Learning how to read guitar chords charts is one of the first skills a guitarist should master. But for newcomers, the lines, numbers, and symbols can look more like math than music.
Don’t fret! (Pun intended.) Chord charts are simple to read once you understand each part.
What Is a Guitar Chord Chart?
A chord is three or more different notes played together. Two different notes played together are called an interval or a double-stop.
Chords are the basic building blocks for guitar playing, and chord charts show us exactly how to play each chord. Each chart or diagram represents one chord, and chord progressions include multiple diagrams together.
The chord chart is a diagram of the guitar neck and fretboard, which is the part you’ll use to hold down the notes in the chord. The vertical lines represent your guitar strings, and the horizontal lines represent the fret bars. Dots and numbers help fill out the picture by instructing correct finger placement.
The only difference between the chart and your guitar is that on a chord chart, the fretboard is vertical – as if you are holding your guitar with the body of the guitar at the bottom and the tuning keys on the top.
Chord Chart Basics
So how do you read guitar chord diagrams? In this section, we’ll break down each separate part of the chart.
The vertical lines on the guitar chart represent your guitar strings. For beginners, it can be a little tricky getting the hang of it since the chart is a vertical image, and you’re looking down at your guitar horizontally. To get accustomed to the mental switch, keep these guidelines in mind:
- Far Left: The vertical line that is farthest to the left is the low E string, also called the 6th or bottom string. It’s a little confusing because when you hold your guitar correctly, this is the thickest string at the top, closest to your head. It is referred to as the “bottom” because it has the lowest pitch.
- Far Right: The vertical line that is farthest to the right on the chart is the high E string, also called the 1st or “top” string. Again, this string is the thin string on the bottom when looking at your guitar, furthest from your head. It is referred to as the “top” because it has the highest pitch.
The rest of the strings progress in order from left to right.
So if those are the strings, how do you know which ones to play? We’ll get to that after we review the horizontal lines completing the grid.
The horizontal lines represent the fret bars on the neck of your guitar. Let’s start at the top:
- Top bar: The thick black bar at the top represents the nut on the guitar. The nut is the small strip of bone, plastic, brass, or graphite that holds the strings elevated and in place at the end of the fretboard.
- Horizontal lines: The next horizontal line down is the 1st fret bar, and below that is the 2nd fret bar and so on, ending at the 5th.
- 6th fret: Occasionally, as you get to more complex chords, you will encounter notes above the 5th fret. Charts have a special notation for this, which we will cover in the “Advanced” section below.
The boxes or space between each line represent each fret or where your finger would press down on the string. So the 1st fret is between the nut and the 1st fret bar, the 2nd fret is between the 1st and 2nd fret bar, and so on.
The dots show where to place your fingers on the fretboard. They are placed on a vertical line to indicate the correct string and inside the fret boxes to indicate which fret to press onto for that particular string. If you don’t see a dot, that means you shouldn’t touch that string on the fretboard.
The dots will sometimes have numbers in them, or you will see numbers underneath the diagram. So, let’s look at what the numbers mean.
You will see numbers either at the bottom of the chart or inside the dots. The numbers represent each of your fingers. A number corresponding to a vertical line shows you which finger to use on that specific string.
- 1 is your index finger
- 2 is your middle finger
- 3 is your ring finger
- 4 is your pinky finger
Occasionally you will see a “T” instead of a number, which indicates your thumb.
X’s and O’s
No, this does not mean hugs and kisses. You will usually see x’s or o’s above the top bar on the chart, though sometimes they’ll be placed in the row of fingering numbers at the bottom.
- X means to avoid strumming the string at all or mute it.
- O means to strum the string open, which means don’t press it onto the fretboard.
You should see an X or an O for any string that doesn’t have a number on it, indicating a finger placement.
Letters at the Top
The letters at the top of the chord chart are the name of the chord. Most are relatively straightforward, though as you get into more complex chords, the characters can become more complex.
More Advanced Charts
We’ve already covered everything you’ll need to know to get started reading guitar chord charts for beginners. However, you’ll eventually come across a few more advanced features as you progress. Here are the two most important ones to know.
A barre (or “bar”) chord is a chord where you press down with one finger across multiple strings on the same fret. Instead of using your fingertip to hold down one note, your finger is acting like a bar pressing down across the guitar’s neck.
You know you’re dealing with a bar chord when you see a curved line above the top of the diagram or a thick line across all six strings.
Easy barre: The Dbm guitar chord
Notes Above the Fifth Fret
As we mentioned above, some chords will have notes above the fifth fret. In that case, the chord chart will indicate that the top horizontal line represents the 6th fret bar rather than the nut. If the top bar represents the 6th fret bar, it will be the same thickness as the other fret bars. Additionally, to the chart’s side, you will see a small “6 fr” next to the top horizontal line.
Let’s Try It
Now you know everything you need to learn how to read guitar chords charts! So let’s try it out on a couple of chords.
E Major Chord
In this chord chart, the dots on strings 3, 4, and 5 show where you need to put your fingers on the fretboard. Here’s how to play it:
- Use your pointer (1st) finger to hold down the 3rd string on fret 1.
- Use your middle (2nd) finger to hold down the 5th string on fret 2.
- Use your ring (3rd) finger to hold down the 4th string on fret 2.
- Strum all six strings, leaving strings 1, 2, and 6 open.
The fingering can feel tricky at first. Your fingers will grow stronger and more agile as you get the hang of it. Eventually, they’ll develop a “muscle memory” for most chords.
Learn more about E major and some variants now.
B Minor Chord
Surprise, this is a barre chord! When you are ready to move on to barre chords, B minor is the perfect place to start. It’s relatively straightforward and easier on the hand than some others.
Remember, a barre chord involves putting one of your fingers down across multiple strings.
In this chord chart, the dots on strings 1 through 5 show where you need to put your fingers on the fretboard. Here’s how to play it:
- Use your pointer (1st) finger to hold down strings 1 through 5 on the second fret. You are using the length of your finger to press down, not just your fingertip.
- Use your middle (2nd) finger to hold down fret 3 on the 2nd string.
- Use your ring (3rd) finger to hold down fret 4 on the 4th string.
- Use your pinkie (4th) finger to hold down fret 4 on the 3rd string.
- Strum strings 1 through 5 in unison without touching the 6th string.
That’s it! You’ve played your first barre chord.
Try learning more b minor chord variants, too.
You’re Ready to Start Reading Guitar Chords!
While all this information might feel like a lot to process, all it takes is a little practice. Keep in mind the most important numbers and positions on the chart: vertical lines are strings, horizontal lines are fret bars, dots are fingertip placement, numbers are fingering, Os are open strings, and Xs are muted strings.
If you’re just beginning on guitar, try mastering chords one at a time. Use our guide to 11 basic guitar chords to get started. Practicing the basics is all it takes to learn how to read guitar chords like a pro.