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I've only had a guitar for 4 days now. I have been playing it for 3 to 3-and-a-half hours a day because I'm having a lot of fun.

I know nothing about music theory but I'm just following tabs.

As for now I learnt 3 songs.

  • Where is my mind, by Pixies
  • River flows in you, by Iruma
  • I spoke to the devil in Miami, by XX

I can't play them perfectly but at least I learnt all the notes by memory and now I don't have to look at the tabs.

I have seen on various websites that beginners are supposed to learn chords. I tried them and am totally hating them - they are incredibly hard and frustrating.

Can I play music without chords or are there some songs where they are totally necessary and can't be substituted with finger picking?

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    Sounds like you are learning the way I did. I played tabs of music I liked for fun, and I loved it. 27 years later I still love guitar and I'm pretty good for someone who taught themselves. If you're doing it for fun, keep it fun. Don't let anyone else tell you what you "have" to do on guitar. They aren't you. – Todd Wilcox Nov 24 '20 at 23:34
  • i dont think its a stupid question, I upvoted you – bigbadmouse Nov 25 '20 at 9:39
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    I have to say, while the answers you've been given are technically true, to say you don't have to learn chords if you want to play guitar is very bad advice... you "don't have to" brush your teeth or wear pants or be nice to people in order to be a human being, for example - but, doing these things and advising others to do them is a good idea. I will focus on the other-hand and tell you that if you really want to have a thorough, more meaningful, and in-depth experience with guitar (and music in general,) then YES, you need to learn and play chords. – Tim Burnett - Bassist Nov 25 '20 at 10:06
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    I think 4 days is too early to make such a drastic decision! Chords may seem difficult now, but as you get used to the instrument, you may find that they're not so bad after all. Learning takes time. – Javier Nov 25 '20 at 14:09
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    @TimBurnett-Bassist I agree 100%, advice suggesting skipping chords is ridiculous. Certainly, no guitar teacher worth paying would teach that. How about skipping math for engineers? – Michael Curtis Nov 25 '20 at 17:03

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Well... Obviously if you hate chords, there's no one to force you to learn them. If you play just for your enjoyment, then you're the only one who gets to decide what you play.

However, there are some more points to consider:

  1. You don't have to play chords to play music. Proof: you already play three pieces without chords, so you certainly didn't need them to make music. Actually "most" instruments cannot play chords at all (all woodwinds can play only one note at a time, bowed strings can play only two etc.) and they still make music.

  2. The guitar is an immensely versatile instrument. I would argue that almost nobody (myself included!) actually knows all the possibilities that the instrument has to offer. However if you play only single note melodies on it, you're certainly throwing away most of its potential for no reason.

  3. If you give up whenever you meet a challenge, you won't ever make any progress. (I'd say this statement holds quite generally.)

  4. Chords aren't really that difficult. You correctly point out that beginners usually start by playing them, and many guitarists don't even play anything but chords.

  5. Most of problems encountered in music will go away with enough practice. If you practice correctly, every day (that's very important, far more important than how much time you spend each day. 30 min a day can take you very far but 4 hours each Sunday won't), you will be able to play pretty much anything.

So: you certainly can ignore chords. However I think it's not needed. If you practice them regularly, I'm sure you will soon be fine with them.

It would be also a shame if you ignored them. The guitar is a marvelous instrument: you can play melodies, or chords, or both at the same time. That's what the classical guitarists do (but they're not alone; flamenco guitar, jazz guitar and I'm sure many more styles do that). You will miss on all of those possibilities if you choose to ignore chords forever.

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I don't know the songs you listed but I cannot image that they don't have chords. The guitar is a very unique instrument, along with the piano and other instrument that are in the guitar and piano family there are no other options I know of to play complex multi voice harmony on a single instrument. You may as well learn to play violin, sax, or some other instrument.

