You can learn to play the guitar in pretty much any way that you’d like, and that includes without chords. Most guitar teachers will probably start out with the C Major, D Major, and G Major chords, but others may look at the C Major scale first, played in single notes.
The idea of learning to play the guitar, however, without learning chords is ultimately unproductive. It will even become counter-productive at one point. I can put it to you in a simple way.
Generally speaking, it’s entirely possible to learn to play guitar without learning chords because you can learn single-note phrases and songs. However, there will come a time when learning chords is necessary due to their importance in music theory and their usage by other musicians.
If I had to guess, a person who’s asking this kind of question probably hates barre chords, which are fairly difficult for even some of the more seasoned musicians. Pressing down even one note at once can be a challenge for the beginner, so pressing down all of them together is especially cumbersome. But let’s move on.
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How to Play Guitar Without Learning Chords
As I was saying, beginners struggle a lot with chords because pressing down every single string at once, at 6 different frets on six different strings is a tough task. So you’ve probably found yourself here to figure out a way to go without this process.
The truth is you’re going to end up learning to play chords one way or the other if you’re serious about playing the guitar. Especially if you become a professional musician – there’s simply no way around it.
That said, I’ll give you a couple of different ways to get around your current finger pain which, no doubt, is the primary reason you’re here.
Before going on though, one thing I will say is that this guide presupposes that you already know how to read tablature. I’ll make sure to make my own guide on this someday though because I think I can make a great one.
1) Play the First Note of Each Chord in a Chord Progression
This is a nice little trick that’s great for the beginner guitarist. Essentially, what you want to do is just take the first note of each chord in a popular song or chord progression, and then learn that note and that note only.
For example, probably one of the most popular songs ever written is Black Sabbath’s “Ironman” or “Smoke on the Water” from Deep Purple. Both of these songs are timeless classics and everyone has heard them at least once.
Like I said in the caption above, you can do this for almost any song. And another thing you can do is only play double stops, instead of full chords. A double-stop, in fact, is what the “Smoke On the Water” song is made up of.
It’s just a slang term for two notes played at once. Usually, they’re played in somewhat of a staccato fashion, or as part of a blues lick – learn more music theory terms from Mark Sarnecki’s Elementary Rudiments (on Amazon – get the Answer Book too).
As a side note, it’s fascinating to me that “Smoke On The Water” is a tune that nearly every guitarist will learn when they’re first starting out.
Despite the fact most young people today will never experience a context where Deep Purple is discussed (unless they hang around a lot of rock fans or musicians), this track has managed to become a standard for guitarists.
But I digress. Let’s talk about the next tip on the list which is related to the first step.
2) Learn to Play Single Note Melodies
Another tactic you can use is to simply learn single-note melodies. In simple terms, I just mean songs, riffs, ideas, phrases, or licks that just use single notes and don’t use chords at all.
I can think of many songs on guitar that don’t require chords, however, they’re harder to learn. The first one that comes to mind is “Seek and Destroy” from Metallica. The introduction is all single notes.
Another one that comes to mind is “Enter Sandman” which has a really cool introduction that you can check out on Ultimate-Guitar.
The introduction to “Enter Sandman” is probably much easier for the beginner than something like “Seek and Destroy” which uses a good amount of intermediate-level string-skipping.
An example of a great single-note melody for a beginner is “Come As You Are” from Nirvana. I see young kids learning to play this on TikTok all of the time, and it makes sense because it’s a good one. Here’s what it looks like:
Now that I think about it, my old guitar teacher showed me “Come As You Are” too when I was around 11-years-old. Another super popular song that beginners like is “Freaks,” because the introduction is just three notes on the high-E string.
3) Use Double Note Power Chords
The one shown in the image above is a Bb5 power chord. It has the root and the 5th stacked on top of each other. What makes these so special is that you can move them anywhere and they don’t have a major or minor quality to them.
This is why every rock band and every punk rock band, particularly, was crazy about power chords. It’s because once you figure out how to use them, you can play them in so many different ways. It’s the ultimate beginner tool other than JamPlay (on their site)
While a power chord is a “chord,” it’s not the type of chord that the average beginner is thinking of. It’s not a full F Major chord, for instance, which is one of the hardest chords for rookies to play. A power chord is usually only three notes, although, 2 is common as well.
It’s just the root and the fifth and then the root again an octave higher. They call it a”power chord” because rock guitarists were the ones who popularized them and made them what they are today.
Back when rock music was the dominant musical style in popular culture, nearly everyone used this type of riff in their playing. There are probably thousands, maybe even millions of songs written with power chords. It’s because they’re easy to use and they sound great.
4) Use Dropped D Tuning
Another super-easy way to play chords, more specifically, power chords, on the guitar is to tune the low-E string down to D. A fun story: when I first started playing the guitar, I purposefully avoided doing this because I thought it was too confusing.
When the late 1980s and early 1990s came around, guitarists started dropping down to Drop D tuning. I believe Rick Beato has a nice video on this concept, in case you’re interested.
Simply put, Drop D tuning is just another way to play power chords, except it’s even easier because you just have to bar the two strings with your finger.
5) Learn to Play Solos
You can learn to play easy solos as well. For example, Kurt Cobain probably had the easiest solo ever in the song, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which you can check out here on Ultimate-Guitar as well.
Although, I have to caution against this particular idea because it’s something I fell prey to for years. Simply put, I spent years of my time trying to become the next John Petrucci, and it just wasn’t happening.
Instead of doing that, I could’ve spent all of that time learning the triads (my guide on how to do this), or learning how to jam with other musicians (and also with myself – also my guide).
Don’t do what I did and avoid practicing rhythm guitar, because most guitarists, even lead guitarists, spend 95% of the time practicing rhythm guitar. It’s not like they play solos the whole time. Take Slash, for example.
Slash doesn’t just play the introduction to “Sweet Chile O’Mine” all of the time. He also plays lead parts throughout that song.
Why You Should Learn to Play Chords as Well
There are many reasons why a guitarist should absolutely learn chords, but especially triads. But I won’t deep dive into the topic today, simply because it would take up another 2000 words.
Simply put, the reason a guitarist would learn chords is due to their role in Western Music Theory and what learning them teaches a new student about harmony, scales, key signatures, and other important concepts.
Another big reason why it’s important to learn them is that other guitarists and musicians will also know how to play chords, including their names. By knowing chord and their names, you can quickly identify or communicate how to play a song.
You can also use this information to figure out how you’ll play along to the track in a way that sounds good. All-in-all, it’s cool to forego chords for a bit in the beginning if you find your fingers are too sore. However, there will come a day that you have to learn them.
Important Things to Note About Chords and the Guitar
1) Not Every Guitarist Knows Chords Though
One thing that does surprise me about guitarists though is the fact they rarely know the names of chords or even what they’re doing. I’m not the greatest guitarist either, but I can name what key I’m in, what chords are being used, and I can communicate them to others.
That said, there are some players who are probably way better than me who couldn’t tell you what a Gsus4 looked like on the guitar. Nor could they tell you what a Cmajor7 looks like even though they’re more than capable of playing these chords and everything else.