3 Magic Chords
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PART 1 - The D Chord

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3 Magic Cords

This is part of the "VERY Basic Guitar subset of our "How To Folk" articles. In an effort to "jump start" your enjoyment of Folk music and your ability to join in, no matter what instrument you play, we are providing some very basic notes about guitar chords.

Click to visit CreekDontRise.com, a repository about Folk Music and traditional instruments. Click to return to the Folkarama home page. Note: - This part of the Folkarama page, which is dedicated to helping beginners "get into" Folk music and join Folk communities as easily as possible, with simple articles and links to resources that provide hands-on instruction in traditional acoustic instruments.

Folkarama, in turn, contains many references to more extensive articles and resources in Paul Race's CreekDontRise.com site, as well as other related pages.

These little blocks represent the easiest and most common versions of the D, A7, and G chords on the guitar, in that order.  Click for bigger picture.Skipping Ahead?

If you already have some exposure to guitar, and know what the little squares to the right signify, I'll let you know that this series covers D, A7, and G as a way of introducing you to the world of 3-chord songs. The next section is targeted to people who are new to guitar, so you may skim them if you want.

The D Chord (and "What's Up With Those Little Squares?")

The "Key" of a song usually indicates what scale the song is using and - more often than not - what note and chord the song will end on. Many acoustic guitar players like to pitch songs in the key of D, because the D chord and the other chords you're likely to use in the key of D are some of the easiest to learn on guitar.

Not only that, but you can play literally thousands of Folk songs, as well as songs in other genres, with just the D chord and two other chords.

The easiest and most common D chord.  Click for bigger picture.The most common D chord is shown to the right in a format used in countless music books. If it looks strange to you, don't worry. The format is explained in the text below and the next picture down.

The horizontal black line at the top represents the guitar' "nut," the slotted piece of bone or plastic that the strings pass over as they leave tuning head and start to hover over the fingerboard.

The vertical bars represent the strings, with the bar to the left representing the string closest to you. They are actually numbered from right to left, which confuses a lot of people, but I'm not in a position to change that. So the string closest to you, shown at the left in the little chart, is actually string number six.

The other horizontal bars represent the frets, those metal rails that run perpendicular to the guitar neck and let you play higher or lower notes on the strings. You put your fingers just behind them, to force the strings down on them. Most people take a while to build up callouses so it doesn't hurt. If the guitar has "bad action," it's especially hard to do, so it's a good idea to have someone check your guitar out before you start and make certain it won't discourage you more than necessary.

Don't feel bad if you can only play for a few minutes at a time at first. But keep it up, or you'll never get past that most basic hurdle.

The next picture shows labels for all of the things we described in the paragraphs above. The most common D chord, with all the elements of the chord chart explained.  Click for bigger photo.

The Ubiquitous Triangle - The shape of the D chord is almost unique on a guitar, so it's easy to spot. there are other ways to play a D chord, plus variations that change the shape, but just recognizing this triangle on sight is one way to get a sense of what chords are being played or likely to be played. There's a reason why you see experienced guitarists staring at each others' left hand when they're playing a unfamiliar song.

In this sort of chord chart, the little circles represent places where you put your fingers to play the chord. In large chord charts like this one, the numbers represent which finger you use to play each string.

So your "middle" or "index" finger (#2) goes just behind the second fret on the first string.

Your ring finger (#3) goes just behind the third fret on the second string.

Your "pointer" finger (#1) goes just behind the second fret on the third string.

The 0s at the top of the chord chart indicate that the strings aren't fretted, but they ARE played.

The X at the top of the first string indicates that the string isn't fretted OR played.

Songs You Can Play With Only the D Chord - "Farmer in the Dell," "Frere Jaques," and "Row, Row, Row Your Boat."

Strum the D chord starting with the fourth (D) string, and going down.  If you hit the fifth string (A), nobody will get mad at you, but please don't hit the lowest (E) string.  Click for bigger photo.Strumming - For now, we're going to start with a very basic strum. If you have a flat pick, hold it between your thumb and forefinger so that the pointiest part sticks out about between 1/8" and 1/4".

For the D chord, avoid hitting the lowest string. The "best practice" is to start with the fourth (D) string and strum downward as shown in the picture to the right.

If you happen to hit the fifth (A) string, nobody would likely notice. But please avoid hitting the lowest (E) string, as that note is not in the chord.

Practicing - The first few days of playing guitar, you'll notice your fingers getting sore quickly. Consider practicing twenty minutes at a time and taking a break. At least until your fingers stop hurting. Maybe play all the songs I listed above through a couple times, and tnen chill for a bit. If you can do 2 or 3 twenty minute sessions the first few days, that's good. Don't take a day off if you can possibly avoid it.

Your fingers will eventually build up callouses that allow you to play longer each time, until you're up to an hour or more without serious pain. So, like any other form of exercise, you have to keep going back in. I need to keep playing to keep my callouses, and I've been playing guitar for over fifty years.

The reward of coaxing music from a hunk of wood and wires is worth it.

But if at any time it looks like you might be forming a blister, stop at once. A blister will pretty much undo the callous on that finger, and you'll basically have to start over.

Breaking Things Up - If you get through what I've written about the D chord, and feel like you need to take a break, fine. Tomorrow, re-reading the section above and see if it's starting to sink in. And play those songs over and over. When you get bored enough and your fingers get strong enough, go on to the A7 section.

Whether it takes you a day or a week to get through each new chord section, the important thing is that you stay with it. I don't know your age, but at my age, I can learn a whole lot about a music instrument in a very short period of time, but if I put it on the shelf for a week and then come back, I pretty much have to start over. Consistency is key.

When you need to move on, go to Part 2 - A7, the D Chord's BFF.


These suggestions are just a start, of course. But for all of its variations and even contradictions, Folk music is a discipline in itself, and a rewarding one of that. The more you play, sing, practice, and hang, the more you'll get out of it, the faster you'll learn in the future, and the better you'll be at whatever you already do have "under your belt."

Other Resources

There are plenty of guitar instruction materials, online, of course. But we are working on a few that will help you learn the most basic, but necessary, information quickly.

The current resources we have published are:

Sister Sites

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    The "Acoustic" page includes a long list of articles including maintenance and playing tips on all sorts of traditional acoustic instruments.

  • Click to see buyers' guides that actually explain things.RiverboatMusic.com is a buyers' guide for acoustic and traditional instrument from a musician's point of view, focusing on the uses, reliability, and practicality of various instruments, and not just the marketing hype about the shape of the fret markers or whatever.

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  • Click to see Paul's blogs, memoirs, and more, including what he's up to musically these days.PaulRaceMusic.com is the "landing page" for Paul's own musical endeavors, plus many memoirs and blogs about music and the music business.

  • Click to visit a site about train songs that every train lover and Folk singer should know.  Or at least know about.ClassicTrainSongs.com describes railroad songs that every train lover should know. Or at least know about.

  • SchoolOfTheRock.com has articles about Christian music, Christian music careers and performance, Christian living in general, and vintage saxophones, another of Paul's interests. This site has separate newsletters, etc., by the way - there isn't a lot of overlap with the Momma Don't 'Low(tm) newsletters.

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