Are you hating chords because there is too much to learn in terms of names, intervals, etc? Or is it the complexity of the fingering and hand positions? Either way you are a complete beginner and no one can learn everything at once. If I were you I'd keep playing what you like and in time you will probably want to learn chords. All it takes is hearing a song you really want to play and you'll do it. As for beginners learning chords "I saw on various websites that beginners are supposed to learn chords", I have been teaching guitar for decades and there is no rule that says beginners are supposed to learn chords. They are hard and quite frankly most method books that I have worked through do NOT start with chords. They start with simple melodies then gradually introduce 2 part harmonies, 3 note voicings of triads, then full chords. So you are not in a bad position just learning melodies.

You did state the following "Can I play music without chords or are there some songs where they are totally necessary and can't be substituted with finger picking?"

How are you "substituting chords with finger picking"? That question confused me what exactly would you be finger picking? The open strings? Could it be that you may be confusing bar chords (which is everyone's albatross) with open string chords which are usually easier? Perhaps you could make the question better by posting a couple examples of the chords that are giving you trouble.

I recall a rumor about BB King not being able to play chords. He sang and played lead and he was one of the greatest. Though, truth be told, I have seen videos of him playing and did occasionally hit a simple chord here and there.

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    BB King says exactly that in the movie Rattle and Hum. My guitar teacher said I bent notes "exactly like BB" and asked me to show him how I did it. – bigbadmouse Nov 25 '20 at 9:38
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    My knowledge of the sheet music of "River Flows in You" is that neither its melody nor its accompaniment are chordal: both are single lines. However, I'd take it as a possibly ominous sign that "River Flows in You" is one of the pieces that the question asker has learned: it's a piano piece. – Dekkadeci Nov 25 '20 at 13:28
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    "I don't know the songs you listed but I cannot image that they don't have chords." – Indeed. The studio recording of "Where is my mind" has (at least) three guitar tracks (reduced to two guitars live), and all three of them play chords. The song opens with the (acoustic) rhythm guitar, which plays non-stop nothing but chords throughout the entire song. The two electric guitar tracks play basically the same thing with different sounds hard-panned left and right, which is mostly single-notes (but taken from the underlying chord), but the whole-band-crescendo part is power chords moving … – Jörg W Mittag Nov 25 '20 at 15:04
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    … into full(er) chords. – Jörg W Mittag Nov 25 '20 at 15:04
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    The thing about BB King is interesting, but extraordinary cases don't make good examples. It's like when people drop out of college and then say Bill Gates dropped out too. Dropping out won't make you a software tycoon. Not learning chords won't make you BB King. – Michael Curtis Nov 25 '20 at 16:29
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There's no rule saying you have to learn or play chords! It's just that you have an instrument that can! There is a paucity of instruments on which chords can be easily played - piano, organ, harp spring to mind. Most instruments play one (or two) notes maximum at a time - so they are hardly what one would use for chord playing.

Most beginners on guitar will start with single note tunes, but at some point, they will realise how much more there is to playing guitar. It depends where you're going with it, of course, but most guitarists (practically all - even lead guitarists) will be able to play chords.

In fact, as you continue with your melody playing, you'll meet chords in the form of arpeggios. They're chords played note-by-note - sequentially - so you'll be playing chords anyway, unknowingly! And oft-times a tune will have two or three or more chord notes that will sound better when played so they blend into each other; something like a real chord...

Don't want to learn them 'cos they're hard? Maybe the guitar isn't ideal for you. What about in a couple of years time, when you get together with other players to form a group? That's maybe the time when you reflect on your decision not to play chords, and find the others looking for someone who can..?

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Hi and welcome to guitar = )

As you by now probably realize after reading through several answers, the actual answer to "Do I have to learn chords" is both 'yes' and 'no'.

The short reasoning for 'yes' is because the instrument was designed to be able to easily accommodate chording. When we use tools (yes, a guitar is actually a tool) we usually use them to their full capability or choose a different tool. As mentioned there are several other musical 'tools' designed to play single notes at a time.

