There isn’t just one way to demonstrate how a guitar chord is played. If you are a beginner, there’s a pretty high probability that you’ve come across at least two of the main ways guitar chords are written out. If your more experienced, you’ve probably seen all three and have used them at least once. Regardless of skill level, this article will teach you how to read all guitar chords on charts, in tabs, and on the musical staff. No method will be left behind, and you can find a use for all three.
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Pros and Cons Of Charts, Tabs, and Standard Notation
Before we begin with our tutorial, I’d like to talk about some of the pros and cons of each of the three methods we will be discussing – charts, tabs, and the staff. All of these ways of reading chords come with their own perks which you may find useful.
Reading Charts & Diagrams
Chord charts or diagrams are generally considered an easy way to read guitar chords, and it’s typically one of the first methods that beginners use to start learning them. Usually, it’s from some kind of book, or it’s from a poster like this one. Either way, these are basically illustrations that show you how to read and play guitar chords. Here are some of the prime benefits and drawbacks of chord charts and diagrams.
- Tells you exactly what fingers you need to be using on a particular fret (Most of the time!)
- Fretboard diagram is an intuitive and helpful visual-aid (usually the nut will be labeled, as well if it goes beyond the 4th or 5th fret)
- Can be confusing to interpret, if not enough information is provided (if the diagram doesn’t give you fingerings, you won’t know the optimal way to play the chord)
- Right-handed “bias” (left-handed players will have to readjust)
Tabs are, by far, one of the most accessible ways to start learning how to play the guitar, and of course, this includes chords. Because it’s approachable, you might find instructional material that is centered around it rather than teaching sight-reading standard notation. However, even if tabs are handy and helpful, they do have their own set of problems.
- Like chord diagrams, tablature uses horizontal lines for strings which is easy to grasp immediately.
- The required frets are placed on these strings in the form of numbers, which tells the player where his or her hand should be. (If you needed to play the 5th fret on the A-string, a “5” would be on that string.
- Can be vague (from my experience, it usually isn’t specified which fingers go where; instead, you just have a very general idea based on the frets)
- There isn’t only one type of tablature (there are ASCII tabs, which lack a lot of information and then you have tabs such as from Guitar Pro which can have the chord labeled, tell you dynamics, how a chord should be strummed, and have rhythmic notation!)
Reading The Musical Staff (Standard Notation)
The musical staff, also often referred to as standard notation, is the most traditional way of learning how to play music, but it may not always be the best way to do it. Here’s why:
- Learning how to build and identify chords on the staff and eventually sight-read is an applicable skill to all musical instruments
- It’s basically another language, and it will be helpful if you decide to pursue formal education in music.
- May not be specific to guitar (chords charts and tabs are designed for guitarists and other stringed instruments)
- Depending on the sheet music, it can also be vague. Classical guitar music will usually be precise and tell you the proper position to be in, but sheet music for modern music might leaving you guessing which is the proper note to hit (on the fretboard, there is more than one way to hit the same exact note, unlike a piano)
How To Read And Understand Guitar Chords
As you can see, all three methods are useful ways to learning how to read guitar chords, even if they’re not entirely foolproof or the most perfect ways of doing it.
Even if you use one more than the other, I think it’s a stretch to say that one is 100% better than another. All of them have a time and place where they can stand out and be very useful. So, why not try to learn them all, or at least become familiar with them, and be the best musician that you know you can become? This segment will teach you exactly how to read guitar chord charts, tabs, and on the staff.
How To Read The Guitar Chord Chart
If a guitar chord chart or diagram has all of the necessary information on them, it should be a cinch to pick up. However, if it’s missing a thing or two, it can lead to confusion. Here’s what all charts should have:
- Horizontal Lines To Separate Frets
- Vertical Lines to Differentiate Strings
- A nut to show the start of the fretboard, as well as an indicator if the chord begins or ends after the 4th fret
- Numbers to describe proper chord fingerings
- If applicable to the chord, X’s to signify muted or dead notes, and O’s to designate open notes
All of these will make sense once you see a chord chart example right in front of you. Let’s take a look at a chord chart for the basic C-chord shape.
It might seem counterintuitive to have the strings be vertical lines because when you play the guitar, the strings will be horizontal. I actually don’t know the explanation for why this is the case, but it should be only a minor nit-pick and require a little bit of adjusting to how you interpret the chart.
