lot of mileage out of just these basic chords so concentrate on them until you have them down pat.

About Pgibson

I'm from Huntsville, Alabama where I work as a Software Engineer and part-time banjo instructor. My wife Miiko and I worship at Rivertree Downtown. I've been playing various instruments since my teen years. I started mandolin and dulcimer at about age 17 and banjo at 20. I love just about all kinds of music. In terms of banjo styles, I play and teach Scruggs, melodic, clawhammer, and 2-finger styles. I'm also very keen on theology, being a Trail Care Partner with the Land Trust of North Alabama, photography, urban planning, architecture, astronomy, ATM (amateur telescope making), birding, martial arts, and about 30 other distracting hobbies to a (mercifully) lesser extent.
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