There are millions of popular songs in the world. And to play them all, you need thousands of guitar chords under your belt.
If you wanna play the majority of these tunes, the number of chords required is low.
With just 23 chords, you can play more than 50% of the songs submitted to sites like:
These guitar databases are enormous. With nearly 350,000 tunes, they represent a diverse cross-section of popular music.
And to play slightly more than half of these songs, you only need 23 chords.
1. Learn the Right 23 Chords
Learning the right 23 chords allows you to play the majority of popular guitar songs across rock, country, pop, jazz, reggae, soul, and folk.
2. Learn Them One at a Time
Learning a single chord is a small, achievable goal. Anyone can do it. Even a beginner. And every time you add another chord, you unlock new songs to help you practice that target chord.
3. Learn Them in Order
Learning these chords in the right order maximizes the number of playable songs at each stage. Pick tunes you know and like. And cycle through them to get better at your target chord.
Repeat this process 23 times, and you’ll have passed the 50% threshold.
In a database of nearly 350,000 guitar tunes, this means being able to play more than 175,000 songs.
If you can learn just one more chord, this is a challenge you should accept.
- Even if you’re an absolute beginner…
- Even if you’ve quit in the past…
- Even if you suck at guitar...
You cannot lose.
After all, anyone can learn just one more chord.
And if you average one new chord a week, you’ll be done in under 6 months.
That’s the 23-Chord Challenge in a nutshell. And if you’d like to take it now, start here.
Still not convinced?
I don’t blame you.
It's an outrageous claim. But my goal is to turn you into a believer. And that’s why this post is on the longer side. I need ample space to back up my claim.
So read on....
Bob Dylan, You’re a Genius. But...
A genius composer, Bob Dylan gifted the world with one of the greatest protest anthems ever – Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.
And "technically" playable with only 3 simple chords (G, C, and D), Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door is accessible to anyone and everyone.
This is the literal definition of Folk music. And it’s why so many of my guitar friends recommended I start with this song.
But here was my problem.
I liked that song. But not enough to play it the gazillions of times needed to get good at those chords.
My guitar friends would tell me...
“Austin. If you’re not willing to invest the work, perhaps guitar isn’t for you. Maybe you should take up a different hobby.”
But that answer was never satisfying.
Why should there be one (and only one) path to mastering G, C, and D? Surely there must be other songs I could use to lock down these 3 easy chords.
So I kept looking and eventually found:
- Louie Louie by the Kingsmen
- La Bamba by Ritchie Valens
- Three Little Birds by Bob Marley
- Wild Things by the Troggs
And these helped a lot.
Instead of doing endless repetitions of the same song, I could spread my practice across many different tunes.
But why stop there? An even longer list would provide:
- Greater variety.
- Less boredom.
- More practice.
So I kept looking.
And after talking to more guitar friends, I found dozens of nursery rhymes, country ballads, and folk tunes that used G, C, and D exclusively.
And that’s when I discovered the Axis of Awesome's viral video – a montage of popular songs that all use the same chords.
If you’ve never seen this video, it’s worth watching.
In this video, the Axis of Awesome plays 4-chord pop tunes. But I realized there might be tons of songs that use my 3 chords – G, C, and D.
And instead of asking my guitar friends for a list of these tunes, I could ask the entire world?
Crowdsourcing the Perfect Playlist
Think of a guitar song.
And you’ll probably find a version of it on one of the sites below:
With songs submitted from musicians around the globe, these databases are massive. And when you add them together, you have a realistic cross-section of popular music.
From there, you can start doing some pretty cool things.
For example, you can sequence the “DNA” of these guitar tunes and map out their chords and relationships. And this gives you a searchable index of songs organized by the chords they use.
Ok, great. But what does that mean exactly?
Here’s a simplified explanation.
Imagine you only have a few random ingredients in your fridge.
There are websites that can tell you all the different recipes you can make with those ingredients (and only those ingredients). These are dishes you can start cooking right now – without having to buy anything new.
The Chord Genome Project does the same thing.
But instead of using ingredients to find recipes, you’re using guitar chords to find instantly playable music.
Do a search of G, C, and D, and you’ll see songs that use those 3 chords and only those chords, including:
- 3-chord tunes that use G+C+D.
- 2-chord tunes that use G+C or G+D or C+D.
