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Vertical Truth: Chordal Mechanisms for the Guitar
Unit 1: Cowboy Chords

A Deep Dive into 1st Position
Fingerings & Application

“Cowboy Chords” are otherwise known as “First-Position Chords” and usually contain open strings. The term, “first-position” indicates they occur within the first 4 frets. These are the typical chords (G, C, D etc) that most guitarists first learn.

The term “cowboy chords” was used by my teacher (John Elliott) as a pejorative, referencing the “singing cowboys” to which kids of my generation were exposed via television shows, most notably, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. There was also a movie genre of western musicals that starred singing cowboys. A modern, somewhat twisted reference to the singing cowboy movie genre is 2018's “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

However, for me, “cowboy chords” is not a disrespect; it's merely a synonym for “first-position chords.” I use those chords often, so no disrespect is intended; they are common across a broad range of genres.

You can find them being taught all over the internet and in method books everywhere. The very first method book I had – it came with my first guitar purchase at age 11 – was a Mel Bay book of first- position chords. That's where I learned them.

Why then, is a guy like me who has all this advanced teaching content interested in teaching beginner- level first-position chords that can be found with a simple google-search?

Because I don't see them being taught the way I teach them. Furthermore, while some might say “cowboy chords” and “deep dive” of my subtitle is oxymoronic, such an attitude indicates that person does not really understand music &/or the possibilities contained in the guitar.

My basic approach is to teach one chord at a time, including many possible fingerings and some extensions (7ths, 9ths etc), in a common or cliché order or chord progression. I talk about technique issues which are commonly missing; positioning, optimum finger placement order, minimum force and so on. None of those technique issues were dealt with in the Mel Bay book I mentioned.

These lessons are not exhaustive, they merely present the most commonly used chords.

So, while this lesson series is aimed at beginner and lower-intermediate students, there are elements that will appeal to students beyond that categorization. Plus, if you think you are more advanced, it never hurts to revisit the basics! You never know; you just might come across something you missed the last time around. That's happened to me plenty of times.

Unit 1: Cowboy Chords is one of the things I do with beginner students right off the bat. It provides a lot of gratification because entire songs can be played with just 3 or 4 chords.

It's a PDF download that contains:

  • 15 lessons in 41 pages

  • 8 links to other, related free lessons

  • 197 fretboard diagrams and other graphics

  • 15 video links

Chord progressions are given in the PDF &/or the videos for these songs:

  • Refugee - Tom Petty

  • Born on the Bayou - Creedence Clearwater Revival

  • Proud Mary - Creedence Clearwater Revival

  • What I Like About You - The Romantics

  • Toes - Zac Brown Band

  • Another Saturday Night - Sam Cooke

  • With a Little Help From My Friends - The Beatles

  • Save Tonight - Eagle Eye Cherry

  • Stand by Me - Ben E. King

  • Silhouette - The Four Seasons

  • Dream - The Everly Brothers

  • Every Breath You Take - The Police

Take a Look at the PDF:

Question: Can't 1st-position chords be found all over the place with a simple search? What makes yours different?

Answer: Here's what makes my approach different (better!):

  • I give multiple fingering options for the same chord...and explain why one fingering is preferable to another... in a given context.

  • I define and deal with common technique issues and fingering problems with the chords that people typically have issues with - like F.

  • Related to the above: Bar chords (like B minor and F# minor) are avoided and workarounds given which sound just as good or better than the bar chords - and are easier to play.

  • My fretboard diagrams aren’t just lines with black dots. I give each note its voicing - root, 3rd, 5th and so on. Furthermore, the notes are color-coded. I’m not going to go into the concept or psychology of that right now but the color scheme for the various notes is deliberate and consistent.

Question: 197 fretboard diagrams seems overwhelming for someone who's on a basic level..

Answer: I get it. Yeah, it's a lot. However, I should qualify that many of the diagrams are of the same chord, but are different fingerings. There can be multiple ways to finger a chord. Pick just one of each chord then. There are plenty of million-dollar guitar-playing singer-songwriters who play G the same way every single time they play it.


Also, a chord diagram is given when I first give you the chord, and then may be given again in the context of a progression. So it's not like there are 197 different chords, just 197 chord diagrams.

There are actually 41 different chords - that's still a lot, but not near as many as 197! In hindsight, I probably gave a wrong impression with that 197 number.


