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Trying to decipher guitar chord charts can be intimidating even if you can already read conventional sheet music. Other instruments that allow you to play more than one note at a time, like pianos, rely on traditional methods of notation that have a direct, one to one translation between the notes depicted and what you play.
Guitar chord charts, however, require another type of interpretation that relies more on the physical layout of your axe, which is meant to be helpful to players by pointing to the exact placement they need for a specific sound. But if you’re not familiar with how to read them, guitar chords can just cause more confusion. Don’t fret, though – we’re here to guide you through the process of how to read guitar chord charts so you can up your playing like a boss.
The guitar is an instrument with a huge range of versatility. A major part of that is the ability to play more than one note at a time. This feature lets a guitarist express a song in the richer depths that come from supporting notes attached to melody throughlines. Anytime you play more than one note at a time it’s technically a chord, but some classically based or more traditional musicians argue that a true chord has to be at least three notes stacked on top of each other, reserving the term dyad for those with just two.
Guitarists usually have a looser definition, especially those who play popular music and heavy metal that depend on the concept of power chords, which we explore in detail elsewhere on this site. However you choose to slice it, guitar chords do build on the physics concept of harmony and dissonance to create and tear down musical moods. The basic structure of a guitar chord is a triad, which is when you play three notes at one time.
These notes are from the scale of the key you’re playing in, which can be major or minor, and the exact notes you choose are based on their sound resonance and how those harmonize with each other. For a basic, major chord, you play every other note in a scale, so for example, a C major chord would be C, E, and G.
Since you’re working with six strings on a guitar, you will actually be playing more than three notes at once, but some of those will be repeats, just in different octaves. That’s part of what makes a guitar such a powerful instrument – its ability to underline and emphasize with repeating octaves and harmonies creates a very full sound when you play chords.
You’ll need to understand some basic music theory before we get into how to read guitar chord charts, but don’t get discouraged. It won’t take long, and it will make your reading much easier in the long run.
The basic structure of chords depends on tonal physics. All you need to know there is that chords are built around how each note vibrates against each other when played simultaneously. Chords can consist of more than three notes at one time, and that’s when you get into a more complex sound theory that adds other tones into a basic triad to bend it into more intricate musical emotions. Chord notations will show when you’re adding those extra or non-conventional notes, so don’t worry about having to figure it out yourself.
Now we’ve come to the part where you get to use your new knowledge to interpret what you see in chord charts and how to apply those to your playing. Fortunately, guitar chord charts make it easy to translate from the written music to your fretboard.
First of all, we’re going to take a look at the parts of a blank chord chart. This is drawn as a way to depict a guitar fretboard as you’re looking at it head-on. At the top is a bold horizontal line that represents the top of the fretboard, the part that is right under the head.
Some chords will not have that bold line at the top but one that is the same weight as the others; this means you’re starting further down the fretboard and won’t be using notes that are up against the top. If that’s the case, there will be numbers next to the bass E line to show you what fret area you’re starting at. That orients you to where you are starting.
The rest of the chord chart is a grid that has six vertical lines crossed with several horizontal lines. The vertical lines represent guitar strings as you look at them head-on, not from your top view as you’re playing – the leftmost line represents your bass E, and they progress from left to right to B, G, D, A, and the E an octave higher than the bass E.
Guitar chord charts use black dots to show where each note in the chord is located on the fretboard. So for instance, a C major chord triad would have black dots on the third fret of the B string, the second fret of the G string, and the first chord of the A string. A lot of the time, these notations will also have numbers next to them, which indicates what finger you’re supposed to use in which position.
This is a great way for new guitarists, or guitarists learning a new chord progression, to figure out how to move their hands from one chord to another. These numbers can also help if the chord changes go between chords that have radically different shapes. The fingering can often be changed to something more convenient that doesn’t change the content of the chord but makes it easier to play in context, so pay attention to those numbers to learn how to become more intuitive in forming your own fingering systems.
There are several more notations that will become second nature shortcuts for you as you learn how to read chord charts. You’ll notice that some chords have open circles over certain strings in the chart. That means to leave those strings open – the note they’re tuned to fits into the chord without you having to change it. In contrast, sometimes you’ll see Xs in the same position as the chord chart. This means you need to dampen those strings so they don’t give out a sound at all when you’re playing that chord.
