How To Play Guitar

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Part 1 – The 10 open-position chords

When Spytunes first launched back in 2007, I made this video series called How To Play Guitar.

You can see the videos above, they summed up the theories of Spytunes methods and laid out what I set out to do online.

To find out more about these early days, check the page eBooks and about me.

In the video series above, I explain how to play the guitar using open-position chords that eventually become barre chord shapes, pentatonic, and modal scales. This all starts with just ten simple open-position chords.

This means that your ability to understand the guitar relies completely on you learning the first ten open-position chords.

Can you play all open-position chords?

You might already know a few of these chords, but do you know how to play an open-position Gm chord? Do you know how to play an open position Cm?

You won’t find these two chords in your average Bob Dylan song but in order to complete the fretboard, you have to know them.

In the video, I speak about how you can finger the open-position chords in different ways.

This is very important information. Many beginner guitar players give up just because of the simple misunderstanding that you have to fret a chord in a specific way, you don’t, you fret it whichever way is the most comfortable for you. There is no one way, there are many ways.

There is, however, a “best, one way” to understand the fretboard, that way begins with seeing these chord shapes.

If necessary, don’t play all notes in a G chord, mute the 5th string, and maybe even use one finger for the top two strings of that open position G chord.

If that is what is most comfortable for you; go for it.

The size of your hand

So why is there more than one way of fretting a chord?

It all has to do with the size of your hand. A 14-year-old girl does not have the same kind of hands that a 50-year-old bricklayer does. Neither has a greater advantage, it’s all about accepting what your hands can do easily and then following that.

In time, by practising chromatic exercises and learning more and more acoustic songs, you might change the way you play a G chord, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you try all of the ten open-position chords out and find a way to fret them that works for you.

Your way will be the best way.

You’ll learn more about open-position chords and how to play the guitar when you take my beginner course.

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Part 2 – Barre chords & Pentatonic scales

In this video, I first talk about how the open-position chords become barre chords.

As you learn how to do this using the cycle of 4th exercise, you will also learn the names of all the notes on the fretboard. Simply call out the name of the chord as you play the exercise.

Once you know all your barre chord shapes, you can build pentatonic scale shapes around them.

The Minor Pentatonic

Around all minor barre chord shapes, you can fit a Minor Pentatonic scale.

It is very important that you take the time to understand the connection here between the chord shape and the Minor Pentatonic scale shape.

Simply practice as the Minor Pentatonic exercises suggest, always start by playing the chord shape, followed by the scale, followed by the chord shape.

This approach will manifest the chord shape with the scale shape.

The Major Pentatonic

The Major Pentatonic is what separates the content bedroom guitarist from the guitarist who wants to get to the next level.

Many players get away with playing all their solos using Minor Pentatonic “box shapes” as a blanket scale. Don’t limit yourself, learn all Major Pentatonic shapes as well and take an important step towards understanding music on the guitar!

All major barre chord shapes can be paired with a Major Pentatonic shape and once you complete the cycle of 4th exercise for both the Minor and Major Pentatonic, calling out the names of the notes, you will know:

  1. All minor chord shapes
  2. All major chord shapes
  3. All Minor Pentatonic shapes
  4. All Major Pentatonic shapes

Play like Jimi Hendrix!

Should you pair the Minor and Major Pentatonic with each chord of a progression you will be able to play as Jimi Hendrix did. At 2:30 and on into the video I demonstrate this by playing over the chord progression from Little Wing.

The reason Hendrix played in this way might well have been down to the three-piece format of his band. As the only chord and solo instrument, Hendrix combined chords with pentatonic licks in a call-and-response manner with his vocals.

This filled out the sound of the band nicely and has become the benchmark for what most guitar players want to sound like.

You can play just like this as long as you get all your pentatonic and barre chord shapes under your belt, it really is as simple as that.

Follow the chords

In the final part of the video, I talk about how it’s easier to play notes close to the chord or pentatonic scale than it is to just guess.

I relate this to a singer who would do this naturally. As long as you start thinking in pentatonic shapes, paired with chord shapes and progressions, you will become like the singer and have your safe notes. From here on it’s about adding to the vocabulary.

Blues scale

The first note you add to go beyond the pentatonic scales is the b5, the blues note. This gives you the Blues scale, a very popular scale, often used as a blanket scale for blues and rock solos.

A blanket scale is a scale you play over a progression, for example, an E Blues scale over a Blues in E where the chords are E7 – A7 – E7 – B7 – A7 – E7 – B7.