With that said, let’s analyze this chord, to help you make more sense of it, hopefully. You see the nut (the bold horizontal line), so you automatically know that this starts at the very beginning of the neck with open notes, and since we only have 5 frets displayed, we don’t need to think about anything beyond that.
I’ve included some more labeling to simplify this further. Unless it’s flipped on its side, this is usually how you’ll be looking at a chord chart:
So what frets do we use here? Starting from left to right, on the lower E string, the first thing we encounter is an “X,” this means that no note is played here – it is muted. Nothing more to think about here, and we can move on.
Next, on the A string, we now reach a fret! By looking at the dot and my labels, you know that this is the 3rd fret. However, which finger do you put on this fret? See that “3” over there? That mean’s you’ll be using your ring finger because it is your 3rd one (excluding the thumb).
Moving on to the D string, we have a note on the 2nd fret, and this one will be played with your middle finger which is your 2nd finger, as indicated by the chord chart.
For the G-string, since there is an “O” there, we know that we will be playing an open note on this particular string.
On the B string, place your index finger (finger #1) on the first fret of that string. Easy peasy!
Finally, just like the G-string, we will be letting an open note ring on the E-string, as indicated by the “O” icon. The main difference between X’s and O’s is that you will actually need to sound the note for O’s. X’s are muted notes and aren’t played.
If you’re doing it right, your hand should look just like this:
Not all chords will be as conveniently placed like this one, and it’s possible your fingers may end up in more contorted positions. Let’s look at a slightly more challenging chord, the D minor.
If you need to refer to the previous illustration where I labeled the strings and frets feel free to do so. For this example, I will merely be focusing on the fretted notes here.
We can jump straight to the D note and notice that the note is on the 2nd fret, and the chart lets us know that we should be playing it with our 2nd finger, the middle one.
On the G-string, we play the first fret with our 1st finger, our index. The B-string is where things get mixed up a little bit. We play a note on the 2nd fret, but the finger we need to be using is our 3rd finger, the ring one.
Overall, it’s not too bad, but chords will inevitably become more complicated. The ways you interpret them will be the same though, and if it goes beyond the basic open chords, the frets will be labeled like “5” or “6” or beyond that, just so you don’t make a mistake and play the chord way up on the fretboard. It wouldn’t be the correct chord if you did that.
Right now, just stick with the basic chords, and once you’re sharp with them, you can move onto more complicated stuff like some of those crazy jazz chords when you need them.
How To Read Guitar Tabs and Chords
Tabs are relatively straightforward and have some of the same concepts that you’d see on a guitar chord chart. However, instead of vertical lines representing strings, the horizontal lines do (the top line is high-E, the bottom line is low-E). Also, rather than having lines to divide frets, frets are labeled by numbers on the horizontal lines.
Here’s the same basic C-chord that is written in tablature form:
So by looking at this, you can tell by the numbers which fret we need to play on each of the strings. You need to place your finger on the 1st fret of the B-string, play an open note on the G-string, have your finger on the 2nd fret of the D-string, and lastly, the 3rd fret of the A-string.
Play these all the same time, and you’ve got a chord! You know to play them simultaneously because the frets are all stacked. If they weren’t, it’d be arpeggiated, you’d play the notes separately, and it would look something like this:
Tabs are quick, but they can lack information. For example, it doesn’t tell us which finger should be placed in what position, so it can leave the player guessing. Also, sometimes tabs may not have the name of the chord labeled at the top.
If that C wasn’t there, there’s a good chance a beginner wouldn’t know that was a C-chord, unless they knew the notes of the fretboard beforehand.
To rectify these issues, some tablature may have a guitar chord chart mixed in with the tab if you’re lucky. Guitar Pro tabs are an immaculate and a favorable way to view tablature, and you have the option to label the chords and include charts.
Using Guitar Pro software, I created this example and others in this guide. Check it out!
Pretty neat, huh? This particular tab has the chords labeled, the frets are marked for quick reading, and we have charts that can help you if you don’t know which finger placement is best. If you find a tablature book that has these markings, you will easily be able to learn how to read guitar chords in a song.
We also have some rhythmic notation in this tab too, but that’s not as important for explaining how to read chords. If you are interested in learning more about this topic, give my article on rhythm and counting a read!
