How to read Chord diagrams

This lesson is on how to read Chord Diagrams.

The second obstacle that presents itself as we begin to learn guitar is the use of language and worse, communication abstractions that we are unfamiliar with (that is to say that even the medium through which the new language is explained may be new to us. Why is latin less intimidating to most english speaking people than greek?)
[The first obstacle is in pressing down the strings]

There are 3 major ways that chords are shown (explained/communicated/ taught). They are:
1.) Standard notation
2.) Tablature
3.) Chord Diagrams

Standard notation is the way most western music has been written down. It tells what notes are played, and in what time, but generally doesn't tell you where on the guitar it is played (although it can be adapted to do so), or which fingers play which notes, when to barre, etc.

Sight reading standard notation is an art unto itself (Sight reading is the term usedfor the ability to play unheard music from reading standard notation). Sight reading is one of a small number of skills that seperates advanced players from beginners (and a large number of intermediate level players).

I will not rely on standard notation for these beginner lessons (and for most of the intermediate lessons), but for those seeking such instruction, i suggest either the books by Frederick Noad "Solo guitar playing", or the books by Aaron Shearer "classical guitar technique". Most advanced books are written in standard notation meaning that they will be unapproachable until sight reading has been learned. I would suggest starting early while everything seems hard.

Tablature has gained in popularity since the 80's (although it's older than that). tablature tells where on the guitar to play the notes, and a vague sense of timing. I'll give a lesson on reading TAB shortly.

Sometimes standard notation and tablature are written together. Sometimes either standard notation or tablature are written with chord diagrams.

Chord Diagrams are a way of explaining a chord in terms of where to place your fingers down on the fretboard and which strings to play.

Chord diagrams are an abstraction of the fretboard. they are an image of the strings and frets. There is a grid of lines (6 lines going in one direction for the 6 strings, and perpendicular lines representing fret bars).

Before going further it's important to know in which direction the strings are numbered and just what a fret is.

When we number the strings, they are numbered 1-6 from the thinnest to the thickest. the thinnest string is the 1rst string. the thickest string is the 6th string.

A fret is the space between two fret bars, or between the nut and the first fret bar. The first fret is between the nut and the first fret bar. Further frets are numbered 2-24 fret by fret going twords the bridge (and sound hole, or pickups, etc.). Often certain frets have dots on them to help quickly locate specific frets. Often fretbars are refered to as frets, and it should be noted that it is at the fretbar that the length of the ringing string (and therefor the note produced) is created. We do not play the guitar with our fingers on the fretbars (except when playing harmonics), so whenever I write fret (unless otherwise noted) I am speaking of the space between fretbars where we place our fingers.

Usually when seeing chord diagrams (in books, magazines, sheet music, etc.) the grid is arranged such that the vertical lines (going up and down) are representations of the strings. The vertical line furthest left being the 6th string, the vertical line being furthest right being the 1rst string. The horiazontal lines represent fretbars. The topmost horiazontal lines represent fret bars. the top-most horizontal line being the nut, the 2nd top-most horizontal line being the 1rst fretbar, and the space between those two lines being the 1rst fret.(There is an exception, I'll explain further below).

Superimposed on this grid (and around it) are symbols that tell on which frets to place your fingers, which strings to play (and which ones not to play), and maybe even more information (barres, root notes, alternate fingerings, etc.).

CIRCLE'S and X's

When a circle is drawn on the grid (on a vertical line between two horizontal lines), it tells you to place a finger on that string in that particular fret.

When a circle is drawn off the grid (above it) it means to play that particular string open (play the string but don't put a finger on it).

When an X is placed above a string, this means that the particular string is not to be played.


Sometimes numbers are seen outside the gris to the left of the top fret. these numbers tell you that the top fret shown is no longer the 1rst fret, but rather whichever fret the number says.

Sometimes the numbers are on the grid in place of circles (or inside them). These numbers might tell you which fingers to place on that spot (index finger = 1, middle = 2, ring = 3, pinky = 4, thumb = T), or some other sort of information.


Sometimes we see a curved line across several strings. This indicates that we should play a barre across these strings (sometimes a single finger presses down on more than one string).


Sometimes the root note (the note which gives a chord its particular letter name) is sometimes distinguished from the other notes by some special symbol. That might be a filled-in circle, a diamond, a letter R, or something else.


Related to chord diagrams are fretboard maps which show most or all of the fretboard and where a chord (or scale) maps out on the fretboard. Such a picture tells of places that could be used to create your own version of a chord.


Sometimes the grid is turned 90 degrees counter-clockwise. It is a bit easier in a monspaced font to keep the lines closer to a grid than in the usual formation. I will be using this type of thing to draw diagrams using text art rather than using .jpg or .gif files inserted into the document.

We should not be confused when seeing this as the circles (or numbers) inside the grid are superimposed on the lines representing the strings. in such a representation, the bottom horizontal line is the 6th string, and the left-most vertical line is the nut.

Below are examples:


C (turned 90o)


C (showing the root note)

C (showing the fingering)

C (showing numbers representing intervals)

C (showing curved lines for barres, /---\)

C (fretboard map including open notes)


C (fretboard map including roots without open notes)


Christopher Roberts

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Next Chord Lesson - How to place fingers down on the fretboard
Next Scale Lesson - Troubleshooting finger problems
Previous Chord Lesson - First chords
Previous Scale Lesson - How to read TAB
Next Fretboard Lesson - How to read TAB
Last updated April 5, 2003.
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