Sometimes that’s part of the chord structure itself, and sometimes that’s just a matter of where the chord is positioned on the fretboard in that particular instance – it’s both easier on the player and more pleasing to the ear to simply mute that string than to position a finger on a note that would fit into the chord’s aesthetics. To silence a string as indicated like this, you position your finger on it but don’t press down.
You don’t need as much finger strength to do this as you do to press down on the rest of the chord, but beware at the duplicate simplicity of this – it’s easier for all your fingers to push down at the same pressure than it is to hold one back, so look out for chord charts that switch up the muted strings on you a lot. They’re good practice for articulating independent movement in each of your fingers, which is crucial for successfully playing guitar chords.
Another symbol you frequently see above the top of a chord chart is an arc like a parenthesis pointed downward. This is called the barre symbol, and it means you need to press down all the strings on the one specified fret it covers. Sometimes this is put over just a few strings, like the first fret on the two highest strings to form the last part of an F major chord. This means you’ll press those two first frets down and finger the rest of the chord as noted. This can be noted for the middle of a chord as well, which is another reason why independent finger articulation is so important to build up for guitar playing.
When the parenthesis symbol is placed over all six strings, this can indicate what’s called a barre chord. Barre chords were developed as a way to move easier through chord changes and can be very useful to learn when you’ve mastered basic traditional chord shapes and theory.
Barre chords all have the same general structure no matter what key they are in – if you look at their notations, you will notice the only thing that tends to change is what fret they start on. The individual placements of the notes will vary depending on what type of chord you’re playing – major, minor, etc. – instead of what key you’re in. Studying barre chord notation is a great way to learn the music theory of each tone step in different types of chords, and it leads to a new way to look at playing them as well, so they are well worth the reading.
There are several different types of chord charts meant for guitar players, so the good news is if one type confuses you to the point of frustration, more than likely you can find it written in another way that makes more sense to you.
This is where guitar chord charts originated from. It shows you the literal positioning of notes as depicted on a guitar fretboard. Tablature, or tab for short, also includes chords in the same manner as chord charts – that is, each individual note shown in its position as situated on the frets. The only downside with tab is that it doesn’t always give you every detail you need to learn a chord that’s brand new to you.
If you’re already familiar with the chords you’ll be using in a song, the tab is a great way to incorporate chords into the rest of the guitar notation. You can also find tablature that is set over traditional sheet music so that you see how each translates into each other, which can be very useful if you’re looking to get more into the music theory side of guitar chords.
Guitar chords can be charted the same way any other music is written. This shows the notes plotted on a music staff where the position of the note indicates which one to play. If you’re coming to guitar playing from a more traditional music background like if you’ve played piano and learned to read sheet music, you’ll be able to decipher this type of chord chart.
The downside is it doesn’t give as much help as other guitar-specific methods. For example, traditional sheet music doesn’t always give you the ideal finger positions. It also depends on you remembering what key is indicated to start with or at the point when it changes without any other reminders. You have to remember an F is always sharp in a D major key, for instance. You’ll be accustomed to this if you’re versed in traditional sheet music, but it may be more difficult for you to translate to positions on the guitar itself if you’re just learning how to play it.
These are collections of sheet music that just gives the melody line and basic chord progressions for songs so musicians can use them as jumping off points for improvisations. They often consist of sheet music with guitar chord charts above them – the chord charts are there to show when each chord changes but do not indicate anything else about the style or playing rhythm.
Seasoned players can get the basic sound of a song while being able to build up their own ways of getting through the changes. Lead books are also great for new musicians, which may seem like a contradiction at first thought. But reading guitar chord charts in the order they are presented in a song without extra pieces like rhythm to worry about is a good way to learn how to change chords at your own pace. Plus it’s great for beginners to learn how to play with other people. That can be daunting for someone who hasn’t been playing the guitar long, and lead sheets are an easy way for newbies to keep up.
Guitar chord charts are excellent tools in a player’s arsenal. They introduce you to basic chord structure theory through maps on how to practically apply it, and if you keep up your practice, you’ll be chording like the pros in no time.