How to Play an E Minor Chord on Guitar
This minor chord is a major player in lots of songs.
By Kristin Bigness
The E minor (Em) chord is a staple of every guitarist’s arsenal. It’s used in practically every genre of music, and lucky for you—it’s one of the easiest chords to play as a beginner. In fact, it’s one of the first chords my dad taught me when I was a kid.
Once you learn Em, you’ll hear and see it everywhere. There are lots of ways to play this ubiquitous chord, but we’ll go over a few common formations here along with some examples of E minor in the wild.
Playing the Classic E Minor Chord in an Open Position
A standard chord is made up of three notes: the 1st, 3rd, and 5th intervals. If you’re familiar with minor chords as a whole, you’ll remember that what makes a chord minor is the flat 3rd interval. So, the minor chord uses the 1, ♭3 and 5 to form its structure. In the case of E minor, that means you’re aiming for the notes E, G, and B.
Em - Open Position
In standard E tuning, you just need two fingers to play Em. You can strum every string, giving you a big sound.
- - Middle finger: 2nd fret of the A (5th) string
- - Ring finger: 2nd fret of the D (4th) string
Strum six strings down from the low E string
Did you try it? Satisfying, right? Here are a few other variations of this common chord.
Don’t Fret: Another Open Version
One of the trickiest parts of starting to play the guitar is quickly switching from one chord to the next. Stick with it; it gets easier as your hand gets used to certain formations. But if you’re in a pinch, there’s a version of E minor that requires no fretting at all.
In standard tuning, strings 1-3 are E, B, and G. If you strum just those three strings without any fingers on the frets, you have a perfectly acceptable E minor. It’s not quite as full as the more common version above, but it will work! Depending on the sound you’re going for, the delicate vibe may even be better.
Travelling Up the Neck with Em
If you’re playing a song that requires you to be higher up on the neck, you may want to get comfortable with the E minor barre chord at the 12th position.
You’ll use your index finger to barre the 12th fret. Your pinky and ring fingers will create that same two-note formation that we discussed at the beginning of the post, except this time it’s on the 14th fret. Here’s what that looks like:
- - Index finger: 12th fret of the low E (6th) string
- - Index finger: 12th fret of the G (3rd) string
- - Index finger: 12th fret of the B (2nd) string
- - Index finger: 12th fret of the E (1st) string
- - Ring finger: 14th fret of the A (5th) string
- - Pinky finger: 14th fret of the D (4th) string
You can strum all six strings with the barre chord version of E minor at the 12th position.
Pro Tip: Once you get comfortable with the Em barre chord, practice going up and down the neck, keeping your fingers in this formation, strumming to hear the minor chords at each position. It’s like a magic trick. For instance, this same formation at the 5th position is an Am chord. At the 3rd position, it’s Gm. And so forth. It’s worth it to work up your finger and hand strength to get comfortable with barre chords because it unlocks all of these possibilities.
Songs That Use the Em Chord
Although minor chords are typically typecast as downers, they are just getting a bad rap. You can find E minor in virtually every genre of music and seamlessly integrated into a variety of moods.
Let’s start with one of my personal favorites: “Creep” by TLC. The chorus of this song is just two chords—one of which is Em. Are you kidding me? Learn it on Fender Play in a few minutes, and then all you’ll need is a set of silk pajamas and a trumpet player.
E minor also plays a huge part in “The Killing Moon” by Echo & the Bunnymen. After the ominous intro, the main progression kicks in. There is a sense of urgency, mystery, and longing—which made this song perfect for the 2001 sci-fi cult classic, Donnie Darko. The song comes in right at the beginning of the film as Donnie, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, rides his bike home after waking up in the middle of a road. For a slowed-down, slacker rock version of this song, check out the rendition by indie legends Pavement.
Let’s talk Motown. “(Love Is Like A) Heat Wave” by Martha Reeves & the Vandellas is a classic. The verse is chock-full of minor chords; Em and its friends help give the song its swagger. When those minor chords give way to a C major in the chorus, it’s an explosion of pure joy.
As we wrap up, keep an eye out for E minor in songs in the key of G. It’s really common for the Em to jump in amongst G, C, and D to add interest. Some examples include “Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl,” “One Love” by Bob Marley & the Wailers, and “The Tracks of My Tears” by Smokey Robinson. Learn E minor (along with G, C, and D for that matter). You’ll be amazed at how many songs use this classic combination.
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