- 1-chord tunes that use G or C or D.
These are songs you can start playing right now – without having to learn anything new.
Oh. And there are thousands of them (3,959 to be exact).
You can practice Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door if you want to. Just know you don’t have to.
With just 3 beginner chords, you can do a lot of damage.
Here are the ones I used to lock down G, C, and D:
- Ring of Fire | Johnny Cash
- Love Me Do | Beatles
- I'm a Believer | Monkees
- No Particular Place to Go | Chuck Berry
- Leavin’ on a Jet Plane | John Denver
- The Lion Sleeps Tonight | Tokens
- Old Time Rock & Roll | Bob Seger
- Here Comes My Baby | Cat Stevens
- Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door | Bob Dylan
- La Bamba | Ritchie Valens
- Twist & Shout | Isley Brothers
- Don't Be Cruel | Elvis Presley
- La Poupee Qui Fait Non | Michel Polnareff
- King of the Road | Roger Miller
- Margaritaville | Jimmy Buffett
- School Days | Chuck Berry
- Teddy Bear | Elvis Presley
Maybe we have the same music tastes. Maybe not.
It doesn’t really matter.
From this huge list of guitar tunes, you’re guaranteed to find 10 or 20 that you like.
Practice these songs to get really good at those chords. As an added bonus, you’ll walk away with a larger repertoire.
And soon, you’ll be ready to tackle new music.
But for that, you’ll need at least one new chord.
Just One More Chord...
Anyone can learn just one more chord – even if you’ve never touched a guitar before.
The hard part is knowing which chord it should be.
Ideally, it should be whichever one allows you to play the most new music. This increases the chances of finding songs you know and like. And as a result, you’ll spend more time on the guitar.
It’s worth repeating that last point again:
- The more playable music you find, the more music you’ll play.
- This translates to more time spent on the guitar.
And that’s the single most effective way to improve – i.e. time invested with your guitar.
Music theory, private lessons, online courses, better gear – all of these things will help.
There’s no substitute for practice. The more hours you log, the more you’ll improve. Period.
But how do you know which chord unlocks the most new songs?
When first trying to figure this out, I took the chords I already knew and did different search combinations:
- G, C, D... plus… E... unlocked 4,567 songs.
- G, C, D... plus… F... yielded 7,268 songs.
- G, C, D... plus… A... gave me 8,010 songs.
Trial and error got me closer and closer. But it was tedious work.
Fortunately, there was a faster way of figuring this out.
The same logic used to create a searchable song index could also be used to determine the Next Best Chord to learn. And after running an analysis, E minor (Em) was the clear winner.
When added to G, C, and D, this one new chord allows you to play 12,000+ songs.
That’s a fuck-ton of music – from just 4 chords.
Even more remarkable…
All these new tunes are exactly one chord away from being playable. If you already know G, C, and D, then the only thing you need to practice is moving to and from Em.
And there are thousands upon thousands of songs to help you practice.
Pick 10 or 20 you like. And use them to get better at Em.
I don’t want to oversell anything here. Working on a single chord removes a lot of friction. And it makes the learning process much easier.
But it isn’t easy.
Not at first, anyway.
Every time Em appears in a song, it acts like a speed bump that slows you down. Your transitions will be sloppy. And the pauses will be long.
But as you continue to cycle through your practice tunes:
- The speed bumps get smaller.
- The pauses become shorter.
- The transitions get faster.
And once you finally master Em, you’ll have an actual repertoire of 20 new songs – and a theoretical repertoire of more than 12,000 tunes.
Here are the ones I used to get better at Em:
- Brown Eyed Girl | Van Morrison
- Let It Be | Beatles
- This Magic Moment | Drifters
- Runaround Sue | Dion
- Chain Gang | Sam Cooke
- Stand By Me | Ben E. King
- Under Pressure | Queen
- Livin’ on a Prayer | Bon Jovi
- Crocodile Rock | Elton John
- Tracks of My Tears | Smokey Robinson
- Mr. Tambourine Man | Byrds
- Tale As Old As Time | Disney
- We Are the World | Michael Jackson
- Up on the Roof | Drifters
- Where Have All the Flowers Gone | Peter Paul and Mary
- Under the Boardwalk | Drifters
- L'encre De Tes Yeux | Francis Cabrel
- Le Petit Ane Gris | Hugues Aufray
A minor (Am) is the best chord to learn next. When added to G, C, D, and Em – this new chord unlocks more than 20,000 songs.
