When first learning guitar theory there’s a number of useful guitar-specific instructional tools available to help make the journey less difficult, including guitar tab, scale charts, and chord charts.
Most beginner guitarists start by learning chords, before moving onto learning scales and then ultimately learning complete songs. With this in mind, learning how to read chord charts is important when first starting out. But, it’s also important for learning songs.
You will often see chord charts included above lyrics (see example above), music notation, and/or guitar tab, and in most cases, this isn’t just shown to teach how the chord is played. Often, a particular voicing (where the fingers are positioned on the fretboard) is preferred by the composer, as there are many different ways to play the same chord on the guitar’s fretboard.
Chord chart layout
The following is a blank chord chart.
You wouldn’t normally see a chord chart like this, without the fingering for a specific chord included, but for the sake of providing an example, I’ve removed everything except the basic layout. If the chord chart wasn’t blank, the chord name e.g. A Maj would be included as part of the chord chart.
As you can see the chart itself is essentially a cross-section of the guitar’s fretboard taken from the nut (the thick line at the top of the chart) to the 5th fret.
The vertical lines represent the guitar’s strings with the low E (the thickest string) on the left-hand side and the high E (thinnest string) on the right. The horizontal lines represent the frets.
In some cases, chord charts only include 4 frets as the majority of open chords (aka cowboy chords – the first chords beginners learn) are contained within the first four frets. However, many chord charts also extend to the 5th fret to allow for more sophisticated chords.
Using the example of an A Maj chord, in the accompanying chord chart, we can see three orange dots (more often shown as black) on the guitar’s fretboard indicating the finger position required to play an A major chord. *Note, this doesn’t yet indicate which strings shouldn’t be played.
If you know a little chord theory, you’ll know that an A Major chord is a triad and consists of the following notes: A, C#, E
As we now know, the low E string (the thickest string) is on the left of the chord chart, so the string to the right is the open A string. The next string along is the G string, which when fretted at the 2nd fret (as per the diagram) results in the note E being played. The next string along (D) when fretted at the 2nd fret gives us, you guessed it our C#.
But, there are also open strings included in the chord which we are yet to discuss. Chords often contain repeated notes e.g. a triad consists of three notes but an A Major chord requires 5 strings of the guitar to be played. We’ll discuss open and muted strings next.
Open and muted strings
Our next chord chart indicates open and muted strings by displaying either X (muted string) or O (open string) above the corresponding string.
It’s important to keep in mind, some chord charts won’t indicate the open string, as any string not indicated by the X symbol is obviously played, but it can serve as a useful visual indicator.
In the example above, we are including the additional A note (the open 5th string) and an additional E note courtesy of the open high E string. As the chord chart now represents a technically correct A Major chord we have also included the chord name above the chart.
Next, we’ll discuss the finger position or to be more precise which fingers are placed on which frets to form a chord on the fretboard. This is useful as it allows you to learn the chords and finger positions in the correct way, which usually by design, is the most efficient with regard to transitioning to other chord shapes.
Put simply, the numbers correspond to the different fingers of the fretting hand, from left to right. The index finger is represented by the number 1, the middle finger 2, and so on. Don’t confuse the numbers with Pima symbols which are used in classical guitar and fingerstyle guitar to indicate the fingers used to play specific notes. In the case of Pima symbols, 1 is represented by the thumb.
It’s important to keep in mind, some chord charts won’t include this information at all, while some may display the number under the chord chart or within the chord chart itself (placed inside the dots representing your fingering).
A barre chord is a type of chord that utilizes the ring finger to replicate the nut, thus making the chord moveable on the fretboard. Barre chords usually indicate the fret number to the left of the chord chart as per both the examples below.
The other point of difference between open chord and barre chord charts is the line connecting the dots on the 5th fret. In the first example above the three notes on the 5th fret are still indicated as they represent notes that make up the chord A, E#, and A respectively.
The line connects the dots, but the other notes on the 5th fret are not indicated as they are not heard as notes higher up the neck are fretted. In the second example, a curved line is shown above the fretboard. You may also see barre chords represented with a thick line instead of the dots (example 3)
Lastly, although relatively uncommon, you may also see the root note of the chord indicated within the chord chart. The root note is the note that establishes the tonality of the chord e.g. the root note of A Major is A. It is also usually (but not always) the lowest note of the chord.
Root notes (when indicated) are usually shown in reverse color. They may also be displayed (if the numbers are not displayed) as an R within one of the dots on the fretboard.
Chord charts while simple, are a powerful tool for learning the guitar, and well worth learning along with scale charts and guitar tab. I hope the information above is useful. If you have a question or want to leave a comment why not add a comment below and join the conversation.