The short reasoning for 'no' is because we live in a free society where if you wish to use a Swiss army knife to peel a potato when you have a potato peeler sitting right there, you are free to make that choice. So the guitar can be used to play only single notes at a time if that's all you want it to do. But you don't, and let me explain.

Learning, remembering and playing chords is the hardest things most guitarist 'have to do' (arguably in today's world). We were ALL there with you at some point. We spent a lot of time. We were frustrated and unsure. We invented new unique cuss words. And then we crossed over an invisible finish line we never saw in front of us, which means one day we picked up our guitar and just made the chord our brain commanded our hand to do as we had practiced so many times. Just like one day after attempting to tie our shoes a hundred times, we just did that. It's how our brains learn.

Pay attention to this part, because it will guide you through any learning experience, not just guitar: You have two parts to your brain that mirror RAM and a hard drive in a computer. Your RAM is for very short term and blistering fast access. You load things in and are quickly able to use them. If too many things are loaded in, it locks up or gets too laggy to be usable. With little to no practice, loading up your short term memory with a new chord fingering overloads it. You can only do it very slowly, one finger at a time. Here's the important part - in order for your brain to 'allow' something to be transferred from short term memory to the 'hard drive', or (you guessed it) the long term memory, you have to repeat something many times. After x amount of repetitions, the brain makes a decision that this 'thing' you are doing is important enough to store in the hard drive, and it stores it in chunks. Now when you recall the activity, the brain loads in those chunks from the hard drive and things become much easier and fluid.

The whole point of that section was to explain that because you are finding something difficult, you are not getting the immediate pleasure reward. So you are questioning why bother. IF you understand the process as explained above, you might look back on all the thousands of tasks you have mastered, like using a keyboard to be able ask a question here, and realize that all you need is patience. Chording will come if you persist through enough repetitions. Everyone's number of repetitions necessary to get something stored into long term (subconscious) memory is different. You may need more repetitions, or you might get it quickly.

I would advise you to approach this, or any task in this way. First, this is a musical instrument - warm up! Look up online or videos on proper finger stretching and warm up exercises/runs. They will prepare your fingers to play without injury, and most are also designed to sneak in some invisible dexterity training too.

After warming up, practice immediately what you are trying to learn that's new. If it's chords, have a few that are used in songs you need them for, and practice forming them - SLOWLY. Look at them and load them into your RAM, and relay that to your fingers. Try the next one. Go back and do the first one again. Back and forth between them - slowly. Spend 10-15 mins doing this. Let me explain what you are doing! You are loading in your brain one chord, then discarding it to add the next one. Alternating causes your short term memory to dump the previous chord and load the new one. Repetitions! After a bit, your brain will be like "Whoa, this person is obsessed with these two things - perhaps I should pass these over to the hard drive for faster access" - and just like that, you don't need the chord on paper or on screen anymore. The trick to mastering any skill is to trick the brain into passing learned bits of the desired final skill to the subconscious.

After doing that for awhile, play the songs you know and that are FUN! Reward yourself. Get some dopamine to go.. you deserve it for practicing something difficult beforehand! Repeat this process the next time you can sneak in a guitar session!

Finally, there's this bit you posted - "...are there some songs where they are totally necessary and can't be substituted with finger picking?"

See, if you are substituting single notes, you are actually already playing a form of chording known as 'arpeggiation' (or playing arpeggios). An arpeggio is a chord played as single notes.

And with that, the answer to your original question becomes a solid 'yes' - you must indeed play chords in music. The trick to that is that there are several ways to play (or 'voice') chords on a guitar specifically, but all songs use chords, and all melodies are built using chords. Chords are not something your hand does, chords are musical arithmetic. They exist mathematically (known as music theory). What your hand does on the guitar is known as voicing. Even if you only play one or two notes, there is an implied corresponding chord, so literally everything you do musically is attached to a chord and a chord progression.

