A Comprehensive Guide to Reading Guitar Chord Charts

Posted on June 29, 2021

One of the great things about learning to play the guitar is that reading sheet music is not a requirement. Some of the most famous guitar players throughout the years couldn’t read sheet music, from Eric Clapton to Eddie Van Halen. Even Jimi Hendrix is an example!

However, there is certainly nothing wrong with taking the time to learn to read music. After all, it helps expand your understanding of music theory and supports your overall development as a guitar player. It can be a challenge, though, so tools such as chord charts are extremely helpful for guitar players of all skill levels. Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned professional, knowing how to read guitar chord diagrams and charts is a valuable skill.

What are guitar chords?

When it comes to playing chords on the guitar, the questions are endless: Where do I put my fingers? Which strings am I supposed to play? How exactly should I read all these chords and learn to play them? What is an open chord? And what are major and minor chords?

Before we dig in, we need to take a look at what a chord actually is. In the simplest terms, a chord is three or more notes played at the same time. Playing chords is typically one of the first things that any guitarist learns. To play a chord, you first need to create the correct chord shape with your fretting hand, the one that holds down the strings on the neck of the guitar. After that, you need to strum the right strings to actually play the chord.

Introducing guitar chord diagrams

Whether you’re learning to play the guitar from a printed book or from online resources, you most likely have come across little grid-like pictures that look similar to this:

Guitar Chord Chart

These are guitar chord charts, also known as chord diagrams, and they’re the simplest way to demonstrate how to play a particular chord. In the example above, you can see the chord shapes for three major chords: G, C, and D.

Guitar chord charts and diagrams are pretty easy to understand once you know what all of the lines, dots, Xs, and Os mean. Let’s take a minute to review how they are laid out and how to read each element of a guitar chord chart.

Every chord chart is set up similarly:

  • The vertical lines represent the six guitar strings. The high E string is the line to the far right, and the one on the left represents the low E string.
  • The horizontal lines show the frets on your guitar neck. The thicker line at the top of the grid represents the nut of the guitar, so the first vertical line below that is the first fret.
  • The Xs show the strings that are not part of the chord, and therefore, the ones you shouldn’t play. On the flip side, the Os are strings that you strum without placing your fingers on them.
  • The text at the top of the chart states the name of the chord. If the chord is major, the chart will simply read the name of the chord: for example, “D”. If it’s a minor chord, the chart will read “Dm” (with the letter “m” standing for “minor”).
  • The numbers at the very bottom of the chart tell you which finger you should use. 1 is your index finger, and then you work your way up until you reach 4, which is your pinky.

This is typically what you’ll see in just about every chord chart. However, in the Yousician app, we make memorizing the right fingering incredibly easy. On top of having the finger numbers, we also color-code our charts for a quick and simple visual reference:

Guitar Chords Charts Color Coding

There are two main types of chords that you’ll come across: open and barre. Guitar chord charts are great, since you can use them to play both chords.


Using a chord chart for open chords

Let’s look at a quick example using the D chord:

Guitar D Chord Chart

To play this chord, you’ll place your fingers as follows:

  • Index finger (1) on the second fret of the G string
  • Ring finger (3) on the third fret of the B string
  • Middle finger (2) on the second fret of the high E string

Now that you have your fingers in the right position, strum the D, G, B, and high E strings all at the same time (looking at the chart, the D string has an “O” over it, meaning that it’s played open). As you might remember, an X means that the chord is not played at all. In this case, do not play the low E and A strings or your major D chord will not sound right.

And that’s it — it’s really that simple to read and play open chords!

How to play barre chords with chord charts

Barre chords are different from open chords in that you use one finger to hold down more than a single string at a time. The same chord chart legend can be used for barre chords as for open chords, but there are a few differences.

Since we used a major D chord for our example on open chords, let’s use the same for our barre chord example:

Guitar D Barre Chord Chart

The chart above shows how to play a D chord. This time, however, the chord chart uses a barred fingering pattern and is played on the fifth fret. Did you notice the slight differences between the barre chord chart and the one for open chords?

Here are some differences to note:

  • In the chart above, your index finger holds down the A, D, G, B, and high E strings at the same time, while your middle finger holds down the D, G, and B strings across the seventh fret (in “traditional” chord charts, you may see a curved line going across the same strings — it means the same thing). Just like with open chords, the E string is an open string. The Yousician app will show a solid bar, meaning that one finger holds down several strings.
  • Typically, you won’t see any Os on a barre chord chart, as barre chords don’t tend to use open strings. That being said, some advanced chords use a hybrid of barred finger patterns and open strings.
  • The number on the far left of the chart – in this case “5” – shows what fret to start the fingering pattern on. If you look closely, you’ll see that the thick horizontal line at the top of the grid (that is found on open chord charts) looks the same as the other horizontal lines. That’s because the nut isn’t shown in this chord chart. This is due to the fact that many barre chords are played higher up on the neck, like this example on the fifth fret.