Be wary though, even though learning how to read guitar chords tabs is mostly painless, not all tablature will be like this, especially the old-school ASCII tabs. I think nowadays, most people use Guitar Pro or Power Tabs because they can do so much more. Programs like Guitar Pro also allow you to play the tab back so you can hear everything.
How to Read Chords On The Musical Staff
The musical staff can be divided into two staves – the treble and bass clefs. Since we are talking about the guitar, we will be working with the treble clef and learning how to read chords on sheet music.
Even though the staff may look a lot like a blank tab, and have horizontal lines that resemble strings, they are nothing alike. In fact, there are only 5 lines, and each of them corresponds to a specific note, and in between them, there are additional notes which also go there. To visualize what I am saying, here are all of the notes on a treble clef staff:
It’s super easy to remember which notes go in between the lines; you just remember it as the word “face.”
However, for the notes on the lines (EGBDF), you can use the mnemonic device “Every Good Boy Does Fine.” This is a classic way of easily remembering the notes and if a note needs to be sharp or flat, and accidental (a sharp or flat marking) will be indicated either on the key signature or directly next to the note.
You won’t be limited to these either since there are many octaves. Naturally, the notes will “overflow” on the staff. For these notes, ledger lines will be used to expand the range.
Luckily, ledger lines will be used in our chord-of-choice in this lesson. You’ve guessed it. The C-chord. Here’s how the basic C-chord is written on the musical staff:
The bottom note on this chord is resting on a ledger line. This note is a C, and it actually corresponds to the middle-C on a piano. Ledger lines can seem a little bit confusing because it may look like it throws away the rules of which notes are on lines or in spaces. In reality, it just alternates.
Take a glance at this example to see how the rules on which notes are on lines or in spaces switch up, if you run into chords that use ledger lines, you can just refer to this to help you:
If you look back at our C-chord, ascending, the note in between the line is a D note, and then we’re back to an E, on the first of the main lines.
Therefore, the notes that we see on this staff are C, E, G, and another C. These are the notes of a C-chord.
Unfortunately, the musical staff isn’t the easiest way to learn guitar chords easily, and it’s non-specific to that instrument. Generally, to learn how to read guitar chords on a staff, it requires you to know how to construct and be able to name a chord based off of the notes that you see on the staff. Mostly, you need a little bit of education on music fundamentals beforehand.
Because I know what makes a C-chord and I can read the staff, I was able to identify the chord effortlessly, but for new players learning these other prerequisite skills are needed in order to interpret the staff correctly.
Additionally, the staff doesn’t tell us anything about what frets we need to use, you kind of have to study and learn about that separately through materials that focus on the guitar and how it relates to the musical staff. You’d most likely be able to develop that skill by reading a classical guitar book, like Christopher Parkening’s method.
Luckily, I know that C-note usually refers to the 3rd fret of the A-string, and not the 8th note of the lower-E. They’re the same exact pitch, but since I know this is an open-note chord beforehand, I know where I should be.
New players won’t know this right away, and I believe that if a new guitarist insists on working with the musical staff first, they should have some prior musical education beforehand before taking advantage of it.
The ability to play chords in many different ways is what makes the guitar an exceptional instrument. In addition to your basic chords, you have inversions too. To learn how to read guitar chords, you will need to work with chord diagrams, guitar tablature, or the musical staff.
Generally, at least two of these should be used, and for beginners trying to learn how to read and play guitar chords, I’d advise using charts and tabs before diving into notation on a musical staff.
I think many, if not most, people would agree with me on that guitar chords charts and tablature are the most practical ways to learn how to read and play guitar chords for beginners. It may be slightly tricky at first for some, but it doesn’t have nearly as big of a learning curve as the staff does. It allows new players to jump into things faster without being overwhelmed or confused as much.
The staff is incredibly useful though, but I think it should be reserved for players who are a bit more advanced or ones who are having a formal education in music. The musical staff, and music theory, together are like a language, and these concepts allow others, regardless of what instrument they play to effectively and accurately communicate ideas and share written music.
Hopefully, one day, you will find a use for all three of these ways to read guitar chords. They may not be perfect, and you might not use them all at once, but being able to apply what you’ve learned will make you the most well-rounded and skilled player and musician in the long run.