If you’re new to guitar playing, you might’ve already stumbled across the term “cowboy chord”.
If you have, you’re probably wondering what they are, and what it is that they do. Interestingly, “cowboy chords” have been a fundamental part of guitar playing ever since it was invented.
In this guide we’re going to take a look at what these chords are, how they’re constructed, where their name comes from, and give you tips on how you can improve them.
What Is A Cowboy Chord?
Cowboy chords are more commonly referred to as open chords or first position chords. This simply means that they are chords that use open strings, and are actually one of the easiest ways to play guitar.
With open chords you don’t need to fret, which means that they are played in open/first position (using the first three frets).
Also, cowboy chords are triads, which means that they are chords which contain three notes, so, you only need to use the index, middle, and ring finger of your fretting hand.
There are eight different cowboy chords, which are made up of five major and three minor chords. They are:
- E minor: To play E minor, place your middle finger on the A string of the 2nd fret, and your ring finger on the D string of the 2nd fret. This means that the low E, G, B, and high E strings are open.
- E major: To play E major, place your index finger on the first G string on the 1st fret, put your middle finger on the A string of the 2nd fret, and your ring finger on the D string of the 2nd fret. This means that the low E, B, and high E strings are open.
- A minor: For A minor, place your index finger on the B string on the 1st fret, middle finger on the D string on the 2nd fret, and your ring finger on the G string on the 2nd fret. The A and high E strings are both open, and the low E string is muted, which means that you do not strum it.
- A major: For A major, place your index finger on the D string, your middle finger on the G string, and your ring finger on the B string, all on the 2nd fret. Like A minor, both the A and high E strings are open, and the low E string is muted.
- D minor: To play D minor, place your index finger on the high E string of the 1st fret, middle finger on the G string of the second fret, and ring finger on the B string of the 3rd fret. Only the D string is open, and both the low E and A strings are muted.
- D major: For D major, place your index finger on the G string and your middle finger on the high E string, both on the 2nd fret. Your ring finger should go on the B string of the third fret. Like D minor, only the D string is open, as both the low E and A strings are muted.
- C major: For C major, place your index finger in the B string of the first fret, middle finger on the D string of the second fret, and ring finger on the A string on the 3rd fret. Both the G and high E strings are open, and the low E string is muted.
- G major: To play G major, place your index finger on the A string of the 2nd fret, middle finger on the low E string of the 3rd fret, and ring finger on the low E string of the 3rd fret also. The D, G and B strings are all open.
These are amongst the easiest chords that can be learnt on guitar, which is why a lot of beginners actually learn cowboy chords without realising it.
Cowboy chords aren’t just easy chords to learn, they are also some of the most useful chords you will ever learn, and are a great starting point for learning to play a vast range of songs.
Once you become more comfortable with reading chord charts and understanding chord theory, you can use cowboy chords to progress your skills and knowledge.
For example, if you want to learn moveable chord shapes – otherwise known as barre chords – as barre chords are really just a variation of cowboy chords which use the index finger as a substitute for the nut (where the fretboard meets the headstock).
Where Does The Name “Cowboy Chords” Come From?
When we think of cowboys, we generally picture the days of the wild, wild West, or someone who tends to cattle. It is also commonly used in a derogatory way to describe someone who lacks skills in a certain trade, or acts recklessly.
For example, a builder who does poor work or cuts corners on a job is called a “cowboy builder”.
When it comes to guitar playing, it’s not hard to imagine that those with extensive or advanced chord theory knowledge – like the Jazz community – might use the term “cowboy” in a derogatory way.
For instance, cowboy chords are often used as a substitute for more complex chords. This means that they take an otherwise complex song, and make it more accessible by using these “easier” chords, and this can irritate the players who have “learnt the song properly”.
Whilst this is one theory of where the name may have come from, there are a number of different campfire and western songs (before the birth of country music) which use only three open position chords (i.e. cowboy chords).
This theory is also supported by many 1940s films which show actor-musicians such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers act as singing and guitar playing cowboys.
During musical scenes the actors typically played first-position, open-string chords, and hardly ever strayed beyond the 3rd fret.
That’s not to say that the songs written during the early western days were simple and unsophisticated. However, “cowboy chords” were used more as a means of necessity, as guitars of this era had 14 frets, no truss rod, and used catgut strings.
Therefore, they were far more complicated to play, and more advanced chord shapes were almost impossible to use.
How To Improve Cowboy Chords
One of the most effective ways of improving your cowboy cords is to alternate between strumming a chord and playing arpeggios (where you pick each note of the chord individually, rather than strumming all of the string at once).
When you pick each note individually, you will easily be able to hear any problem notes in the chord. Normally, a chord doesn’t sound right because the note is muted in some way, so there is no clear sound.
An easy fix for this is to make sure you are applying enough pressure to a string, and that your finger isn’t clipping against any other strings.
For chords like C that span across the first three frets, it can be particularly difficult for those with small hands to play a clean chord.
Another issue can be string tension, especially for the first fret. Some beginners can really struggle with using the required finger strength that is needed to play clean notes.
To work on improving your cowboy chords, it’s important to focus on the following:
- Make sure you are applying the right amount of pressure to the strings (using either too much or too little can cause problems)
- Make sure that you are bending your fingers at the knuckles more
- Make sure you are using the tips of your fingers instead of the larger flesh parts
- Make sure you are placing your fingers close to the fret, but not on the fret wire
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is The Three Chord Trick?
The three chord trick is playing a melody by using only three chords. There are a vast range of songs (both classical and popular) that can be harmonised using only three chords.
As American country singer Harlan Howard once said, “country music is just three chords and the truth.”
What Does It Mean When You Play An Open String?
An open string refers to a string which is played without placing your hand on any fret.
So, for example, when you play an E minor chord, you only play the A and D strings on the 2nd fret, which means that the rest of the strings (low E, G, B, high E) are all “open”.
What Are The Three Main Chords On A Guitar?
The three most commonly used guitar chords are G, C, and D (all played in the major key). All of these are open/cowboy chords, and amongst some of the easiest and most important guitar chords that you can learn.
Cowboy chords are chords that literally every guitar player learns when they are a beginner. Although they are considered “basic” and “easy”, they are extremely important, and will always come in handy.
So, instead of thinking of cowboys chords as beginner level skills, find different ways that you can spice them up to create more interesting dynamics and sounds.
You can try things such as hammer-ons (bringing a fretting-hand finger down whilst you are strumming a note) can help you elevate your playing from beginner level.