If you’ve ever picked up a guitar and thought, “I can learn to play this,” you’re not wrong. It’s not a particularly hard instrument to learn the basics of, though you could spend your whole life studying and never truly master it. That being said, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t want to enrich your life with the joy of playing an instrument.
So you then decide that, to hell with it, you’re going to teach yourself how to play, and use the money you would spend on lessons for a bigger amp. That’s all fine. Kudos to you for being frugal. Then you decide you want to learn to play your favorite song. Maybe that one by The Beatles that your mom used to play in the house. Or maybe your tastes lie more with The Red Hot Chili Peppers. I’m not here to judge.
Whatever the case, you end up typing the name of the song into your browser, and after a few clicks, you find yourself staring at a handful of diagrams you don’t know how to read.
One of the first skills all beginning guitarists learn is how to read chord diagrams. They are very helpful when it comes to learning new chord shapes and fingerings, and can save you a lot of trouble in the long run. Fortunately, it’s also a pretty easy skill to learn.
Here’s an example of what most chord diagrams look like:
This is a C-chord, and is one of the most commonly used chords you’ll find in many songs.
Before we get into what all the dots and X’s mean, let’s break down what it is we’re actually looking at. The thick black bar on top represents the guitar nut, which separates the frets from the head.
This thick white line below is what we’re talking about:
Below the nut are the frets along the guitar neck. If you’ve seen anyone play a guitar, you’ll recognize this as the places where guitarists will press down with their fingers. You can see, then, that chord diagrams are just vertical drawings of a portion of the guitar neck.
This should make reading chord diagrams pretty simple. So let’s take a look at that C-chord again.
Since we now know where the nut is, we can see that the C-chord uses the first three frets on the neck. Each vertical line represents one of the six strings of the guitar. You’ll notice that above the black bar of the nut, one of the lines has an “X” over it. This is to signify that a string is not played in a chord. The circles indicate that an open string is played.
Some beginners tend to have trouble when it comes to bar symbols, whether that’s playing or reading them on a diagram. Here’s an example of a basic one:
The bar symbol is the curved line over the top of the nut. It indicates that you’ll use your index finger to cover all of the strings of a fret. Some chords played further up on the neck will have a marking like “7fr” beside the first fret on the diagram, to let you know the chord starts on the 7th fret.
In this example, you’ll also notice the numbers along the bottom. This is to indicate which fingers you should use on each fret. One is the index, two is the middle, three, the ring, and four, the pinky.
And that’s really all there is to it! Reading chord diagrams is easy, and should only take minutes to learn. But as you’ll soon find out, there’s a difference between being able to read a diagram and being able to play it correctly. In order to remember and master the concept of reading chord diagrams, you need to practice.
Now that you know how to read them, here’s a list of basic guitar chords you can learn. Master these, and you’re one step closer to rock-star status.