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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 the fact that learning how to read sheet music isn’t an absolute requirement. Some of the most famous guitar heroes from over the years didn’t know how – from Eric Clapton to Eddie Van Halen… with Jimi Hendrix thrown in for good measure.
However, there certainly is nothing wrong with taking the time to learn to read music. After all, all it does is help to expand your understanding of music theory and enable your overall development as a guitar player. It can be a challenge, though, and that’s why tools such as guitar chord charts are so helpful for guitar players of all skill levels. From the very beginner all the way to professional players, it’s a valuable skill to know how to read guitar chord diagrams and charts.
So what exactly are guitar chords, anyway?
Before we dig in, we need to take a look at what a ‘chord’ actually is…
In the simplest terms, a chord is simply three or more notes played at the same time. Learning to play them is typically one of the first things that any beginner guitarist learns to play. The big question is ‘Where do I put my fingers, and what strings am I supposed to play’? And how exactly should I read all these chords and learn to play them? What is an open chord? And what major and minor chords?
Introducing the guitar chord chart
Whether you’re trying to learn to play the guitar from a printed book or from resources found online, you most likely have come across little grid-like pictures that look similar to this:
These are guitar chord charts and they’re the simplest way you’ll come across showing you how to play a particular chord. For example, above you see the chord shapes for three major chords: G, C and D.
A guitar chord chart (also known as a guitar chord diagram) is pretty easy to understand once you know what all of the lines, dots, X’s and O’s mean. So let’s take a minute to review how they’re laid out and how you’re supposed to read each element of a guitar chord chart.
Every chord chart that you’ll see is set up the same way:
- The vertical lines (going up and down) represent each of the six guitar strings. The high E string is the line to the far right and the one on the left is meant to depict the low E string.
- The horizontal lines (going left to right) are meant to 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 X’s show the strings that are not part of the chord and therefore you shouldn’t play them when strumming the strings. On the flip side of that, the O’s are strings that are played open without your fingers on any of the frets.
- The text at the top of the chart tells you the name of the chord that is being shown in the chart. In case the chord is a major chord, the chart will simply read the name of the chord, for example D. If it’s a minor chord, the chart will read ‘Dm’ for instance (with the letter ‘m’ for ‘minor’).
- The numbers at the very bottom of the chart tell you which finger you should use by using the following numbering pattern: ‘1’ is your index finger and then each other finger is counted up with ‘4’ being your pinky.
- This is typically what you’ll see in just about every chord chart you’ll come across, but in the Yousician app we make knowing (and memorizing) ‘what finger to use where’ incredibly easy. On top of having the finger numbers, we also color code our charts for a quick and simple visual reference (check out the image below):
There are essentially two types of chords that you’ll come across: open and barre. Chart charts are great in that the same format can be used to show you how to play both types.
Using Chord Charts for Open Chords
Let’s give a quick example using the D chord from the chart above:
To play this chord, you’ll place your fingers as follows:
- Index finger (1) on the second fret of the G string
- Third 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, the X’s in a guitar chart mean that the low E and A strings are not played at all.
And that’s it – it’s really that simple to read and play open chords.
Playing Barre Chords with Chord Charts for Guitar
Barre chords are different from open chords in that one (or more) of your fingers are used to hold down more than one string at a time. The same chord chart legend can be used for them as well, 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 as well:
The chart above shows how to play a D chord, but it uses a barred fingering pattern and is played on the fifth fret instead. Do you notice the slight differences between the barre chord charts and the ones we looked at for open chords? There are a few to note:
- The Yousician app will show a solid bar of color, meaning that a group of strings are held down by one finger. In the chart above your first finger is holding down the A, D, G, B and high E strings down at the same time, while your third finger is holding down the D, G and B strings across the seventh fret (with ‘traditional’ chord charts, you may see a curved line going across the same strings – it means the same thing). Just like earlier, there is also an open string – the low E string.
- Typically you won’t see any O’s on a barre chord chart, as they frequently do not use open strings. That being said, some advanced chords use a hybrid of barred finger patterns and open strings, but most simple chords don’t.
- The number with the ‘fr’ designation on the far right of the chart shows you 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 being represented as many barre chords are played higher up on the neck, like this example on the fifth fret.
If you want to learn more about barre chords, make sure to check out our helpful article where we go in more detail and help you learn those tricky barre chords.
Wrapping things up
Now that you know how to read guitar chord charts, playing along to your favorite songs and learning new chords is all the more fun and easy. If you haven’t already, now is a good time to start learning the most important beginner guitar chords and put your new skills to good use. And don’t forget to watch our YouTube video on how to read guitar chord charts!
Learning to play the guitar is a journey that will lead to great satisfaction. While many of the topics and theories that are used may feel overwhelming for beginners, there are plenty of tools to help and show how things may be a lot simpler than they seem to be at first glance.
Chord charts for the guitar are a simple and intuitive way to show you the proper finger placement to play any type of guitar chord. From a simple open major chord to more advanced jazz-theory type chords, learning how to read them is an essential skill that any guitar player needs to take the time to understand.
If guitar playing and learning how to read guitar chords seems challenging at first, keep practicing and building up muscle memory on your fingers.
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