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What are cowboy chords?

Fender Standard Telecaster Electric Guitar - Maple Fingerboard - Butterscotch Blonde

Using nothing but cowboy chords is arguably the easiest way to play guitar. And in fact, most people play guitar using nothing but these chords.

Cowboy chord is another name for open chord. It is a chord played on the guitar that uses open strings and only requires three of your fret hand fingers to make (index, middle and ring fingers.)

How many cowboy chords are there? Eight. Five major and three minor.

These are the chords:

  1. E major
  2. E minor
  3. A major
  4. A minor
  5. D major
  6. D minor
  7. G major
  8. C major

Cowboy chords are used in many songs. Everything from Louie, Louie to Fortunate Son to Sweet Child O' Mine to Take On Me to Another Brick in the Wall to Yellow Submarine... and believe me, I could list many more. Every one of those songs uses a variation of the 8 cowboy chords.

Cowboy chord use is why your only acoustic guitar should be a 12-fret

Where acoustic guitars are concerned, there are the traditional 12-fret kind, i.e. your standard full-size dreadnought or smaller parlor acoustic guitar, and then the cutaway kind that gives you access to frets higher than the 12th.

If you want an acoustic that rings the best (and you should,) go with a 12-fret. Chances are very likely you're only going to play cowboy chords on it, maybe use a capo from time to time, and that's pretty much it.

Seriously, think about it. Are you going to do high-fret soloing on your acoustic? Of course not. Get the 12-fret.

Cowboy chord use is the reason many vintage guitars only show wear at the first 5 frets

On both the front and back of the neck, it's usually true that on well-used electric guitars, the most wear is shown from frets 1 to 5. This is totally normal. In fact, it's so normal that it's expected.

It's rare you ever see worn frets after fret #5. And where the back of the neck is concerned, any gloss from frets 1 through 5 will be dulled away after years of use. This is true no matter how the neck was finished, be it nitrocellulose lacquer, urethane or something else. The only real difference is that nitro will flake off and expose the wood grain while urethane won't and instead just show a duller look.

Cowboy chord use is also why it's OK to do a partial refret if the guitar needs it

If you or someone else is going to refret your guitar and all the wear is at the first 5 frets, then a partial refret of the neck is fine. No need to spend the extra money on 21 to 24 fret wire replacements if only the first 5 are worn out.

Yes, there are exceptions to the rule. If on a refret you're going to switch fret material from nickel/silver to stainless steel, you might as well do a full refret there. But for nickel/silver (which the vast majority of electric guitars use,) a partial refret is fine. After installation of the new frets, a fret leveling and a proper polishing with 0000 steel wool, you'd never know that new frets were installed at the first 5.


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