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The Definitive Guide To Reading Guitar Chord Charts

Every guitarist has to learn chords. Its the easiest place to start. Chords are the foundation that songs are built upon. Luckily for us, most songs use the same chord progressions over and over again. Its just the way music is. For beginners thats great news. It means you can learn a few dozen chords, and be able to play just about any song you want to. By the end of this page, you'll be reading chords like a pro!

The simplest way to learn those chords is through chord diagrams. They are exactly what they sound like, a diagram showing how and where to play chords on your guitar neck.

A Chord Diagram is just a map of the guitar's fretboard. 

  • The thick black bar at the top is the guitar nut, its where the fretboard starts.

  • The thin horizontal lines below, are the frets

  • The vertical lines are the strings.

  • The circle above each string indicates an open string. 

Recognizing a Chord Diagram

Chord Diagrams pretty much all follow the pattern, no matter who made them. They will all look very similar to the picture above. 

Chord Diagram Components

Before we get into the details of the chord diagram, lets get the basics out of the way.

The picture above is a blank chord diagram. Lets break down the components.

Guitar Nut? 

What is a 

A Guitar Nut is piece of bone, ivory, or plastic at the top of the fretboard.

  • Its where the strings first contact the guitar neck.

  • It holds the strings in their slots.

  • Its the thick black bar on the chord diagram.

The Frets

Nut = 0 Fret

1st Fret

2nd Fret

3rd Fret

4th Fret

The Strings

E

A

D

G

B

e

E

A

D

G

B

e

Put It All Together

Combine what you know so far: The nut, frets, and strings are the basis of the bland chord diagram.

Guitar Nut

Frets

E String

E String

Chord Diagram Blank

O Indicates Open String

Add the Fingers & Numbers to the Diagram

Index

Middle

Ring

Pinky

Left Hand

Combine what you know so far: The nut, frets, and strings are the basis of the bland chord diagram.

Index

Middle

Ring

Pinky

Left Hand

Means an open string that is strummed.

So in this example you would strum all of the strings.

*If you see a "T" on a chord diagram that indicates you should use your thumb to fret that note.

What about the black dots on the strings?

The black dots (circles) on the diagram tell you what frets you place your fingers on. Just think of the dots as your fingertips.

So for example, this dot.....tells you to place:

  • Your first (index) finger behind the first fret on the G string. 

The other two dots tell you to place:

  • Your second (middle) finger will go behind the second fret on the A string.

  • Your third (ring) finger will go behind the second fret on the D string.

Once your fingers are fretting those notes, the chart indicates to strum all six strings.

*Remember that the open circles "O", means it is an open string. That means you will include that string when you strum the chord.

What about the "X"?

Often times a chord diagram will have one or more "X"s above certain strings. That means your must not strum those strings, and ideally you should mute them while playing the chord.

In the above diagram we will only strum four strings. The 4,3,2, and 1 strings will be strummed together to play the "Open D" chord.

What does Mute mean?

Anytime you rest your finger/hand on a string without pressing down is called "muting". This technique ensures the string(s) cannot ring out. Sometimes you need to play a chord that doesn't use all the strings. The easiest way to avoid playing those strings is to mute them with your left hand. That way if you accidently strum that string, it won't ring out.

What is a Barre Chord?

Barre chords are a more advanced way of playing guitar chords. At first, you'll want to master all the open chords. When you feel comfortable, the next step is to learn barre chords. 

Barre Chords are how we move open chords up the fretboard. Think of the your index finger as a bar. In order to move upward on the fretboard using the open chord shapes you just learned, you need to bar the strings with your index finger.

This can seem very challenging to any guitar student. The goal here is to use your straightened index finger to fret the E, A, and e strings at the first fret. Your index finger will be fretting three strings all at once.

Chords Beyond the Fifth Fret

As you progress in your study you will encounter chord charts with extra markings on them. 

Markings like: "6th Fret" or "7th Fret" or "9th Fret" etc.

This simply indicates that the the chord is to be played at the 7th Fret. In other words:

  • Barre with your index finger at the 7th fret.

  • Ring Finger(3) at the 9th fret on the A string.

  • Pinky Finger(4) at the 9th on the D string.

Congratulations!!!

   That pretty much covers everything you need to know about Guitar Chord Diagrams! I've given you all the information you need to read and understand any chord diagram out there. If you feel overwhelmed, don't fret! Lol, its normal to feel that way. Learning how to play guitar takes more than a few days. Certainly longer than it takes to read this article.

   The good news is, you are starting to understand chords and how to use chord diagrams. Believe me, once you memorize the chords they will stick with you for the rest of your life. You just need to hang in there and practice at least five minutes everyday. Before you know it, a week will have gone by, then a month, then a year. By then you'll be strumming away, not even thinking about the chords you are playing. 

That is one of the coolest aspects of learning this instrument. Once your muscle memory is trained, you won't have to think about what you are playing anymore. It will come to you like it is second nature. All it takes your willingness to put in the work up front. If there is one thing I can guarantee, its that you will never ever regret the time and effort you put in. Learning to play the guitar is one of the best things you can do in this life. Plus, everyone knows guitar players are cool. They always will be.

Wait! Before You Go....

The Essential Chords Cheat Sheet

Thanks for reading this far. Before you go I want you to have the essential guitar chords cheat sheet. This will set you up with the chords you need in order to play the vast majority of songs.