A Comprehensive Guide to Reading Guitar Chord Charts

Posted on June 29, 2021

One of the great things about learning to play the guitar is the fact that learning how to read sheet music isn’t an absolute requirement. Some of the most famous guitar heroes from over the years didn’t know how – from Eric Clapton to Eddie Van Halen – even Jimi Hendrix can be thrown in for good measure.

However, there certainly is nothing wrong with taking the time to learn to read music. After all, it helps expand your understanding of music theory and supports your overall development as a guitar player. It can be a challenge though, and that’s why tools such as guitar chord charts are so helpful for guitar players of all skill levels. Whether you’re a new beginner or a seasoned professional, knowing how to read guitar chord diagrams and charts is a valuable skill.

What are guitar chords?

Before we dig in, we need to take a look at what a “chord” actually is.

In the simplest terms, a chord is simply three or more notes played at the same time. Playing them is typically one of the first things that any beginner guitarist learns. To play a guitar chord, you first need to create the correct chord shape with your fretting hand. After that, you strum all the right strings to actually play the chord. Just make sure not to play any unwanted strings.

When it comes to playing chords on the guitar, the questions are endless: “Where do I put my fingers? Which strings am I supposed to play? And how exactly should I read all these chords and learn to play them? What is an open chord? And what are major and minor chords?”

Introducing the guitar chord chart

Whether you’re trying to learn to play the guitar from a printed book or from resources found online, you most likely have come across little grid-like pictures that look similar to this:

Guitar Chord Chart

These are guitar chord charts, also known as chord diagrams, and they’re the simplest way to demonstrate how to play a particular chord. For example, above you see the chord shapes for three major chords: G, C, and D.

Guitar chord charts and chord diagrams are pretty easy to understand once you know what all of the lines, dots, Xs, and Os mean. So let’s take a minute to review how they’re laid out and how you’re supposed to read each element of a guitar chord chart.

Every chord chart is set up the same way:

  • The vertical lines (going up and down) represent each of the six guitar strings. The high E string is the line to the far right, and the one on the left is meant to depict the low E string.
  • The horizontal lines (going left to right) are meant to show the frets on your guitar neck. The thicker line at the top of the grid represents the nut of the guitar, so the first vertical line below that is the first fret.
  • The Xs show the strings that are not part of the chord, and therefore you shouldn’t play them when strumming the strings. On the flip side, the Os are strings that are played open without your fingers on any of the frets.
  • The text at the top of the chart tells you the name of the chord that is being shown in the chart. In case the chord is a major chord, the chart will simply read the name of the chord — for example, D. If it’s a minor chord, the chart will read “Dm” (with the letter “m” for “minor”).
  • The numbers at the very bottom of the chart tell you which finger you should use with the following numbering pattern: 1 is your index finger, and then each other finger is counted up, with 4 being your pinky.
  • This is typically what you’ll see in just about every chord chart, but in the Yousician app, we make knowing (and memorizing) “what finger to use where” incredibly easy. On top of having the finger numbers, we also color-code our charts for a quick and simple visual reference (check out the image below):

Guitar Chords Charts Color Coding

There are essentially two types of chords that you’ll come across: open and barre. Guitar chord charts are great in that the same format can be used to show you how to play both types.

Using chord charts for open chords

Let’s give a quick example using the D chord from the chart above:

Guitar D Chord Chart

To play this chord, you’ll place your fingers as follows:

  • Index finger (1) on the second fret of the G string
  • Third finger (3) on the third fret of the B string
  • Middle finger (2) on the second fret of the high E string

Now that you have your fingers in the right position, strum the D, G, B, and high E strings all at the same time (looking at the chart, the D string has an “O” over it, meaning that it’s played open). As you might remember, an X in a guitar chart means that the chord in question isn’t played at all. In this case, don’t play the low E and A strings or your major D chord will have unwanted open strings that make the chord sound off.

And that’s it — it’s really that simple to read and play open chords.

How to play barre chords with guitar chord charts?

Barre chords are different from open chords in that one (or more) of your fingers are used to hold down more than a single string at a time. The same chord chart legend can be used for barre chords as for open chords, but there are a few differences.

Since we used a major D chord for our example on open chords, let’s use the same for our barre chord example as well:

Guitar D Barre Chord Chart

The chart above shows how to play a D chord. This time, however, the chord chart uses a barred fingering pattern and is played on the fifth fret instead. Do you notice the slight differences between the barre chord charts and the ones we looked at for open chords? There are a few to note:

  • The Yousician app will show a solid bar of color, meaning that a group of strings is held down by one finger. In the chart above, your index finger holds down the A, D, G, B, and high E strings at the same time, while your middle finger holds down the D, G, and B strings across the seventh fret (with “traditional” chord charts, you may see a curved line going across the same strings — it means the same thing). Just like earlier, there is also an open string — the low E string.
  • Typically you won’t see any Os on a barre chord chart as they frequently don’t use open strings. That being said, some advanced chords use a hybrid of barred finger patterns and open strings, but most simple chords don’t.
  • The number with the “fr” designation on the far left of the chart shows you what fret to start the fingering pattern on. If you look closely, you’ll see that the thick horizontal line at the top of the grid (that is found on open chord charts) looks the same as the other horizontal lines. That’s because the nut isn’t being shown in this chord chart. This is due to the fact many barre chords are played higher up on the neck, like this example on the fifth fret.

