Welcome to the first installment of Chord by Chord, a series of brief lessons designed to build your understanding of harmony and the fretboard. Let’s begin with one of the first chords most players learn on the guitar—C major, often referred to simply as C. I’ll show you how to play a C chord in different places on the fretboard, always with the note C on the bottom of the chord.

The Work

In this series I won’t just be demonstrating chord shapes, I’ll also be explaining how they’re constructed. A C chord is a major triad, comprised of three notes: C (root), E (third), and G (fifth), as shown in Example 1. (If music theory isn’t your thing, no worries—you can still get a lot from this series just by learning the chord shapes and their names.)


With six strings and just three notes, guitarists typically double one or more of the notes in a chord. For instance, the basic open C chord shape shown in Example 2a has two Cs and two Es. Form the shape and play the strings individually, naming each note and its function (root, third, or fifth) and making sure that everything sounds clean and clear. Repeat the process for the variation shown in Example 2b, which adds the fourth finger to string 1, fret 3.

Now let’s play three common closed voicings (no open strings), also with the C on string 5, fret 3, as the root note (C), as shown in Examples 3a–c. Note that chord shapes can have multiple possible fingerings. For Ex. 3a, you could use your second, third, and fourth fingers on strings 4, 3, and 2, respectively. Similarly, Ex. 3b could be played with a third-finger barre on strings 2–4. And while I prefer to play Ex. 3c as indicated in the frame here, you could also use your third, fourth, and first fingers on strings 3, 2, and 1. Play around with these fingerings, and go with the ones that work best for you.

Again, name the notes and their functions of these closed chords, and pay attention to the difference in sound between the shapes. Repeat the process for a couple of voicings in eighth position, with the root at string 6, fret 8 (Examples 4a–b).   

The Result

Practice forming these chord shapes until they are ingrained in your muscle memory, and you’ll have not just one but a handful of C-major chord shapes at your disposal. And there are plenty of great tunes that use only one chord—Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools” and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Run Through the Jungle” are two that come to mind. So try playing a song with your C chord!

Next time I’ll show you a bunch of different ways to play a G chord, and how to use it in progression with a C chord.