I have heard this term being used by two different sources, and I find my self-thinking…What in the world is that supposed to mean? The term Cowboy chords seem to have at least two connotations, neither of which is really rooted in fact. The first misnomer is that open chords sometimes referred to condescendingly as Cowboy chords are used in many pop music styles, and are not only limited to or solely used in Country Music. Secondly, they are also sometimes negatively referred to as chords for beginners, and yet many seasoned professional musicians who could hardly be considered beginners use these chords on a regular basis.
When learning to navigate the fretboard of the guitar, open chords come with the territory. While it can be truthfully stated that some chords will be easier to play for those just starting out, open chords don’t automatically become passe just because one reaches a certain level of proficiency in their musical development. One example that proves this point is that major and minor open chords have corresponding barre chord forms that can be used as an alternative. This is not to say that these are your only chord options, but they are options none the less.
Whatever chords you end up using ultimately depends upon your prefered style of music, or the songs that you are learning to play. In my opinion, one should never limit yourself to only using certain chords. However, some chords work better with certain styles of music. For instance, some guitarists use major and minor chords for the vast majority of their compositions while others will not only use major and minor chords but will also use major 7, minor 7 sixth, ninth, eleventh, thirteenth and diminished chords as well.
One thing to keep in mind is that done right no chord should be off limits. The take away here should be that if any chord you are trying to use can be properly harmonized within a given chordal sequence and it sounds good to your ear, then, by all means, use it. If it doesn’t work where you thought it might, then either change the key of the said chord or disregard it all together. There will likely be those occasions when you have to listen to a recording of your own playing a few times through before deciding whether or not something is working. Trust your ear.
Lastly, now that we have established that the term Cowboy chords is a huge misnomer, we can begin to see things through a different set of lenses. So, learn as many different types and variations of chord shapes as you can so that you’ll become as versatile as possible in your own playing style. The key to being a great player in any style of music is to some degree technical ability, but just as important is a player’s versatility. Always be ready to do a paradigm shift and approach things from an angle that you might not have considered before.