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How to Play Chords in the C Family on Guitar

Some people say that C is the easiest key to play guitar in. That’s because C it sort of the music-theory square one — the point at which everything (and, usually, everyone) begins in music. Because it's so easy, it has lots of chords in its family — too many to master all at once. Listen to “Dust in the Wind,” by Kansas or “The Boxer,” by Simon and Garfunkel to hear the sound of a song that uses C-family chords.

The basic chords that make up the C family are C, Dm, Em, F, G, and Am. If you learn the A-, D- and G-family chord first, you'll find that you've already learned most of the fingering for the chords in C (C, Em, G, and Am). At this point, you'll only need to pick up two more chords: Dm and F.

Let's take a look at the new chords in the C family. Notice that both the Dm and F chords have the second finger on the 3rd string, second fret. Hold this common tone down as you switch between these two chords.

The Dm and F chords. Notice the arc in the F-chord diagram that tells you to fret (or barre) two st
The Dm and F chords. Notice the arc in the F-chord diagram that tells you to fret (or barre) two strings with one finger.

To finger chords, use the “ball” of your fingertip, placing it just behind the fret (on the side toward the tuning pegs). Arch your fingers so that the fingertips fall perpendicular to the neck. Make sure that your left-hand fingernails are short so that they don’t prevent you from pressing the strings all the way down to the fingerboard.

Many people find the F chord the most difficult chord to play. That’s because F uses no open strings, and it also requires a barre (pressing down more than one string with a single finger). To play the F chord, for example, you use your first finger to press down both the 1st and 2nd strings at the first fret simultaneously.

A barre is what you’re playing whenever you press down two or more strings at once with a single left-hand finger. You must exert extra finger pressure to play a barre. At first, you may find that, as you strum the chord, you hear some buzzes or muffled strings. Experiment with various placements of your index finger. Try adjusting the angle of your finger or try rotating your finger slightly on its side. Keep trying until you find a position for the first finger that enables all four strings to ring clearly as you strike them.

The following figure shows a simple chord progression that you can play by using C-family chords. Play the progression over and over to get used to switching among the chords in this family and, of course, to help build up those nasty little calluses.

image1.jpg

Notice the small curved line joining the second half of beat 2 to beat 3. This line is known as a tie. A tie tells you not to strike the second note of the two tied notes (in this case, the one on beat 3). Instead, just keep holding the chord on that beat (letting it ring) without re-striking it with your right hand.

The strumming pattern in this figure is a slightly jarring rhythmic effect called syncopation. In syncopation, the musician either strikes a note (or chord) where you don’t expect to hear it or fails to strike a note (or chord) where you do expect to hear it. Syncopation breaks up the regular pattern of beats and presents an element of surprise in music. The balance between expectation and surprise in music is what holds a listener’s interest.

You probably usually expect to strike notes on the beats (1, 2, 3, 4). You'll notice that you strike no chord on beat 3. That variation in the strumming pattern makes the chord on beat 2 1/2 feel as if it’s accentuated (or, as musicians say, accented). This accentuation interrupts the normal (expected) pulse of the music, resulting in the syncopation of the music.

To play a song that uses C-family chords right now, try your hand at “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.”

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