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How to Read Guitar Chord Charts & Diagrams

May 4, 2023
How to read guitar chords

If you’re a guitar beginner, one of the first things you should learn is how to read guitar chords.

And once you learn how to read chords with ease, you’ll be able to play any song you like!

So today we will tell you everything you need to know about chord charts and how they work.

And don’t worry – it’s actually easier than it looks.

How to Read Guitar Chords 

The best way to start your guitar learning journey is to become familiar with the essential and easy guitar chords

Generally, a chord is a group of notes played together at the same time, and notes are solitary pitches that you hear when you pluck one string. 

Piano players need to learn notes, and they rarely use tabs.

But guitar players mostly rely on chords. So learning chord shapes and practicing chord transitions is an essential step for every guitarist. 

And although we suggest you familiarize yourself with standard notation, there’s a simpler way of reading and learning new chords – and it’s called a chord chart. 

Strings and Frets 

Before moving on, let’s briefly go through some things you need to know to understand how chord charts work.

First of all, you need to know the difference between frets and strings and become familiar with their numbering systems. 

acoustic guitar

Frets are metal strips located on the guitar’s fretboard (or fingerboard.) The first fret is the metal strip closest to the headstock of the guitar.

The fret closest to the head is the 1st fret.

animated guitar frets

When it comes to string numbers on guitar, the string closest to the floor (the thinnest string) is the first string. Beginners usually think it’s the opposite.

So the thickest string is actually the sixth string. 

guitar string numbers

It will take a while until you feel completely comfortable with these numbering systems.

But once you start reading chords and playing songs, everything will make more sense and these numbers will come to you automatically. 

What is a Guitar Chart?

In essence, a chord chart is a visual representation of how any given chord looks when played on the guitar. 

A chord diagram contains 6 vertical lines and 5 horizontal ones. So it’s a depiction of a section of the guitar fretboard used to play chords. 

The letters on the top will tell you the name of the chord, and other parts and symbols will tell you how to play it.

Vertical and Horizontal Lines 

Vertical lines represent strings, and horizontal lines are frets. And the thick black line at the top represents the nut of the guitar.

If vertical lines represent the six strings of a guitar, they are (from lowest to highest):

  • 6th (and lowest toned) string: low E
  • 5th string: A
  • 4th string: D
  • 3rd string: G
  • 2nd string: B
  • 1st (and highest toned) string high E
D major guitar chord

So, the vertical and horizontal lines of a chord chart correspond to specific notes. And these notes are used to create a specific chord.

And what about the dots and the X’s and O’s?

Black or Red Dots 

Black or red dots on the diagram show you where to place your fingers on the fretboard. 

In guitar playing, “1” is your index finger, “2” is your middle finger, “3” is your ring finger, “4” is your pinky.

In rare cases, you’ll see a “T,” which means you should fret the string with your thumb. 

X’s and O’s

X’s and O’s above the string positions on the chart mark strings that you’re not fingering. 

An “X” means you should mute or avoid playing that particular string. 

And an “O” indicates you should play the string open; with no fingers touching it.

Bar Chords

Bar chords are thick black lines across the strings that show you which fret you should place your index finger on. 

So you’ll need to use your index finger to “barre” across multiple strings on the fretboard, essentially creating a new nut. That way, your finger acts as a capo fretting multiple strings. 

man playing acoustic guitar

How to Read Chord Charts 

Chords are the basic building blocks for guitar playing. 

And you’ll be surprised by how many songs you can play just by knowing a handful of basic chords. 

Nevertheless, learning how to read chord charts will allow you to learn any song you want.

Of course, some chords are more complex than others, but once you get a hang of it, everything will be much easier. And with enough practice, even the more advanced chords won’t seem that bad.

After all, chord charts are made to make learning new songs easier. They are much simpler than standard notation. 

So let’s summarize what you’ve learned about reading chords:

  • The vertical lines are your strings
  • The horizontal lines are the fret bars
  • The dots tell you where to place your fingers
  • The numbers tell you which fingers to use
  • “X’s” mean you should mute (or not play) the string
  • “O’s” mean you should play the string open

To make things clearer, let’s take a look at the C Major chord.

c major chord

This chord chart tells you how to play the C Major chord. 

And as you can see, it tells you to put your 3rd finger on the 3rd fret of the 5th string, your second finger on the second fret of the 4th string, and your first finger on the first fret of your 2nd string.

You also need to skip a string (the third) and try to refrain from picking the 6th string.

Essential Guitar Chords

Besides the C Major chord, there are several other basic chords you’ll come across during your first months of learning how to play guitar.

Learning these chords will allow you to play easy guitar songs. Plus, practicing them will help you familiarize yourself with chord charts.

So even if you memorize the specific chord, we suggest you glance at the chord chart nevertheless. The more you read chords, the easier it will get to learn new ones. 

Now, do you want us to show you how to play essential guitar chords using chord charts?

Let’s do it!

guy playing guitar on his back

To play the following chords, you just need to press the correct strings with your left hand and sweep your pick or fingers across the strings with your right hand. 

For right-handed players, the left hand is typically used for pressing down a string, while the right-hand strums the guitar. 

Let’s start with one of the easiest chords on the guitar.

E minor chord 

The E minor is easy to learn for beginners because it requires only two fingers to play. 

To play it, you need to do the following:

  • Put your second finger on the 5th string in the second fret 
  • Put your third finger on the string below it in the same fret space

And this is what the E minor chord looks like in the chart:

e minor chord

A Major chord 

The A Major is another basic guitar chord for beginners. 

It’s easy to play because you need to put 3 fingers on the same fret. 

So on the second fret of your guitar neck, place your index finger on the D string, your middle finger on the G string, and your ring finger on the B string.

A major chord

G Major chord

The G Major chord is one of the most commonly used chords in music.

There are several ways to play it, but this is arguably the most popular way:

  • Place your second finger on the second fret of the A string
  • Place your third finger on the string above it, in the third fret of the E string 
  • Your fourth finger holds the first string down on the third fret 
g major chord

And there you have it!

With these easy beginner guitar chords in your repertoire, you can start playing the tunes you love.

Barre Chords 

When you reach a certain level, you will encounter barre chords. 

Barre chords (or bar chords) are movable chord shapes that you can play all over the guitar neck. So they are the opposite of open chords.

Barre chords might be a bit challenging for beginners because they require you to press multiple strings at once with the same.

And chord charts, look like this:

f guitar chord

This is an F major barre chord.

As you can see, there’s a straight line at the top of the chord diagram, which means you’ll have to use a barre technique to play this chord. 

Chord Progressions 

When you start learning songs on guitar, you will also come across several chords grouped together.

This series of chords played in a sequence is called a chord progression. So, chord progressions are basically a series of chords that sound good together from the same key. 

And since each chart or diagram represents one chord, chord progressions include multiple diagrams together.

Therefore, if you know how to read chord charts, you’re able to play chord progressions as well!

Final Thoughts 

With guitar chords reading skills, you can play any song you want. 

And it’s actually quite simple – you just need to memorize the most important numbers and positions on the chart.

All of that might seem a bit overwhelming at first, but the more you practice, the easier it gets!

If you want to learn how to play guitar in the easiest way possible, check out my guide on the best online guitar lessons.

Will Fenton

Will, the founder of MIDDER, is a multifaceted individual with a deep passion for music and personal finance. As a self-proclaimed music and personal finance geek, he has a keen eye for futuristic technologies, especially those that empower creators and the public.

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