If you’re one of the millions of people who somehow acquired a guitar during their life — a guitar they have dutifully moved from place to place with the sincere intention of someday learning how to play it — you probably know it’s not as easy as rock stars make it seem. If you’ve actually made any attempt to learn the instrument you know that you have to commit to not just daily practice and exercises, you also need to learn at least the basics of what’s known as “music theory,” which is basically the science behind music. It’s also basically maths, which is one reason many aspiring guitarists give up in despair and resign themselves to playing the opening riff of “Smoke on the Water” over and over again for the rest of their lives.
If you want to finally put that guitar to use and you’re willing to keep your musical ambitions modest, however, you don’t actually need to do any of that. You can play guitar without actually learning how to play guitar — in fact, you can start playing songs today, within the next few moments, as long as we define “playing songs” as strumming chords in a recognisable pattern. In other words, you won’t be playing “Eruption” or “Layla” using this method, but if you have fantasies of leading your friends in a rousing campfire sing-along using your trusty ax, this will get you there.
First, let’s get you tuned up
OK, before you can start strumming your way to popularity and possible noise complaints from neighbours, you need a few things:
- A guitar (duh)
- Something to tune it with (there are tons of free Apps available on iOS and Android)
- Access to the internet
What we’re going to do is tune your guitar to what’s known as Open G tuning. All you need to know about this is that when we’re done, strumming your guitar without touching the strings with your other hand will produce a G Major chord. This is an uncommon but not totally unusual way to tune your guitar — Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones made this tuning famous, writing a huge number of the band’s most famous hits this way. There are a lot of advantages to Open G tuning, as we’ll see.
If you’re not sure how to tune your guitar, it’s not so hard: Put the guitar in your lap as if you were going to play it. Looking down at the neck, you’ve got six strings. The one closest to you is also the thickest. If you fire up your tuning App and pluck it with your finger, you’ll probably get something in the neighbourhood of “E.” If you haven’t played your guitar in ten years you might get something very different, or the string snapped and you are right now rushing to the Emergency Room.
Look up at the top of the guitar — there are six “pegs,” each connected to one of the strings. Start turning the one connected to the nearest string while also plucking it with your fingers. Watch your tuning App and get it to read “D.”
See, that was easy! Now tune the rest of the strings, going away from you, so they produce the following notes: G, D, G, B, D. Congratulations, your guitar is now a machine that produces a G Major chord whenever you strum it.
Now let’s make some chords
What’s great about Open G tuning is that it’s easy to produce every major chord on it with just one finger (it’s also easy to produce other chords pretty easily by moving the same “shape” up the fretboard). If you look at the neck of your guitar, you’ll notice it’s divided into little “boxes” known as frets. Most guitars have about 20-22 frets, but we’re only going to worry about the first 10.
Place your index finger on the second fret from the top so that it covers all six strings and press down until you can strum a clean-sounding chord:
This might take some practice; those strings are harder to fret than you think. Bracing your hand with your thumb on the back of the neck might help. Once you’re able to strum all the strings without any “muted” or dead-sounding strings, congrats! You just strummed an A major chord. If you move your finger to the fourth fret, you’ll get a B Major Chord. Other chords can be produced as follows:
C Major: 5th fret
D Major: 7th fret
E Major: 9th fret
F Major: 10th fret
Those are all the major chords, and for simple sing-along kind of playing it’s all you’ll need. The chord “shape” is just your finger in a straight line, and it’s what’s known as “moveable” because you just move it from fret to fret to change the chord you’re playing. By keeping your finger pressed on the strings and sliding between frets, you can strum any of the major chords (including flats and sharps, which fall in-between theses chords — for example, the 3rd fret could be either A Sharp Major [usually written A#] or B Flat Major [written Bb], but since we’re avoiding any hint of actually learning music theory, that goes in the category of “things Future You will aspire to learn someday”).
Note: One complication here is that when playing major chords in Open G, you’re not supposed to play the top string, the one closest to you. The reason for this digs into music theory, so we won’t get into it. Some players will “mute” that string by either touching it with the tip of their finger as they press down on the other 5 strings, or by wrapping their thumb up over the top to mute it. Keith Richards literally removes the string entirely from his guitars so he doesn’t have to worry about it. For our purposes, you probably don’t need to worry about it (if we were fancy, we wouldn’t be Googling “how to play guitar without learning how to play guitar,” would we?), but if your chords sort of sound…off, try to avoid the top string and see if that improves things.
You’re ready to play a song!
Luckily, this is actually the easy part. I’m not saying that a lot of pop music is simplistic, but…you rarely need more than a few chords for a lot of songs. For example, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” may not be a party favourite (unless you are totally not paying any attention to the words) but it’s a rousing song just about everyone knows. And you — yes, you! — can play it using just two chords: B Major (4th fret) and E Major (9th fret):
[B]Born down in a dead man’s town / The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
[change to E]End up like a dog that’s been beat too much / Till you spend half your life just covering up
Try it by strumming along to the song to get a feel for the change between chords. Once you get the hang of it, playing and singing along is pretty easy.
Want more songs? All you gotta do is Google “[song name] chords.” Ultimate Guitar is a great resource for chord maps of songs — just be sure you’re not looking at “tabs” (or tablature), which is a more complex and nuanced way of writing out guitar parts for songs.
Now, this isn’t going to work perfectly for every song in the world. For one thing, songs often use different kinds of chords like minor chords or seventh chords. For another, some songs are much more complicated — Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” uses about nine chords, including minors and sevenths, in the first verse alone. The good news is you can make minor chords and sevenths and such in Open G tuning, so once you get more comfortable playing the major chords you can always learn how to do those — though at that point you might want to just actually learn how to play in the traditional manner. You can also try substituting a major chord for a minor or seventh — sometimes this works well enough for a sing-along kind of performance, so it’s worth a try.
Here are a few other famous songs that require just two major chords:
- “Achy Breaky Heart” by Billy Ray Cyrus (A major and E Major)
- “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke (D major and G major)
- “When Love Comes to Town” by U2 and B.B. King (E Major and A Major)
If you’re feeling ambitious and think you can handle a song with three major chords, you could try your hand at playing:
- “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd (D, C, G — just don’t try to play the opening lick)
- “Wild Thing” by The Troggs (A, D, E)
- “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash (G, C, D)
A little internet searching will identify plenty of other songs you can bang out passably well on an Open G-tuned guitar. Keep in mind you will not actually know how to play guitar at this point, and you’re not going to shred “Crazy Train” using this technique. But as you get more comfortable — and maybe learn to throw in minor chords and seventh chords — you’ll be able to actually make recognisable music you can sing along to.
Pro tip: If you wait until everyone’s had a few drinks at the party, your playing will sound much better.