While it’s true you don’t need to read music to play guitar, you do want to learn to read chord charts. A chord chart is a visual representation of a guitar chord. Chord charts are a little like music-by-numbers—they tell you which finger goes where and on what string, so in case you come up against a chord you don’t know, you’ll be able to play it.
Chord charts are a cinch to read once you learn what all the lines, numbers and circles mean. Here are 11 things you need to know to master this skill:
The grid of six vertical and five horizontal lines represents the guitar fretboard. If you’re having trouble understanding the basic layout of the image above, hold your guitar in front of you so that the strings are facing you and the headstock is pointing up. The image of the chord chart represents this same view of your guitar, with strings running vertically and frets horizontally.
Which End Is Up?
Chord charts are more commonly situated vertically (like above) rather than horizontally, especially in songbooks. It’s good to learn to interpret both vertical and horizontal grids though.
Righty or Lefty?
Since chord chart are typically written for right-handed guitarists, they provide a challenge to left- handed players, who have to do a bit of revisualization by flipping the chart around. If a given source doesn’t provide a left-handed version, you can download left-handed charts online.
The letter at the top of the chart is the name of the chord.
The vertical lines on a chord chart represent the six strings of the guitar. The low E string (the thickest one) is on the left of the diagram, followed by the A, D, G, B and high E string, which is on the right of the diagram. The string names are sometimes noted at the bottom of the chord chart.
The horizontal lines on the chart represent the metal frets on the neck of the guitar. The top line will generally be bolded or marked by a double line, which indicates the guitar’s nut. Fret numbers are sometimes noted to the left of the sixth string.
Chords Beyond the Fourth Fret
If the chord chart is depicting frets higher than the fourth fret, the top line on the chart will not be bolded (or doubled) and fret numbers will be shown, either to the left of the sixth string or to the right of the first string, to help orient you on the fretboard.
The black (or red or any other color) dots on the diagram tell you which frets and strings to place your fingers on. The numbers inside the dots indicate which fingers to use on each of the frets. They correspond to the four fingers of the fretting hand.
Number 1 is the index finger, 2 is the middle finger, 3 is the ring finger, and 4 is your pinky. You don’t use the thumb to fret, except in certain unusual circumstances. In those cases there would be a “T” inside the black dot.
Fingerings can also sometimes be found written along the bottom of the strings of a chord chart or between the nut mark and the chord name instead of inside the dots.
X’s and O’s
An “X” above the bolded nut mark indicates a string you don’t pick or strum. An “O” in the same location means to play the string open.
You may come across a suggested chord fingering that you simply cannot contort your fingers to play. In this case try experimenting with alternate fingerings. The most commonly used chord fingerings, however, will work for most guitarists.
How a Barre Chord Is Charted
As you probably already know, barre chords are chords that involve using one finger, usually your index finger, to hold down multiple strings in a single fret simultaneously. A barre is noted on a chord chart by a curved or solid line running through a fret from the first note to the last note of the chord, or by a series of dots in the same fret that all bear the same number.
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Practice playing easy songs with basic guitar chords.