I give you the variations I do because there are those who want them, plus it demonstrates that I know what I'm talking about, dig? After all, I did say, "deep dive."

Let me give you the first lesson here so you can get an idea of what you'll be getting when you download "Cowboy Chords."

We'll start with the typical G Major; we'll start with 2 different fingerings for the same chord. I call it a, “3-fingered G”:

Screen Shot 2022-09-06 at 9.54.02 AM.png

A word about fingerings: fingering is not set in stone; there is no absolute one right way to finger anything, there is only the right way to finger something in a certain situation. What chord are you coming from? What chord follows? Generally, the right way to finger something is that which creates the least amount of movement. This is the principle of economical movement and lies at the heart of good technique. I will emphasize it often:

Less movement = less potential for error!

A word about positioning: place your finger directly behind and as close to the fret as possible: see the demonstration video below.

There are free lessons on technique in the “Members Only” area of You must be a Site Member and logged in to view.

The numbers within the colored circles are the voicing. “R” = “root.” “3” = “3rd” and so on. It's important to know the voicing. The numbers across the top are fingers;

1 = index

2 = middle

3 = ring
4 = pinky


The fret-hand thumb is not numbered, I notate it with “T” when necessary.

Which fingering of the G above should you use? Ideally? Both. But, for the sake of taking the first step, pick one and work on just that one. You'll have to use the other one soon enough when we start putting chords into progressions.

So you can see now that you don't get just the chords, you get technique guidance as well as links to multiple free lessons.

But we're not done; there's more to this lesson!

The 4-Fingered G

This fingering/voicing is also very common:

Screenshot 2023-09-15 at 7.23.44 PM.png

Sometimes, in certain situations, the 3rd is eliminated. The technically correct name for this voicing is G5. However, most of the time you'll see it notated simply “G”:

Screen Shot 2022-09-06 at 10.09.04 AM.png

What determines which fingering? One factor would be you want to play a note (other than the 3rd) with your index finger (left diagram), or you might want to play another note with your pinky (right diagram). Both possibilities will be covered later but the one on the left is the most common. 

Wait - There's More!

There are several possibilities based on the G5 fingerings above. We can add the 3rd on the 2nd string open. Here are the two most common fingerings:

Screen Shot 2022-09-06 at 10.13.50 AM.png

Adding a 7th to the open G voicings is common. Here are 2 voicings/fingerings:

Screen Shot 2022-09-06 at 10.18.00 AM.png

Bonus - The Frog-Leg G

I can't leave the subject of the Cowboy G chord without mentioning the, “Frog-Leg G,” also known as, “Arkansas G.” Think you know everything about open G? Check this out! get explanatory text, fretboard diagrams, links to not just one, but many, related free lessons, AND a total of 15 videos, as well as a joke or two.

Because all the above deals with basically a single chord, and you need more than one chord for most songs (there are actually several hit songs I can think of that use a single chord), I have not given you any chord progressions. But notice in the first section of this page I gave a list of songs covered in this lesson series:

  • Refugee - Tom Petty

  • Born on the Bayou - Creedence Clearwater Revival

  • Proud Mary - Creedence Clearwater Revival

  • What I Like About You - The Romantics

  • Toes - Zac Brown Band

  • Another Saturday Night - Sam Cooke

  • With a Little Help From My Friends - The Beatles

  • Save Tonight - Eagle Eye Cherry

  • Stand by Me - Ben E. King

  • Silhouette - The Four Seasons

  • Dream - The Everly Brothers

  • Every Breath You Take - The Police

There are many progressions given in this lesson series; it's the main way I put the chords into context. So...

Here's the Deal

The retail price for Cowboy Chords is $99: Anyone can purchase - if you want to pay full price without signing up for membership and with no other strings attached, just click on the button below:

If you are a Master Guitar School Site Member you can use your Members-Only Discount and purchase for $59!

If you are a Site Member: When you click on the button below you will be prompted to sign in if you are not already signed in. The page is a Members-Only page.

If you are NOT a Site Member: When you click on the button below you will be prompted to sign up as a Site Member. Membership is free and there are many other benefits to being a Site Member, but the Members-Only Discount is a big one (at least 40% or more)! After signing up you will be automatically redirected to the Members-Only Discount.

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