Most guitar students learn to read guitar tablature and chord diagrams at about the same time. Both are fundamental to learning the instrument, and mastering the basics of both will take you halfway to playing well right out of the gate! Reading guitar chord diagrams is also very simple. You’d be silly not to know them, you burgeoning rocker you, so let me help you hammer out the tools necessary to read them.
First, know what a chord diagram looks like. Here’s a few samples, just in case your memory is hazy:
o o o o=========== ===========| | | | | | 1 | | | | |———– ———–1 | | | | | | | | 2 | |———– ———–| | | 2 | | | 3 4 | | |———– ———–| 3 4 | | | | | | | | |———– ———– F#7(add4) Fmaj7(add-5)
Though they look dense, these diagrams of an F#7 and an Fmaj7 are easy to read when you know the secret. To begin with, you can already see that the chord diagram is composed of six vertical lines with horizontal bars in between to form frets. Let’s talk about these first.
The vertical lines of the chord diagram are direct representations of the strings of a guitar. The horizontal lines are fret markers, showing you on which fret to fret the note. The first line of the chord diagram, that’s the one at the very top, is often bolded-or doubled up, in this case-to represent the nut. This is that plastic piece between the neck and the peghead, that little thing with all the notches that holds the strings in place. Chord diagrams often use the nut as a baseline, especially with open chords, which are played directly beside the nut. More on this later, though. Notes are usually shown as marks, often with an x or a dot-or numbers as shown here-and their purpose is to show where your fingers should be positioned. They will always be placed on the string and the fret they are to be played. For instance, in the diagram for the F#7, the first note is played on the second fret on the first string. This note is shown with a 1, indicating that your first finger should be used to play the note.
Now, all of that might have been a little confusing, so to help yourself visualize how the different lines correspond to a guitar, grab the nearest one you can find and hold it out in front of you. If the neck and body are facing you, just by looking at the strings you can instantly grasp the intuitive nature of reading a chord diagram. The low E string of the guitar-assuming you’re in standard tuning-will be on your left, just as it is in the chord diagram. Conversely, the high E is on the right, and all the strings in between are exactly as they are on the real guitar in your hand. At the top of the neck, the nut forms a bolded-line at which the strings end, just like the bold line on the chord diagram. This is a simple yet highly effective way to think about reading chord diagrams, and if you get confused while trying to voice a chord, just remember the way the neck looked as you held it out.
From here, reading the diagram is fairly simple. To emulate the chord on the diagram, just place your fingers on the strings and frets shown. Strings that are left open-that means your fingers aren’t on them-will have a circle above them if they are to be played. In the diagrams above, both chords leave the high B and E strings open, and both are strummed, as notated by the open circle above them on the chord diagram. If an open string isn’t meant to be played, there will either be no circle or one that’s filled in just above it.
In the examples above, numbers are used show where the notes should be played, but even if the markers had been replaced by dots, you should still be able to form the chord. The space between each horizontal line is always representative of exactly one fret, and they are there to make reading easy. If the chord is voiced higher up on the neck, say at the fifth fret instead of the nut, there will usually be a roman numeral beside the bolded line at the top of the chord diagram telling you where the chord begins. Everything remains the same, except for the placement of the chord on the neck-the fret markers are still one fret away, and if you start at the appropriate fret, you’ll have no problem reading the chord diagram.
Let’s talk briefly about those numbers in the two examples. At first glance, you might think they’re numbered by what fret they’re on, but actually each number directly corresponds to a finger on the hand. This number system begins with the index finger, which is number 1, and ends with the pinky, which is 4. If you get finger-tangled while trying to learn a chord, look for these numbers. They will always tell you exactly which finger goes where, and can save you a lot of pain. However, not all chord diagrams will have these, so don’t be afraid to think it out. Always go with what’s easiest on the fingers but still sounds the notes with clarity.
That’s all there is to it! It might sound confusing now, but spend a little time with a chord diagram-feel free to use the ones above-and a guitar, and I promise you’ll be reading like a champ in no time. Keep in mind that reading a chord diagram is great, but memorizing the chord is even better. When you don’t have to rely on chord books to carry you through, you’ll find playing guitar both easier and more fun.
As always practice will help with both your reading and your playing. Happy strumming, now get out there and play!
Dirk Laukens, “How to Read Guitar Chord Charts.” Guitar Chord Magic.