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For example, a D chord:

enter image description here

But sometimes, I think the 1 should be a 2, the 2 should be a 3, and the 3 should be a 4. This seems easier to play; can I play it in this way? Or do I need to play exactly what it says?

(I know that not following the chord table can play the same sound, but I think it is better for a beginner to learn from the best practice.)

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I'd say you can play a chord as you like. A third option for the D (and there are more): a barre with finger 1 and finger 2 on the 2nd string... – Clemens Apr 17 '12 at 14:35
up vote 12 down vote accepted

No, you don't have to play it with that exact fingering. In fact, being able to play the same chord shape in different ways can come in handy when you have to play modified versions of base chords.

For instance, say you had to play a D/F# chord (that same D with an F# bass note). One way to do it is to use your index finger on the 2nd fret of the E string, which leaves fingers 2-4 to play the basic D chord shape. Another example is if you had to move that D shape up on the fretboard, using the index finger to do a barré and again leaving fingers 2-4 for the basic chord shape.

Yet another reason to choose a different fingering for a chord is if it makes it easier to transition from the previous (or to the next) chord in a song. For instance, the most often recommended fingering for the G-major chord is using fingers 1-3, but using fingers 2-4 makes it easier to transition to (or from) the C-major chord because the middle and ring fingers have to move very little (plus it leaves your index finger hovering more or less above the correct string as well).

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In addition to @Indrek's point, you don't even have to play the chord in the same position. Playing in other positions still gives you the same chord, but with different tonal qualities.

And playing restricted portions of the chord (eg a powerchord) can also work.

To summarise - play it however you feel works best for you in that particular scenario.

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