Read Guitar Chord Diagrams

A Comprehensive Guide to Reading Guitar Chord Charts

Posted on July 19, 2019

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. It’s a fair statement to say that many 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!

To be completely honest, though… there certainly is nothing wrong with taking the time to learn to read music! All it can do is help to expand your understanding of music theory and enable your overall development as a guitar player. It can be a challenge, however, 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.


So what exactly is a chord, anyways?

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 budding guitarist learns how to play. The big question is ‘Where do I put my fingers, and what strings am I supposed to play’?


Introducing… the guitar chord chart!

Whether you are 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:

G C D Guitar Chords Diagrams Chart

These are guitar chord charts and they are the easiest way that you will come across that will show you how to play a particular chord.

They are 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 are laid out and what each chart element is intended to represent.

Every chord chart that you will 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. 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.
  • 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):

Guitar Chords Charts Color Coding

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:

D Open Guitar Chord Chart

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 is to be played open). Recalling what the X’s stand for, that means that the low E and A strings are not to be played.

And that’s it – it really is that simple!


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 D chord for our example on open chords, let’s use the same for our barre chord example as well:

D Barre Chord Chart

The chart above shows how to play a D chord, but it uses a barred fingering pattern. 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 – that is meant to show a group of strings that is 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’ chard charts, you may see a curved line going across the same strings – it means the same thing).
  • 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 do not.
  • 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.


Wrapping things up…

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 seem to be overwhelming for the beginner, there are tools that exist that help to show how things are potentially 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 chords. 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.


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