Learn the voicings used in the songs you are learning and take it slow. The rest will be rewarded to you over time. Good luck and hang in there.. we all had to pass through this phase. It's doable! = )

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    Welcome - with an extremely convincing answer! +1 at least. – Tim Nov 25 '20 at 16:31
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You don't need to, but eventually, you'll do it

When I started to play guitar, I didn't learn the chord shapes. I've always been into metal and I didn't really see the point. Also, I never cared for strummed guitar songs, etc.

The first problem that happened was quite funny: I could play a lot of things in the style I liked, but I was unable to play any of the basic songs that every beginner learns. I thought it was a bit frustrating at times, but it didn't matter much.

What really happens as you learn the guitar is that you will learn the fretboard and how all notes are organized. There is a logic to it and once you understand enough theory and the fretboard's organization, things start to naturally make a lot of sense.

While playing, you will eventually learn to know where is the closest root, 5th, 3rd, etc and, without realizing it, you will reach for notes that form chords. Then you will find finger shapes that are more comfortable to access these notes and come to realize that you've learned chord shapes on your own.

But the time you get there, you'll have enough dexterity that learning the common shapes will be trivial.

So, no, you don't need to learn them, but one way or another, you'll naturally learn them. At least that has been my experience.

Now, BB King famously said that he wasn't good with chords... although I doubt he didn't 'know' them.

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"Have to?"

No.

But, you also don't have to "play" the guitar.

Of course the real answer is "yes." Chords and scales are the fundamentals of guitar. You could even rank chords above scales in importance on guitar, because you can play chords to accompany singing. A lot of musicians don't do much more than play chords on the guitar for accompaniment.

You might find particular songs that don't use chords, but you won't find a guitarist that does not play chords.

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  • OP: "When I am learning chords, do I have to use my fingers? Because I hate doing that and I want to play them with my butt cheeks." Every subsequent answer: "No, you 'don't have to' learn with your fingers... never let anyone tell you what you have to do." – Tim Burnett - Bassist Nov 26 '20 at 10:26
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Many great answers here-- no you don't have to learn chords, yes you should...

One quick point I'd like to make: Many beginners start with a cheap guitar that is very badly set up. The nut and bridge are usually way too high to ensure that no frets buzz, but this makes playability a nightmare. If you think you have this problem, find someone to set it up for you (a guitar shop will have or know someone). It will be well worth the money and you will thank yourself for it. It is also possible to do it yourself but don't do it without supervision from someone experienced with guitars!

Maybe then at least you won't have a physical problem with chords.

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  • Yes 100% - badly setup guitars can make even the most seasoned player sound a bit janky and have trouble fretting certain chords cleanly. – Charleh Nov 26 '20 at 13:48
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A common role for guitar is accompanying other instruments, like violin or voice or another guitar. This is harmony and rhythm, and thus chords. But not every player does it like that. Some play melodically all the time. It's a valid choice.

Chord theory can go deep, but at the popular level it's two basic kinds — major (root, major third, and fifth) and minor (root, minor third and fifth) — and twelve root notes. There are chord forms that use a number of open strings, called Open Chords or Cowboy Chords, and with them, you can play a large number of songs. Add a capo and you can expand that without needing to learn much more.

Alternately, you could learn the E-form and A-form barre chords, which are Closed Chords because they use your index finger as a capo and have no open strings.

To me, the bass notes and high electric notes of "Where Is My Mind?" are memorable parts, but Black Francis' acoustic strumming is just as important.

But the Music Police won't arrest you for avoiding chords.

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You do not "have" to play chords. There are entire musical traditions (for instance both Hindustani and Carnatic classical music) that do not employ harmony (in the western sense).

You should really be asking the question "What kind of music do I want to play"? That should guide your decision as to what fundamentals to work on. Most western music employ some or the other kind of harmony. But even within that framework you can completely choose to play melodically.

Since guitar is a polyphonic instrument, its straightforward to play chords on it.

