How To Read Chord Diagrams

Chord Diagrams FeatureYou might already know how to read chord diagrams. If so, you can skip this lesson. However, if you find that interpreting chord diagrams is a bit hit and miss – sometimes you get them right, other times everything is upside-down etc, then you will find this short tutorial quite useful.

Chord diagrams are relatively simple diagrams that tell us how to play a certain chord. Let’s look at a chord diagram for the D major chord:

This lesson is an adapted lesson from the ‘Open Chords Made Easy’ book. You can view the index of lessons from this series here, or purchase the book itself from here.

Chord Diagram D basic

There a 2 things that remain constant with open chord diagrams:

  • String Numbers (or names)
  • Fret Numbers

There are 2 things that vary with each open chord diagram:

  • Where to put your fingers
  • What to do with the open strings

The following diagram is the same as above, but with text indicating string numbers and fret numbers:

Chord Diagram D explain

You won’t see this text on most chord diagrams. You have to remember where the strings are and where the frets are so that you can interpret the diagram without the text. You just have to make sure you know which lines are the strings, which ones are the frets and the order of each.

The circles with the numbers in them indicate fingers on the left hand (if you’re a right handed guitarist).

It’s quite simple. A circle with a ‘1’ is an instruction to place the 1st finger on the string and fret that it is aligned to. A circle with a ‘2’ is an instruction to place the 2nd finger on the string and fret that it aligns to, and so on.

The other variable involved is what to do with the open strings. The open strings are the strings in the diagram that have no fingers assigned to it. Since there are no fingers assigned to it, we need to know whether to play the string ‘open’ or to not play it at all.

This is indicated by either ‘O’ or ‘X’.

‘O’ indicates playing the string.
‘X’ indicates not playing the string.

Any string with a finger on it is automatically assumed to be played.

Chord diagrams represent a visual image of the chord itself. You can try to ‘mimic’ or ‘mirror’ the diagram by replicating the overall shape in a general sense. While this is a pretty safe practice once you have enough experience, I highly recommend not doing this to begin with. When starting out, the safest way to ensure that you are playing the chord correctly is to look at the diagram as a set of instructions.

The instructions can be derived by asking the following three questions for each circle that has a number in it:

  • Which finger is it?
  • Which string is it assigned to?
  • Which Fret is it assigned to?

By asking these 3 questions for each circle, you present yourself with an easy to follow set of instructions.

Let’s look at that chord diagram for D again and follow this process.

Chord Diagram D basic

We will start with the circle with the ‘1’ in it:

Q. Which finger is it?

A. 1

Q. Which String is it?

A. 3 (G)

Q. Which Fret is it?

A. 2

Therefor, place your 1st finger on the 3rd string (G) on the 2nd fret.

Now let’s move to the circle with the ‘2’ in it. (Make sure you keep the 1st finger where it is while adding the 2nd finger!).

Q. Which finger is it?

A. 2

Q. Which String is it?

A. 1 (E)

Q. Which Fret is it?

A. 2

Therefor, place your 2nd finger on the 1st string (E) on the 2nd fret.

Now let’s move to the circle with the 3 in it.

Q. Which finger is it?

A. 3

Q. Which String is it?

A. 2 (B)

Q. Which Fret is it?

A. 3

Therefor, place your 3rd finger on the 2nd string (B) on the 3rd fret.

Then we just need to observe that the 4th string is played open, while the 5th and 6th strings are omitted (‘O’s and ‘X’s).

It can seem like a tedious process at first, but you will get very quick at forming chords using this method and you are less likely to make mistakes.

This lesson is an adapted lesson from the ‘Open Chords Made Easy’ book. You can view the index of lessons from this series here, or purchase the book itself from here.

 

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About Genaaron Diamente

I play guitar. I teach guitar. I like making music. I'm trying to build this site up to be a valuable resource for guitar students and teachers.

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