If you want to learn more, make sure to check out our helpful article on how to play barre chords, where we go into more detail and help you learn those tricky barre chords.

Different types of guitar chords

Now you know how to distinguish between open and barre chords when reading guitar chord charts. In addition, it’s good to know the difference between major and minor chords. The different types of guitar chords don’t end there — there are also suspended, seventh, and diminished chords, as well as power chords, to name a few. Playing these with the help of chord charts isn’t very different from playing open and barre chords, but it’s helpful to be familiar with these chord types.

Check out Yousician’s interactive chord library to learn all the different chords with easy-to-read visual representations of how the chords look.

Major chords

You have already seen a few major guitar chords above. The naming convention for major chords is simple, as they’re named after their root note. In other words, the major D chord (or simply “D”) has the root note D. In addition to the root note that gives the chord its name, major guitar chords also contain a major third and a perfect fifth. In a D major chord, these are F# (or “F sharp”) and A, respectively. You can learn to identify major chords by their bright and happy sound.

Minor chords

As opposed to major chords, minor chords sound darker and sadder. Just like major chords, minor chords are named after the root note, but they have the letter “m” added to their name. Therefore, the minor D chord is written as “Dm.” A minor chord also consists of the root note and a perfect fifth.

However, unlike the major chord that has a major third, the minor chord has a minor third. In a Dm chord, this is the F note (remember that in the D major chord it was F#). You can see the Dm guitar chord chart below.

Power chords

Power chords are a great way to make things simpler, if more complicated chord shapes seem too challenging. They’re also widely used in rock, pop, and punk music, as well as rhythm guitar playing. Power chords consist of only two notes: the root note and the fifth. This is why they’re also known as fifth chords. For example, the D power chord is written as “D5.” It’s easy to move between power chords and play them at different positions on the guitar fretboard. Look at the guitar chord chart below to see how to play the D5 chord, starting on either the second or fifth fret.

Suspended chords

Another useful, though less common, chord type is the suspended chord. These are also known as sus chords, and they come in sus2 and sus4 forms. This depends on the note that’s missing from the chord. Whereas minor and major chords convey a specific mood and feel, suspended guitar chords sound ambiguous. This is because, as you might recall, the minor or major third is the note that defines these two chord types. In suspended chords, this note is missing. Instead, it’s replaced by a perfect fourth or a major second. Here’s an example of the Dsus2 and Dsus4 chords:

Seventh chord charts

Let’s look at one more chord type: the seventh chord. To recap, the basic major and minor chords we looked at earlier consist of a triad: the root note, a third, and a fifth. In order to create a seventh chord, we’ll have to add a major or minor seventh interval to the chord. There are five types of seventh chords: major 7th, dominant 7th, minor 7th, half-diminished 7th, and diminished 7th chords. These types of seventh chords are particularly common in jazz music, but they also appear in other musical genres.

Wrapping things up

Now that you know how to read guitar chord charts, playing along to your favorite songs and learning guitar chords can be even more fun. Chord charts are a simple and intuitive way to learn the proper finger placement of any guitar chord. From a simple open major chord to more advanced jazz-type chords, learning how to read these charts is an essential skill for any guitar player.

Learning to play the guitar is an enriching journey. While many of the topics and theories may feel overwhelming for beginners, there are plenty of tools to make it easier. And don’t worry; you don’t need to master all the different chords right away!

But what’s next?

  • If you haven’t already done so, now is a good time to start learning the most important beginner guitar chords and put your new skills to good use.
  • Start with the most basic major and minor chords. It’s a good idea to focus on open chords at first and start practicing those tricky barre chords once your fingers are comfortable holding different chord shapes.
  • Once you’re comfortable with the basic open chords and some basic barre chords, start learning more difficult suspended, seventh, and diminished chords. You are sure to come across these as you learn more songs on the guitar.
  • Forming different chords and shapes is one thing. However, transitioning between chords can be challenging. Many guitarists find it difficult to transition from one chord to another, so make sure to practice transitions.
  • To further expand your guitar-playing knowledge, you should also look into chord progressions. To help with this, we’ve written a guide on learning four popular chord progressions.
  • Playing from a chart or a chord diagram is quite simple once you get the hang of it. Luckily, you don’t need to know how to read sheet music to play your favorite songs. Guitar tabs are simple and easy to learn.

If playing the guitar and learning how to read a chord chart seem challenging at first, keep practicing and building up muscle memory in your fingers. Yousician has plenty of lessons and exercises to help you improve, not to mention an impressive library of songs to play!

Learn songs you love with Yousician
Start your free trial

Unleash your inner musician with Yousician. We offer thousands of songs, exercises, and teacher-crafted lessons all in one app. Learn more

Ready to start playing?

Play the songs you love with Yousician.

Try Premium+ free for 7 days. Sign up and start learning now.

Green circle