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How to figure out which chords to play

Updated: Jan 13, 2022

Why is it that some people seem to be able to play along on every song without any music or chord sheet to read from? How can they keep track of all those chords on so many tunes? Well, there is a little tool that can help you know what chords to play, and it’s one you can learn how to use pretty easily, even if you have no musical background. It’s one I turn to all the time. You’ve probably got two of these tools with you right now!

Let your fingers do the talking.

To know what chords to play in a tune — and we’re talking basic tunes here — all you need is a way to count to five. Most people have five fingers installed on each hand, so we’ll start with them. Stick with me on this — it’s worth it.

  1. Every song is written in a musical “key.” You’ll hear someone say “It’s in the key of A,” for example.

  2. Keys are typically made up of three specific chords (feel free to download a handy chord chart). There are very complicated songs made up of really hard chords and tangly variations on chords, but I’m gearing this for beginners, so I’m assuming that the songs you’re working with are mostly made up of major chords (A, B, C, D, E, F, G) with a few minors and sevenths thrown in. That limits us to only about 950,000 songs.

  3. Let’s number the chords for a tune in the key of A: A=1, B=2, C=3, D=4, E=5, F=6, G=7

  4. Keys are made up of the 1st, 4th, and 5th chords. You may see this referred to as I, IV, and V. Going by the example above, that would be the A, D, and E chords.

  5. Here’s where your fingers come in. Using either hand, make a peace sign (or a Little Rabbit Foo-Foo). Start with your thumb as the key chord (in this case, your thumb is A). Now assign each finger a chord: For the key of A, thumb=A, index=B, middle=C, ring=D, pinkie=E.

  6. See how your thumb, ring, and pinky are touching each other? Those happen to be your 1st, 4th, and 5th fingers: A=thumb,  D=ring, E=pinky. (minor chords are your invisible 6th finger, or the F#m chord in this case). That means the chords you’re most likely to encounter in a song in the key of A are A, D, and E (and/or possibly F#m).

  7. Go over steps 5 and 6 with any other key, starting at the thumb with whatever the key letter is. For example, for the key of C, you start numbering the thumb at C: C=thumb, D=index, E=middle, F=ring, G=pinkie (A minor=invisible 6th finger)

  8. Try it with other keys. What chords are in the key of D? How about the key of G? Put that peace sign up or call on Little Rabbit Foo-Foo and see.

  9. Check your math by looking at your song sheet. The key is usually spelled out at the top of the sheet, or you can often tell by seeing what chord the tune begins and ends with. Usually, that’s the key chord as well.

Put it into practice

Next time you play a tune, try to tell what key it’s in by what chords are in it. That’s the first step towards being able to know what chords to play so you can jump right in on the 950,000 easy, familiar tunes, that are just waiting for you to try them out.


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