Even though this is a perfectly fine way of soloing, try swapping scale for each chord instead, just like I do over the Jimi Hendrix progression.

Ultimately, you want to be able to draw on either a Minor Pentatonic, a Major Pentatonic, or a Blues scale, no matter where you are on the fretboard.

Take the intermediate course and learn how to apply these theories to your playing.

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Part 3 – Modes

In this part of the How To Play Guitar series, I talk about how to turn pentatonic shapes into modal shapes.

This means that those open-position chords, which turned into barre chords, which turned into pentatonic shapes can now become modal scales.

You have in this way built upon previous knowledge, no time or knowledge has been wasted or abandoned.

The Major Pentatonic modes

When I first came up with this concept I realized that this was my key contribution to learning the guitar, the Major Pentatonic Modes. It makes sense because you build on what you already know.

This approach also means that you start to connect the ear with the intervals. By adding a maj7 (Ionian and Lydian) you start to hear music on a different level.

If you instead add a b7 (Mixolydian), may seem like a small change but to the ear, it’s massive. The deeper the connection is between the ear, the theory, and the patterns, the better.

The reason I keep it this simple is so you eventually can let go of this and just play naturally. The fewer rules and guidelines, the more likely this is to happen.

The Minor Pentatonic modes

At 4:48 in the video, I talk about the Minor Pentatonic Modes. These work in the same way as the major modes, you add certain intervals to the Minor Pentatonic to create any of the minor modes.

The easier you find playing the Minor pentatonic Shapes, the easier you will take to the minor modes.


To create the different modes you need to remember the key intervals that change for each mode, here they are:


1 2 3 4 5 6 7


1 2 3 #4 5 6 7


1 2 3 4 5 6 b7


2 m3 4 5 b6 b7


2 m3 4 5 6 b7


b2 m3 4 5 b6 b7

Use Chordacus and the SWS to see how all these are displayed on the fretboard in all keys.

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Part 4 – Using the modes

In this final part of the How To Play Guitar video series, I take a super simple I – VI – II – V progression and apply the modes accordingly.

The I chord would have Ionian, the VI chord Aeolian, the II chord Dorian, and the V chord the Mixolydian mode.

Before you start straying off into jazz, it is extremely important that you learn how to play “inside the box” like this. After all, how can you go outside a box you don’t know properly?

Playing over changes

All the work you have done so far with the chord shape, the pentatonic and the modes will finally pay off as you start playing over changes.

In the video, I stay within the key as I play I – VI – II – V, but this could be applied to anything. Key changes, chord II as a IIx, whatever. As long as you can switch scale as the chord changes you can play over changes.

The key is to stop playing using a blanket scale and start thinking that you are changing scales with the chords.

Around 1:30 in the video, I speak about how to see a chord shape, the pentatonic, the mode, and the chord number.

Around the 2-minute mark, I speak about how a note is only in relation to a chord. The same note means different things as the chords pass by.

The example I use is the note E, over a C chord this is a third, over an Am, it’s a 5th, over a Dm it’s a 2nd or 9th, and over a G it’s a 6th.

So when you hit that E, you will create a sound in relation to the chord played. This is the secret of the modes. When you get good at this you don’t even think about E anymore, you only think about the interval.

At 3:20 we have completed this harmonic journey. Being able to “play over changes” is all well and good, the question is, how do you phrase when you play a solo?

Use rhythm for this, respond to what the singer does, or another band member. Most importantly, look at what is going on in the song’s melody that you’re soloing over.

All these chords, scales, arpeggios, and modes are your vocabulary, once you’ve learned the words it’s time to speak!

To do this, you need context, you need songs. General rules will only get you so far, you must learn how to do all this song by song.

How To Play Guitar | Related Pages

A-Z Songbook

Learn guitar through studying songs.

As a guitarist, a repertoire is the greatest asset you can acquire. It is your ticket to playing with other musicians.

To help you, I’ve gathered all the tunes in a Songbook you can play with acoustic duos, Jazz trios, Indie/Rock/Pop bands, and Funk/Soul/Motown ensembles.

Guitar chords

Guitar chords are essential to understand if you want to know how to play guitar.

You can learn how to build all minor and major guitar chords using the so-called CAGED system.

This is the foundation upon which we learn to extend chords and build arpeggios and modes as well.

About me | Dan Lundholm

Dan Lundholm wrote this article on how to play guitar.

This was an article about how to play guitar, by Dan Lundholm. Discover more about him and learn guitar with Spytunes.

Most importantly, find out why you should learn guitar through playing tunes, not practising scales, and studying theory in isolation.


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