How To Read Chord Charts


For some time now our blogs have focused mainly on “advice” for the beginner guitarist.  I remember what it was like when I first started out playing (a long…LONG time ago).  Everything that we have been talking about were things that I wish someone had told me as I was trying to learn – I had to figure out a lot of it myself through a lot of trial and error.  I figure that it always helps to have someone on your side to help guide you like your interest and playing abilities improve.

Moving forward I’m going to start weaving in posts on the “how” instead of the “why” every now and then.  Sure, I’ll still be giving you great advice and things to consider from time to time. 

Besides…no one else listens to me – just ask my wife and kids.  With you, I have a captive audience…” width=”33″ height=”33″ />

I’m just feeling that it’s time to introduce practical examples of various techniques to help you grow in your playing.  This will give you great ways to put the advice into practical use. 

Sound good?

Well alright then…let’s get into it!

Understanding Chord Charts

This week we are going to do a simple review of a basic skill set that is an absolute must for anyone that is trying to learn to play the guitar, whether they are taking private lessons or making a go of it on their own – knowing how to read chord charts.

You may already be an expert at this.  If so, then great!

There are those that are just starting out, and may seem like absolutely everything about playing the guitar is a mystery.  Let’s take a few minutes to solve at least a few of them!

Inevitably when you are looking to learn to play a song you’ll come across diagrams that look like this:

These are called chord charts, and they are a standard (and very efficient) way to show you how to play just about any chord.

But how do you read them?

Open chords

Looking at the first chart, it shows how to play an open position C chord.  The six lines that are going up and down represent the six strings on your guitar, with the low E (6th) string shown at the far left.

The lines going left to right represent the frets.  One special point to note is that the line at the top of the chart (right under the “C” name) is a little thicker than the others.  In this case, that thick line represents the nut of the guitar.

The solid dots tell you where to fret the notes (that is, where to put your fingers on the neck), and the numbers at the bottom are recommendations for which of your fingers to use.

For reference, your fingers are typically identified as follows:

  • 1: index finger
  • 2: middle finger
  • 3: ring finger
  • 4: pinky
  • T: thumb (occasionally you’ll run into a chord fingering where you’ll wrap your thumb over the top of the neck and fret a note on the 6th  It doesn’t happen often though)

Topping it off is the X’s and O’s that you’ll find above that top line. No…I’m not trying to tell you how much I love you guys (even though I really, really do)!  

These simply mean which strings are meant to be played in the chord.  An X means the string is not to be played, and an O means the string is to be played open.

Barre chords

The chord charts for barre chords are pretty much exactly the same as the ones you’ll see for open chords.  There are a few minor differences, though.

If you compare the second chord chart to the first, you’ll see that there a piece of text that says “3fr.”.  All that means is that, instead of playing at the nut, you are starting out on the 3rd fret.  If you look closely you’ll also see that the top line isn’t thick like the open chord chart.  That’s because the nut isn’t in the equation.

As a quick side note – playing a note at the 3rd fret means placing your fingers in between the 2nd and 3rd frets.  In our chart, the top line actually represents the 2nd fret.

Lastly, you’ll see a curved line at the top.  That is a way to show that you are holding down several strings at one time with a single finger – which is exactly how a barre chord is fingered.

Chord charts for alternate tunings

As a standard, chord charts are intended to show how a chord is played when your guitar is tuned in standard tuning (E A D G B E, low to high).  But part of what makes chord charts so flexible is that, once you understand what all of the lines and dots mean, you can show how to play chords when your guitar is tuned in an alternate tuning.

The key here is knowing when the piece of music you are working with is indeed being played with a guitar that is tuned to a different standard.  

As a quick example, here is a C chord chart for a guitar tuned in open G (D G D G B D, low to high):

Doesn’t look like your typical C chord now, does it?  Of course, it doesn’t…but that’s the point – a chord chart will be able to show you how to play any chord, regardless of where it is on the neck or how the guitar is tuned.  

Yes, alternate tunings are more of an advanced topic, for sure…but I mention it only to show how well a chord chart will tell you what you need to know.


That’ll wrap things up for this week.  We will be taking a look at other ways to notate guitar playing next week.  And, trust me on this one – what we will be looking at next will be your best friend, especially if you are getting into playing single-note lines and full out guitar solos.

I’ll catch you on the flip side, so until next time…

Peace out!

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