Pick 10 or 20 you like. And cycle through them until you become a rockstar at Am.
Congratulations. You now have a larger repertoire and a larger chord library.
Rinse and repeat this step-by-step process.
At each stage, you’re only working on a single chord. And that chord unlocks thousands of new tunes. Choose the ones you like and start practicing.
This approach works even if you’re starting with zero chords.
And that got me thinking – what would starting at zero even look like?
Or more specifically…
As a beginner, what chords must you learn – in sequence – to play all 350,000 songs in the Chord Genome Project?
What I discovered blew my mind.
Birth of the Challenge
There aren’t many 1-chord songs in the Chord Genome database.
But of the ones that do exist, G appears most often.
Therefore this is the best chord to start with. As a beginner, learning G allows you to play the most music.
Not a lot. Only 3 songs. And they're very simple:
- Row, Row, Row Your Boat
- Frere Jacques (a.k.a. Are You Sleeping, Brother John?)
- One Chord Song (by Keith Urban)
In an index of 350,000 tunes, these 3 songs represent 0.001% of the total database. That isn’t much. But you’re making music.
And that’s worth celebrating.
C is the next best chord after that. Adding it to G gives you 143 songs. And this moves the needle to 0.041% of the database. Pick tunes you know and use them to get better at C.
Adding D unlocks 3,959 tunes. And you’re finally past the 1% mark. More important, you’re now playing real guitar songs – i.e. the kind you actually hear on the radio.
If you continue this step-by-step sequence, it’ll take forever to reach 100% of the database. You’d need to repeat this process 2,133 times to play all 350,000 songs in the catalog.
But it’s the red, bolded portion below that caught my eye.
Once you learn C#, you’ve surpassed the 50% threshold.
You might need thousands of chords to play the entire database of 350,000 guitar tunes.
But you only need the first 23 chords to play the majority of these songs.
And therein lies the challenge.
- Learn these 23 chords.
- Learn them one-by-one.
- Learn them in order.
This is a totally winnable challenge.
In fact, you can’t lose.
After all, anyone can learn just one more chord – even a beginner.
And if you average one new chord a week, it’ll take less than 6 months.
Why Stop at 23 Chords?
There are many places you could stop well before that point.
And if you’re not interested in taking the 23-Chord Challenge, here are some other targets worth exploring:
- With just 1 chord under your belt, you’re making music. You could easily stop after this momentous victory.
- Learn the right 3 chords, and you have a lifetime of music (i.e. nearly 4,000 tunes). You could play a new song every day for almost 11 years – and never once repeat.
- You can play nearly 25% of the database with just 10 chords. That’s roughly 87,000 songs – enough to start taking requests whenever you gig.
23 chords represents the halfway mark. And that's where the challenge officially ends.
This doesn’t mean you should stop learning chords. But after the 50% mark, you start running into diminishing returns.
Here are 3 charts to help you visualize what that means.
Chart 1: First 23 Chords
In the chart below, you can see the first 23 chords laid out in the optimal learning sequence. Together, these chords allow you to play 50% of the songs in the database.
The red bar (C#) indicates the halfway mark.
Chart 2: First 100 Chords
The next chart is zoomed out to show the first 100 chords.
Again, the red bar represents the halfway point. The majority of songs are to the left of this red bar – even though the chart extends to the right (for another 2,000+ chords).
Chart 3: All 2,133 Chords
This final chart shows the entire database drawn to scale.
After the red bar (which is almost invisible), progress drops off suddenly. In fact, the chart looks empty – even though it extends all the way to the right edge.
You can (and should) continue learning more guitar chords after you reach the 50% mark. But you’re better off tackling new chords on a case-by-case basis.
What does that mean?
Whenever you hear a song you wanna play, it makes more sense to simply Google the music notation (or go directly to Ultimate Guitar):
- Half the time, you’ll be able to play that song on the spot – without learning any new chords.
- Half the time, you’ll be at least one chord short. But you’ll already have enough experience and dexterity to quickly master that chord.