If you want to learn more, make sure to check out our helpful article on how to play barre chords, where we go into more detail and help you learn those tricky barre chords.

Different types of guitar chords

Now you know how to distinguish between open and barre chords when reading guitar chord charts. In addition to this distinction, it’s good to know the difference between major and minor chords. The different types of guitar chords don’t end there — there are also suspended, seventh, and diminished guitar chords as well as power chords, to name a few. Playing these with the help of guitar chord charts isn’t any different from open and barre chords, but it’s helpful to be familiar with these chord types.

Check out Yousician’s interactive chord library to learn all the different guitar chords with easy-to-read visual representations of how the chords look.

Major chord charts

You’ve already seen a few major guitar chords above. The naming convention for major chords is simple as they’re named after their so-called root note. In other words, the major D chord (or simply “D”) has a root note D. In addition to the root note that gives the chord its name, major guitar chords also contain a major third and a perfect fifth. In a D major chord, these are F# (or “F sharp”) and A, respectively. You can learn to identify major chords by listening to them as they sound bright and happy.

Minor chord charts

As opposed to major chords, minor guitar chords sound darker and sadder. Just like major chords, minor guitar chords are named after the root note, but they have the letter “m” added to their name. Therefore, the minor D chord is written as “Dm.” A minor chord also consists of the root note and a perfect fifth. However, unlike the major guitar chord that has a major third, the minor chord has a minor third. In a Dm chord, this is the F note (remember that in the D major chord it was F#). You can see the Dm guitar chord chart below.

Power chord charts

Power chords are a great way to make things simpler if forming more complicated chord shapes feels too challenging. They’re also widely used in rock, pop, and punk music as well as rhythm guitar playing. Power chords consist of only two notes: the root note and the fifth. This is why they’re also known as fifth chords. For example, the D power chord is written as “D5.” It’s easy to move between power chords and play them at different positions on the guitar fretboard. Look at the guitar chord chart below to see how to play the D5 starting on either the second or fifth fret.

Suspended chord charts

Another useful (although less common) chord type is the suspended chord. These are also known as sus chords, and they come in sus2 and sus4 forms. This depends on the third interval that’s missing from the chord. Whereas minor and major chords convey a specific mood and feel, suspended guitar chords sound ambiguous. This is because, as you might recall, the minor or major third is the note that defines these two chord types. In suspended chords, this note is missing. Instead, it’s replaced by a perfect fourth or a major second. Here’s an example of the Dsus2 and Dsus4 chords.

Seventh chord charts

Let’s look at one more chord type: the seventh chord (or 7th chord). To recap, the basic major and minor chords we looked at earlier consist of a triad: the root note, a third, and a fifth. In order to create a seventh chord, we’ll have to add a major or minor seventh interval to the chord. There are five types of seventh chords in total: major 7th, dominant 7th, minor 7th, half-diminished 7th, and diminished 7th chords. These kinds of seventh chords are particularly common in jazz music, but they pop up here and there in many other music genres as well.

Wrapping things up

Now that you know how to read guitar chord charts, playing along to your favorite songs and learning guitar chords is all the more fun and easy. Chord charts for the guitar are a simple and intuitive way to learn the proper finger placement of any guitar chord. From a simple open major chord to more advanced jazz-theory type chords, learning how to read them is an essential skill that any guitar player needs to take the time to understand.

Learning to play the guitar is a journey that will lead to great satisfaction. While many of the topics and theories that are used may feel overwhelming for beginners, there are plenty of tools to help and show how things may be a lot simpler than they seem at first glance. And don’t worry: You don’t need to master all the different chords and various chord types right away. But what’s next?

  • If you haven’t already, now is a good time to start learning the most important beginner guitar chords and put your new skills to good use.
  • Start with the most basic major and minor chords. It’s a good idea to focus on open chords at first and start practicing those tricky barre chords once your fingers are comfortable holding different chord shapes.
  • Once you’re comfortable with the basic open chords and some basic barre chords, start learning more difficult suspended, seventh, and diminished chords. You’re sure to come across these as you learn more and more songs on the guitar.
  • Forming different chords and chord shapes is one thing. Many guitarists often find transitioning from one chord to another difficult, so make sure to practice chord transitions as well.
  • To further expand your guitar-playing knowledge, you should also look into chord progressions. To help with this, we’ve written a guide on learning four popular chord progressions for every guitar player.
  • Playing from a chart or a chord diagram is quite simple once you get the hang of it. Luckily, you don’t need to know sheet music to play your favorite songs. Guitar tabs are a simple way of notation that’s also easy to learn.
  • If playing the guitar and learning how to read guitar chords seem challenging at first, keep practicing and building up muscle memory in your fingers. Yousician has plenty of lessons and exercises for the guitar to help you improve, not to mention an impressive library of songs to play!
Learn songs you love with Yousician
Start your free trial

Unleash your inner musician with Yousician. We offer thousands of songs, exercises, and teacher-crafted lessons all in one app. Learn more

Ready to start playing?

Play the songs you love with Yousician.

Try Premium+ free for 7 days. Sign up and start learning now.

Green circle