When you first pick up the guitar, you’ll probably first learn how to tune it, then get a handle on picking; this is all basic stuff. The first thing of substance that you learn though will likely be some beginner guitar chords. I have an article on what those basic guitar chords are (linked in the last sentence), but I didn’t go into detail on how to read the guitar chord diagrams. There’s a short explanation, but nothing more in depth if you’re confused. So here I’ll go through how to read guitar chord diagrams. That way you can get started learning chords and then playing guitar!

What Is A Guitar Chord Diagram?

A chord diagram is a simple way of showing players how to play a given chord. You can represent any chord from a simple G chord in open position to an E7#9 played in 7th position.

As you learn guitar, you won’t need to look up the diagram for every new chord you want to play. You’ll be able to figure it out most chords on your own. But as you’re first learning, or for more complex chords, the diagram really comes in handy.

The Anatomy of A Guitar Chord Diagram

The chord diagram for a basic C chord on guitar.On the sample chord diagram show here, you’ll see what vaguely looks like a guitar fret board with some dots on it. Let’s start from the top and work our way down.

  • At the top is the name of the chord (in this case C).
  • The X indicates a string that isn’t played.
  • The O’s indicate a string that’s played open (you don’t fret it).
  • The thicker horizontal line at the top represents the nut, with the other, thinner horizontal lines representing frets.
  • The vertical lines represent the guitar strings going from low (thickest string) to high (thinnest string) from left to right. We often refer to the thickest string (the low E in standard tuning) as the 6th string and the thinnest (the high E) as the 1st string.
  • The dots that are scattered on the diagram indicate where you should put your fingers to play the chord. So in this case, you should put a finger on the third fret of the 5th string, the second fret of the 4th string, and the first fret of the 2nd string. Strings 1 and 3 are open and the 6th string isn’t played.
  • The numbers within the dots indicate which finger you should use in that position. Your first finger is your index finger and your fourth finger is your pinky finger. So in the case of the example shown, your ring finger will be on the third fret of the 5th string.
  • Sometimes you’ll see letters at the bottom of the diagram (like you see here). These indicate what the string is; here we’re showing that it’s standard tuning. Sometimes these letters will indicate what note you’re playing rather than what the string is tuned to. You’ll figure it out with context.

Guitar Chord Diagrams For Positions Further Up The Neck

Guitar chord diagram for an A chord in 5th position.For guitar chord diagrams further up the neck, you’ll see something like the diagram shown here.

Notice how the diagram says “5fr” on the right. This indicates you’re playing the chord on the 5th fret.  Sometimes this will be represented in Roman Numerals as well.

The diagram show here is for a barre chord (sometimes just written bar chord), which will be discussed in a different lesson. Basically you’re just using your first finger to fret a bar across the fret board. The software I use to make these diagrams only supports that way, but you may see the bar only on the strings that are actually affected or an arrow. It will be clear from context.

And That’s It

That’s it. That’s guitar chord diagrams. They’re pretty simple, but now that you know, you can read them!

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