After the halfway mark, the Chord Genome Project becomes more of a novelty than a roadmap. You can take the training wheels off.
And remember. If you stop before reaching the 23-chord threshold, you still go home with more songs than you ever thought imaginable.
This is why the 23-Chord Challenge is a bet you cannot lose.
Is This Challenge Scientific?
Absolutely not. But it IS data-driven.
These are real tunes submitted by real people from around the globe. And with hundreds of thousands of guitar songs across rock, pop, jazz, reggae, country, soul, and folk – the Chord Genome Project is a fairly accurate cross-section of popular music.
And according to the data, 23 chords are all you need to play the majority of these songs.
There are some caveats (i.e. conditions) that we need to address first.
Caveat 1: Popular Music
The Chord Genome Project is weighted towards popular songs – i.e. rock, pop, jazz, reggae, country, soul, and folk.
You won’t find much classical music. The same goes for ambient, electronic, techno, and hip-hop. These simply aren’t the types of genres people upload to the major guitar sites.
Caveat 2: Western Music
The database is heavily slanted towards Western popular music. So if you’re into K-Pop or Chinese rock, you’re out of luck.
Filipino music is surprisingly well represented, however.
Caveat 3: English Songs
You’ll find a fair number of Spanish, French, and Portuguese tunes. But most of the music is in English because most of the source databases cater to English speakers.
With time, this will change.
Caveat 4: User-Submitted Songs
Anyone can upload music to sites like Ultimate Guitar and Songsterr. Some tunes are expertly transcribed. Others – not so much. So there’s a lot of “variety” when it comes to accuracy and quality.
Caveat 5: Original Key
There is nothing inherently special about these 23 chords. If you moved every chord up half a step (i.e. G#, C#, D#), for example:
- The relationships between all 23 chords would remain the same.
- The amount of playable music would also stay the same.
- Everything would just be in a slightly higher key.
The only reason these 23 chords are singled out is because composers and performers prefer simplicity.
It’s easier to write songs in C major, G major, and F major because they have the fewest sharps and flats.
What this means is you’ll often have to use a capo to play in the original key.
A capo is an attachment that fits on the neck of the guitar. And it allows you to play songs in a higher pitch – while still using basic chords.
Caveat 6: Unique Chords
There are actually tens of thousands of chords in the entire Chord Genome database. But there are only 2,133 unique ones.
What does that mean?
Well, there are many different ways to spell out the same chord. For example, A# can be written as:
Why music notation works this way is beyond the scope of this article.
But rest assured – all of the above is a single unique chord.
The spelling may change. But both the sound and fingering remain the same. So if you learn how to play A#, you’ve also learned how to play all these other chords as well.
Sounds crazy, I know. But it’s no crazier than English. Just look at all the ways you can write out “see you tonight.”
- see you tonight
- see you tonite
- see you 2nite
- c you tonight
- c you tonite
- c you 2nite
- c u tonight
- c u tonite
- c u 2nite
- see u tonight
- see u tonite
- see u 2nite
The spelling changes each time. But when you read them out loud, the pronunciation stays the same.
Caveat 7: Unique Songs
If 2 or more songs have the same title, artist, and chords, they are considered duplicates. And the Chord Genome Project only keeps one unique version of that tune.
However, there are plenty of songs with the same artist and title – but with different chords.
For example, Ultimate Guitar has countless versions of Bob Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.
As a beginner, that’s great news. You can start playing simplified versions of harder tunes much earlier in your guitar journey.
Caveat 8: One Chord a Week
If you average one new chord a week, it’ll take more than 40 years to learn all 2,133 chords in the database.
But it’ll take less than 6 months to complete the 23-Chord Challenge.
This is totally doable.
However, maintaining that weekly average is ambitious:
- Some chords (like Em) are pretty easy. And you can probably learn them in just a few days.
- Other chords (like F) are super hard. And you might need several weeks to master them. Maybe even several months.
That’s why there’s no time element in the 23-Chord Challenge. Work at your leisure. You might finish in half a year. It could take longer.
But as long as you keep adding new chords one-by-one, success is guaranteed.
Even if you only practice 5 minutes a day – you’ll eventually get there. It’ll take a minute. But sooner or later, you’ll reach 23 chords.
