What are Cowboy Chords?
All guitar players start in the same place, knowing absolutely nothing about guitar. So for many, if not all, these are the very first chords they will learn.
So it’s safe to say that although they are considered very basic beginner-level chords, that is precisely why they are so important for every guitarist to know.
Let’s define what they are.
“Cowboy chords” is a nickname for open chords that are played within the first 3 frets of the guitar, usually using only 2 or 3 fingers, while leaving many of the other strings to ring open. They are made up of triads (chords made with 3 notes).
They allow for a full and thick sound because of the combination of strings being fretted plus those ringing openly.
Also, just knowing these few beginner chords will allow you to play a huge amount of songs because they are so commonly used.
How are they used by Songwriters?
These types of chords are useful for songwriters because many of them prefer to focus more on lyrics and vocal melody in their songs than on instrumental complexity.
They often use the guitar or piano as an accompaniment tool to sing over, so the chords tend to be simple and easy to play while singing.
They’re also great in the studio when you need a guitar to help a song section sound more full.
For example, imagine a song section with bass, drums and vocals. The chords are simple major and minor chords and you want to play guitar without distortion on that song section. You also want rhythmic strumming on the guitar.
In this case it wouldn’t make sense to pluck (or arpeggiate) the strings individually, and playing the chords as powerchords wouldn’t give you as full a sound as open chords. So Cowboy Chords might be your best option to make everything sound big and full the way you want.
Why do some Musicians call them Cowboy Chords and not Open Chords?
Some people speculate it’s because of how much they’re used in country music, and how oftentimes they remind people of a cowboy playing guitar around a campfire.
Where can you hear Cowboy Chords?
They tend to be used a lot in folk, singer songwriter and country music and are played on both acoustic and electric guitar. However you can find them in all kinds of genres including rock and pop.
Go to any coffee shop holding an open mic night and very likely many performers with acoustic guitars will be using them.
The Difference Between Cowboy Chords and Barre Chords
Cowboy chords are played within the first 3 frets of the guitar and let many strings ring openly, while barre chords are played by using your index finger to press down multiple (if not all) the strings, the same way the nut of the guitar does. By pressing all the strings in this way you can move your chords to different frets and play them in different positions on the neck.