Well, well, well, what have we here? Another city slicker looking to make it big out on the open country? Or, perhaps you just came in here from the cold to learn just what all the hubbub is about? Maybe you are someone who likes to be crystal clear with the language and terminology they use?
A cowboy chord is an open position chord and can be played within the first few frets on the fretboard.
Whatever your reasoning, you have come to the right place, as we will be revealing today just exactly what cowboy chords are, and why the term has come about to refer to what are essentially the same open chords that all guitarists will learn as a rite of passage.
What Are Cowboy Chords?
You will almost certainly have come across cowboy chords out in the wild already, and in fact probably still use them even if you are a beginner guitarist just starting.
The term cowboy chords is simply another way of referring to open position chords – i.e. those chords that can be played within the first few frets on the fretboard and that do not rely on barring like barre chords – and in this way is one of the first lessons any guitarist is likely to have.
There are a number of different hypotheses as to why the term came about. Some, for example, believe that the term refers to and originates from movies from the former half of the 20th century, wherein actor-musicians would portray cowboys and sing, using only open chords and rarely advancing past the 3rd fret.
Alternatively, it has been suggested perhaps more appositely that the origin is slightly different, instead coming from an alternative definition of the word cowboy. Aside from describing someone whose work is tending to cattle, the term is also used in some contexts to refer to someone who is lacking in skill and/or has a tendency to be reckless in what they do.
This latter origin makes a little more sense to me, anyhow, for it is not hard to see how the term through such a definition might have been used by more advanced guitarists (such as those, say, who play more harmonically complex music like jazz) to refer rather snobbishly to those who use simpler versions of the extended chords of which they are so fond.
Similarly, though, many early country and western songs would have been formed of simple series’ of three chords in an open position, giving the song’s a folk quality when these variations were heard on the edge of the world before a campfire.
Key Examples of Major Cowboy Chords
Here listed are a few key examples of the cowboy major chord – i.e. those that will be of the most useful to you since they are used more regularly than others. There is a simple major triad, using a bass note and utilizing the index middle and ring fingers on the fretting hand.
The beauty of cowboy chords like this is precisely in their simplicity, allowing any singer to focus more on the lyrics and their delivery than the recitation of notes on guitars. There is no end to the number of chord progressions fuelled by these so-called cowboy chords of the major tonality, and these major chords are especially kind to singer-songwriters operating on an acoustic guitar.
Key Examples of Minor Cowboy Chords
Alternatively, and slightly less useful in the western canon of open chord bops is the eponymous minor chord.
When compared to their major brethren, you can see the one thing that really differentiates, say, an E chord from an Em chord is the third degree of the chord. In the case of an E major chord, this third degree is left as is, whereas in the case of the Em chord it is flattened, all of which would be readily apparent to those in the know about the major scale formula for guitar.
These 8 cowboy basic chords form the basis of countless songs from the whole canon of western music, regardless of genre or stylistic leanings, meaning once you have them mastered there will be no shortage of amazing songs for you to pick up on the fly.
So, there you have it! Hopefully, your burning questions on the nature of cowboy have been satiated, and you are now feeling plenty the wiser for having stopped by and doffed your hat at the door to find out just exactly what cowboy chords are and why they have come to refer to what are, in all fairness, just open chords.
May the free-flowing gusts of experimental tendencies bury their silt deep within your psyche so that you may find your own cowboy chords out there on the plain…
FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
There are not only 3 cowboy chords, for a cowboy chord is essentially an open chord – i.e. a chord that does not use barring of any kind to communicate its harmonic logic. The three most important harmonic changes are the 1st, the 4th, and 5th harmonic degrees of a key, aka the tonic, the subdominant, and the dominant, forming the central basis of an immeasurable amount of pop songs.
The specific origin of the term cowboy chords is unverifiable at root, though there are a few ideas floating around. Some suggest that the term originates from some movie stars in the former part of the 20th century who would perform in films as acting and singing cowboys, performing songs with open chords that rarely if ever climbed higher than the 3rd fret. Some, alternatively, suggest that the term comes from the hijacking of the word cowboy to instead mean someone who is untalented or reckless at what they do, used in this way to refer to the simplicity of cowboy chords in comparison to other more extended chords such as might be found in jazz music.
The 3 main harmonic centers in country music (and much of western pop music for that matter) are the 1st, the 4th, and the 5th degrees of the key of a song, aka the tonic, the subdominant, and the dominant. You would be hard pressed to find many country and western songs that do not use these tonal centers as the harmonic basis for much of the progression, whether that be in the chords themselves or in the melodies, etc.
The simplest and most effective way to spice up cowboy chords is to experiment with them yourself – it certainly worked for me. You see, for example, someone like Johnny Marr, and while his guitar parts sound immensely complex sometimes, he is often seen using a capo alongside relatively simple open chords. Now, these are not just bare open chords of course, but rather slight variations that he has likely found himself by simply fiddling around, using, say, a spare finger from the chord to extend one of the notes of the chord. It does not matter what it is, or whether you know what it is.