Cowboy Chords: What Are They And How Can They Be Improved? - Tone Man (2023)

If you’re new to guitar playing, you might’ve already stumbled across the term “cowboy chord”.

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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.

Cowboy Chords: What Are They And How Can They Be Improved? - Tone Man (1)

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.

(Video) How to Play Western Cowboy Chords Guitar Lesson | Guitar Tricks

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.

(Video) The Secret To Beautiful Chord Progressions

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

Cowboy Chords: What Are They And How Can They Be Improved? - Tone Man (2)

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.

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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.

Final Thoughts

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.

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Andrew Patterson

Hi, my name is Andrew Patterson, and I have been playing guitar professionally for the last 10 years. Music has always been my biggest passion, and from a young age it was something that completely captivated me.

Through this blog I hope to help and encourage others who have just started, or are on their own guitar playing journey. This blog is the ultimate guide to playing guitar, from the best guitars to purchase, to the easiest rock songs to play.

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What are cowboy chords? ›

These so-called cowboy chords are great for beginners, as most require only three fingers to play. In other words, a cowboy chord is an open chord. This means that you don't press down the other strings but allow them to ring open instead.

How can I get better at Cowboys chords? ›

Improve Your Messy Cowboy Chords

One of the most effective tips I've been shown over the years to help tidy up cowboy chords (although this could apply to any chords really) is to work back and forth between strumming and playing arpeggios e.g. pick each note of the chord instead of strumming.

Why are they called cowboy chords? ›

In guitar music, open chords are also called cowboy chords owing to their simplicity and reminiscence of a "cowboy strummin' away on the prairie."

What are the country chords? ›

I, IV, V (C,F,G)

These chords are heavily used in country music. A majority of mainstream country songs will use this chord progression, whether for the verse, chorus, or bridge of their hit songs.

What are the three country chords? ›

These three chords are a simple means of covering many melodies without the use of passing notes. There are tens of thousands of songs written with I, IV and V chords. Almost all country, blues, and early rock and roll songs are three-chord songs. A great many pop songs are also I, IV and V chord songs.

What 3 chords are the most important? ›

The I, IV, and V chords are the three most common and arguably the most important harmonic elements in the musical universe. Built off of the first, fourth, and fifth notes of any major or minor scale, these three chords form the basis for much of the music found in several genres.

What are the 4 famous chords? ›

The famous four chords used in many pop song progressions are the I, V, vi and IV chords of a major key. The roman numerals represent the numbers of the major scale we begin a chord from (1, 5, 6, 4) so in C major this would be C, G, Amin, F or in G major it would be G, D, Emin, C.

What important skill must a cowboy have? ›

Three common soft skills for a cowboy are dexterity, listening skills and physical strength.

What is the Jimmy chord? ›

The Hendrix chord is usually a 7#9 chord, and more specifically, an E7#9. The chord shape is colloquially called the Hendrix chord because guitarist Jimi Hendrix frequently used it in a number of his songs like “Purple Haze.” Let's take a look at this chord below.

What skill did all cowboys need? ›

Cowboys came in many different shapes and sizes, but all cowboys had to be able to ride horses. Cowboy films often show cowboys who are handsome, clean and young, having lots of adventures.

What is the real cowboy code? ›

Because there was no law, pioneers who lived in and settled the west were bound by these unwritten rules which centered on hospitality, fair play, loyalty, honesty, a deep respect for the land, and a rock solid work ethic.

What is the most important chord in Western music? ›

I, IV and V are the basic building blocks for chord progressions in western music. You'll find these chords playing an important role in every single style of popular music. The reason why has to do with functional harmony.

What phrases do cowboys use? ›

Top 10 'cowboy culture' phrases used by Brits
  • Howdy.
  • Howdy, partner.
  • Make hay while the sun shines.
  • Peckish.
  • Yellow belly.
  • Play second fiddle.
  • Been through the mill.
  • Whole hog.
Aug 18, 2022

What are popular Western chord progressions? ›

C - G - Am - F (I - V -vi - IV) This just might be the most popular chord progression in Western popular music. There is an actual mathematical explanation as to why it's such a pleasant progression. The quick summary is that these four chords are opposites of each other.

What are the most used country chords? ›

The most common chords we'll be using in country music are the I, IV and V chords, which are all major chords, which are all major chords. It's not uncommon to throw in a minor VI chord for some texture or even to change the dynamic of a section. For this lesson, we'll talk about the key of C major.

What are the 8 major chords? ›

The eight chords we're going to look at in this lesson are G major, C major, D major, F major, E major, A major, E minor, and A minor. Now, you might be thinking that there's no way you can remember these chords in one lesson, but don't worry about that.

What chords are used in country roads? ›

The chord progression for this song uses a G major chord, D major chord, E minor chord, and C major chord. Thankfully, we can play variations of each of these open chords with just two fingers, making this song quite easy to start playing.

What tuning does Job for A cowboy play in? ›

While all the tracks on Genesis were in drop A# tuning (drop D down two whole steps), Ruination features eight songs written in D standard and two in C standard.

What are the 5 basic chords? ›

The 5 chords we'll look at are the C major, A major, G major, E major, and D major. The reason we use all major chords is that the minor versions of any of these chords just require tiny adjustments.

What is the three chord trick? ›

The three-chord trick refers to an idea in music theory where a song, phrase, or musical idea is most likely to be based on the tonic, sub-dominant, and dominant chords (I-IV-V) of the major scale. These three chords can either work as the structural basis for a song or as an accompanying melody.

What are the most important chords? ›

The 7 essential most used beginner chords ALL guitar players should learn first are E major, E minor, A major, A minor, D major, C major and G major. With these chords, you'll be armed with the power to play literally thousands upon thousands of different songs.

What keys are used in country music? ›

Many country songs don't even have a chorus! To top it all off, most of the tunes are limited to the major keys G, A, C, D, E, and F, and because all of the chords in the I-IV-V-I (1-4-5-1 in Nashville) progression are major, there are no minor chords in the basic structure.

What are the basic chords in Western music? ›

What Are the Basic Chords? The primary chords of Western music are the “major triad” and the “minor triad.” Per their names, these are three-note chords built on specific degrees of a major scale and a minor scale, respectively.

What is the chord progression of western song? ›

C - G - Am - F (I - V -vi - IV) This just might be the most popular chord progression in Western popular music. There is an actual mathematical explanation as to why it's such a pleasant progression. The quick summary is that these four chords are opposites of each other.

What is the devil's chord on guitar? ›

In music a tritone consists of two notes that are three whole steps apart, such as “C” to “F#.” Not found in either the major or minor scales, and due to its discordant sound, it has been called “the Devil's Chord.”

What are the 7 notes in Western music? ›

However, in English- and Dutch-speaking regions, pitch classes are typically represented by the first seven letters of the Latin alphabet (A, B, C, D, E, F and G).

What is the most common chord type found in Western music? ›

The most common chord in Western music is a triad, which has three notes built on alternate pitches of a scale. Most Western music is based on major or minor scales, from which melody and harmony are derived.


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