Caveat 9: All That Jazz
Jazz standards are well represented throughout the Chord Genome Project. And you can play a lot of them with just 23 chords. This is especially true of jazz tunes that eventually became doo wop covers (like Blue Moon by the Marcels).
But 23 chords will only take you so far. You’ll need a much larger chord library if jazz is your goal.
There is one final caveat worth mentioning.
23 Is Just a Number
With the right 23 guitar chords, you can play more than 50% of the current database.
Right now, this means being able to play more than 175,000 guitar tunes.
If you add or remove songs, however, the halfway mark will change.
But not as much as you’d think.
When the database was much smaller (i.e. 100,000 tunes), you needed 19 chords to reach 50%. And if you doubled the size of the database (to 700,000 songs), the number required might approach 30 chords.
19 chords. 23 chords. 30 chords.
It doesn’t really matter.
The number needed to reach 50% playability is absurdly low.
And “23” is a symbolic placeholder that represents how surprisingly easy and achievable the journey is.
If you can master those 23 chords, you’ll be able to play roughly 50% of all the popular songs you hear on the radio.
And that’s just kind of cool.
23-Chord Challenge FAQs
1. What If I’m Not a Beginner?
The 23-Chord Challenge is designed for someone starting from zero.
But maybe you already know some chords.
For example, many beginners start with A, D, and E.
That’s great. Get in where you fit in.
You can join the challenge at any point. Plug in the chords you already know and work your way forward.
The journey will be even faster for you.
2. Is the 23-Chord Challenge Only for Guitar?
No. The 23-Chord Challenge works with any chordal instrument – i.e. ukulele, lute, piano, and xylophone.
3. What about Picking, Shredding, Soloing, etc.?
There are many different aspects of guitar learning. And as the name suggests, the 23-Chord Challenge focuses on just one – i.e. learning chords.
If you can master these 23 chords, you can “play” the majority of popular songs on the radio.
So when do you learn all those other skills like picking, strumming, sweeping, arpeggios, crescendos, scales, tempo, etc.?
When do you tackle music theory and basic musicianship?
I’ve actually written an entire article about this. Check out the Rule of One to learn more.
4. Do I Have to Use the Chord Genome Project?
No. You don’t have to use the Chord Genome Project to take the 23-Chord Challenge:
- You already know the 23 chords needed to reach 50%.
- You also know the optimal order in which to learn those chords.
- The songs you need to practice are already published online.
- With enough time and effort, it’s possible to find them all.
The Chord Genome Project merely simplifies the process. This searchable database makes it easier to find guitar tunes you can start playing right now.
5. Does Chord Genome Work on Mobile Devices?
In theory, yes. The platform is technically “mobile-ready.” But I strongly recommend using a laptop or desktop.
It’ll make life much easier.
Hopefully, the Chord Genome Project will become a truly stable mobile platform in the future.
6. How Accurate Are the Song Results?
Eh. They’re accurate “enough.”
Remember these tunes are submitted by amateurs and experts alike.
Moreover, songs get edited and removed all the time. It’s a bit annoying to be honest.
Fortunately, you can use sites like Archive.org to see what a tune looked like before it was changed.
This free tool takes periodic “snapshots” of the Internet. And this allows you to go back in time to find edited or deleted songs.
Anyway, managing a database of this size isn’t easy. And the results aren’t 100% perfect – which is why the Chord Genome Project is still in beta. But even with these limitations, the platform makes finding playable music much easier.
For more on this, be sure to read:
Taking the 23-Chord Challenge?
Hopefully I’ve convinced you.
And maybe you’re ready to take on this un-losable guitar bet.
But before you do, it’s worth restating the 23-Chord Challenge one more time:
- Learning the right 23 chords allows you to play more than 50% of the popular songs you hear on the radio.
- Learning them one-by-one allows you to focus on a single, achievable goal. And there are tons of songs to help you succeed.
- Learning them in the right order maximizes the number of songs you can play at each stage. Choose the ones you like and start practicing.
That’s the challenge.
As long as you can learn just one more chord, there’s no way you can lose.
And even if you stop short of 23 chords, you still take home a ton of new music.
So you win no matter what.
If you’d like to take the 23-Chord Challenge, create an account today - and start making music.
And if you know any frustrated guitarists or beginners out there, share the 23-Chord Challenge with them.
And happy strumming.