Chord Families: The Key to Learning Guitar Quickly

As a new guitar player, do you feel overwhelmed trying to learn and memorize a bunch of chords that don’t seem to have any relationship to each other? Well, the fact is that chords do have relationships to each other and learning what those are can greatly accelerate your ability to play and improvise on the guitar (or any instrument, for that matter).

I like to call these relationships “chord families” because they belong together, and when played with each other sound very natural. But how do we know which chords belong in these families? Is it arbitrary list or is there a logical explanation?

Fortunately music is a very logical and systematic art form, and so there is a very sensible explanation for these family groupings.

The explanation centers on an area of music theory called the “key signature.” But instead of going to into great depth on the theory behind these chord groupings, I’d rather give you something you can start playing right away so that you have some context to better understand the theory in the future. It is sufficient for now to say that key signatures are like a rule book that tells us which notes belong together and as a result, which chords do as well. The result of these rules are the chord families.

How many chord families are there? Well, there is one for each note and there are 12 notes in total. Of those 12, there are 5 of them that work particularly well on the guitar: C, A, G, E, and D. It almost seems as if the guitar was designed to make playing these chord families easy. As a result, the vast majority of songs that are written on the guitar use one of these 5 chord families. So we get the most bang for our buck by learning to play these first. Even now, after almost 20 years of playing guitar I spend most of my time playing these chord families.

Now, just in your case you’re concerned that focusing on these five chord families (also called “keys”) will limit your guitar ability in the future, let me say this:

  1. You have to start somewhere, so why not focus on what will give you the greatest amount of benefit first. This is a classic example of the old 80/20 rule at work.
  2. Learning to play in these 5 keys (read: chord families) actually helps you to learn the other 7, and
  3. We can quickly overcome our inability to play in other keys by playing with a capo (insert Wikipedia link here), and over time we can add a variety of barre chords (insert wikipedia link) into our music tool chest. Both of these allow us to play in other keys outside of the 5 that we are focusing on, while still playing something familiar.


In the chord family pdf’s under each heading below you will see 2 things, and might wonder what they are so let me prepare you.

First, you might notice that each chord in the pdf has a roman numeral after it. This will be useful in the future to help us learn how to change the key of a song if, for example, we find it is too high for our voice and would like to change it to more suit our voice. I’ll post about this in the near future, but for now you can just ignore them.

Second, as you look through the different chord families you may notice that they often share some of the same chords. All analogies break down at some point (including the concept of chords having “families”), so don’t caught up in the fact that some of the chords belong to multiple families. Just start with C, memorize the chords that belong to the C family, play the chord charts that are associated with them, and then move on to the next Chord Family (A, then G, and so on) once you’ve got them down pat.

So lets get started learning to play the chord families. Our goal with each chord family is learn, and eventually memorize the chords that belong in each chord family. The best way to do this is to follow this process for each one.

  1. Only work on 1 chord family at a time. Start with the C family and only move on to the A family (and so on) once you feel that you’ve mastered the chords in that family and can remember them all.
  2. Open the “Chord Family” pdf for the key you are working on. Play each chord and say it’s name out loud while you do. Once you’ve done this 8-10 times, they should start to stick. Revisit this step often over the course of a week and you’ll have this nailed in no time.
  3. Choose one of the chord charts for the specific chord family that you are working on and play through it using the chords that you have learned. Have loads of fun. Then do it again.
  4. After you are comfortable with all of the chords and can remember them, do it again!


So that’s it. Have a blast and work hard. I guarantee you that if you really focus on this and follow the steps above you will gain a practical knowledge of the guitar that will far surpass many, if not all of your peers in a much shorter period of time.


Download the C Chord Family Chart

Songs to Try


Download the A Chord Family Chart

Songs to Try


Download the G Chord Family Chart

Songs to Try


Download the E Chord Family Chart

Songs to Try


Download the D Chord Family Chart

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Resound School of Music was started in 2009 with a vision of providing the finest music instruction available from the comfort of your home. But don’t be mistaken; we’re not your typical, stuffy music conservatory, nor do we want to be. Instead, we are the music school that was designed with you in mind.