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I first started playing the guitar using an alternative tuning which is designed to facilitate playing movable chords, and later figured out how to play chords with Standard Tuning. While different people's fingers have different degrees of flexibility and strength, I find that many texts and teachers try to play open chords using just the first three fingers of the left hand while ignoring the pinky. While using three fingers may seem easier than using four, I find that at least for me playing each chord with three out of four fingers, but using different combinations for different chords, makes things easier because each finger can be assigned a much more limited range of movement.

For example, a C chord is played by placing the index finger on the second (B) string first fret, the middle finger on the fourth string (D) second fret, and the fifth string (A) third fret. A G7 chord is played by placing the index finger on the first (high E) string first fret, the middle finger on the fifth string (A) second fret, and the sixth string (low E) third fret. Notice that all of the fingers are very close to where they were for a C chord.

Conventional teaching for the G chord is to use those same three fingers, but completely rearrange them. If instead, however, one starts with the G7 fingering but simply raises the index finger and places the pinky on the first string third fret, one can leave the other two fingers were they were for G7, which is very close to where they were for C.

While I haven't seen any teaching materials promoting such a notion, I find that it's easiest to understand and play open chords if one divides the bottom of the fret board into four minimally-overlapping zones--one for each finger. Assign notes that only fall into one zone to their corresponding fingers, and then assign the remaining notes, if any, to whatever fingers remain, and it will be obvious what notes will need to be played by which fingers. Using the pinky to handle the third-fret notes of the G and D chords will allow the ring finger to remain focused on the third fret of the bottom two strings and the second fret of the third string without being drawn away to the first two strings. The middle finger can then be focused on the second fret without having to take over the sixth-string role from the ring finger.

Chords may be a bit tricky, but I think if one learns to use the pinky when needed I don't think they'll seem nearly as intimidating as when trying to use just three fingeres.

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  • I always play a G using my index, middle and pinky - always have, but I've not seen many play a G chord with the first three fingers. I have actually seen people play it with the third three fingers (and I can't ever see that being that useful unless you need your index finger for some other note that I can't fathom). It's a good point though - use what's comfortable as long as it sounds clean - everyone has different sized hands, different levels of dexterity. John Mayer can play some silly thumb-over-the-neck chords that even I at 6'5" cannot reach. – Charleh Nov 26 '20 at 14:10
  • @Charleh: Many fingering diagrams use the first three fingers. When playing Standard Tuning, I use middle, ring, and pinkie for G, thus leaving the index finger available for a G->G7 or G->C transition. Using the index finger for a G chord will make its hand position completely unlike the C and G7 chords, while using the last three fingers will mean that the middle and ring fingers an stay put for G->G7 and only have to hop over one string to go from G->C. – supercat Nov 26 '20 at 18:49
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The short answer is Yes.


Longer answer

Why?

Well, not because you want to, but because you will inevitably find that you can't play certain songs without them. And (subjectively of course) will never sound that great on guitar without knowing at least how to play some chords.

Chords are pretty much the reason the guitar has 6 strings - you might as well take 5 of them off if you aren't playing more than 1 string at a time. I think I'd be hard pressed to find an example of someone competent playing the guitar on the whole of the internet who wasn't using a chord here/there.

At first, they can be incredibly frustrating, your fingers don't want to do the things you ask of them because there is no muscle memory there for the strange and wonderful positions that chords require...

However, after a while, they start to feel comfortable and the muscle memory kicks in.

I'm interested in, when you say you've learned how to play these songs, what you've actually learned?

I know the Pixies song, and it literally starts with the strumming of full of chords - what bits did you learn given that the song is almost purely chords?

Edit:

On the flip side, interestingly, I play my fair share of metal - and oftentimes in the heaviest of metals there is little call for full chords (they tend to over-saturate the sound since you are already using distortion etc).

However, most of the arpeggios and licks are based on chord shapes since you are usually trying to fit stuff into a certain key (i.e. set of notes), so you have a certain structure the song is based off which you can't really avoid.

Learning chords helps understand how music works.

For example check out Mark from Periphery playing through It's Only Smiles and look at the left hand shapes - despite essentially picking most of the notes in the intro, a lot of chord shapes are used.

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