How to Read and Play Guitar Chords

Man Reading Guitar Chords

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Aspiring guitar players must learn how to read guitar chords. In fact, learning to read chords is the first of the skills that any beginner guitarist should do. However, those just starting out may be confused by all of the lines, symbols, and numbers that chord charts display.

The guitar, while in some ways it is similar to the piano, instead of playing keys, you will play strings. Guitar chords are made up of two or more strings that are played together in a strum. 

Do not fret if you are new to learning guitar; there is good news. Read on in this article to make more sense of all of the lines, dots, numbers, and symbols so that you can learn to play guitar with great skill.

What Does a Chord Diagram or Guitar Chord Chart Look Like?

When you first start learning how to play the guitar you should know what a chord diagram, chord box or chord chart looks like. The basic makeup of a chart gives you a clear visual of vertical lines and horizontal lines:

Chord Diagram

The idea behind this visual representation is to give you what it looks like to look at a guitar fret or fretboard. It is the part that demonstrates where you put your hands and fingers to play the chord. Many people also refer to it as a guitar tab. Reading guitar tabs does not have to be difficult, here is a simple breakdown so that you can get started.

How to Read a Guitar Chord Diagram

When you read a guitar chord chart (also called a diagram or guitar tab), you will see the picture as if the guitar was being held straight up vertically. The lines going up and down vertically are the strings of the guitar, and the horizontal lines are the fret bars. 

The line all the way to the right on the chart is the first string on your guitar, all the way to the left is the sixth string. The horizontal lines represent the fret bars. Depending on if you play with your right or left hand, you can figure out where to put your fingers on the strings and frets of your guitar with the chart.

If the top horizontal line is thicker, it is meant to be the nut, a part located at the end of the fingerboard. Knowing this helps you identify what fret or “box” on the guitar you are playing based on where the nut is. The nut is usually a thick white or cream-colored piece across the top of your guitar, elevating the strings over the fretboard.

The first row of boxes represents the first fret, the second with the second fret, and so on, like this:

Chord Diagram With Frets

Numbers on the Guitar Chord Diagram

The numbers on the guitar chord diagram tell you which finger to use when you play. They are referred to as finger numbers. Each number represents a finger like this:

1 – Index Finger

2 – Middle Finger

3 – Ring Finger

4 – Pinky Finger

If you see a “T” symbol indicated over a string on the chord chart, that means that you need to use your thumb to make the note. If you play the piano or have in the past, the concept of the numbers for fingers can be a tad confusing. The thumb in the piano is usually considered the first finger, and the pinky is the fifth. However, with the guitar, the finger placement is different.

The Black Dots or Red Dots on a Guitar Chord Diagram

When you look at a chord chart, you will also see black dots and red dots. These dots on the chart indicate what fret you are pressing on and which string, and the finger you will use. 

The numbers may be at the bottom of the chart of inside the dots to indicate what fingers to play on the specific strings:

Dots on a Guitar Chord Diagram

 X’s and O’s on the Guitar Chord Diagram

X’s and O’s don’t mean hugs and kisses on a guitar. You see the X or O above the top bar on your guitar chart. They are sometimes placed in the row of numbers at the bottom. 

The “X” means to avoid playing the string or muting it. The “O” or circle means strum the line open or without pressing down on the fret. You should always see an X or O to represent any string without a number to indicate where your finger is going. They are known as an open string.

The letters you see at the top of the guitar chord chart should tell you the chord’s name. Most of the chords are straightforward, but some symbols and indicators become challenging with more complex chords.

What are the 5 Basic Guitar Chords?

There are five guitar chords that any guitarist should learn first, and if you work with a guitar instructor, these will more than likely be the chords you start with in the beginning. These are the more essential chords that you will work on when starting to play since they will be the easiest ones to practice and master.

The five chords listed below show you the C Major, A Major, G Major, E Major, and D Major. So when you read the guitar tab, the five chords should look like this:

5 Basic Guitar Chords

The major chords are the easiest to start with because more adjustments for minor chords are needed. To play a major chord, you’ll only need to use a few fingers and simple placements. Gaining knowledge and practicing these major chords includes learning to move from chord to chord, which is known as chord progressions. 

Once you have mastered these, you can move on to learn some easy guitar riffs. Some of these riffs will require you to learn how to utilize your guitar pick since riffs can be more complex than a regular strum. Guitar picking exercises are a great way to help you practice and learn how to hold a guitar pick properly. 

Barre Chords

Bar chords or barre chords are when you press down just one finger across multiple strings on a fret. Rather than using just a fingertip to hold down a note, your finger becomes the “bar” that presses down across the whole board. An example of using a bar chord looks like this on the chart:

After working more with chords, you are ready to learn some full-length songs. It can help start with some easy guitar songs that only require a few easy guitar chords before working your way up to more advanced songs and chord charts. 

Learning music theory helps to learn how to read guitar tabs as well, so if you are teaching yourself how to play guitar, you should also work on basic music theory. Understanding all of the notes, symbols, and dynamics of music allows you to be more creative and expressive when you play.

How to Read Guitar Chords on Sheet Music

Sheet music can be as challenging as reading tabs. Therefore, acquiring knowledge of music theory will be essential with sheet music. 

In some cases, guitarists prefer to read the chord chart rather than reading full sheet music. This is because sheet music looks more intimidating to beginner guitarists, and it is not as clear what guitar strings or frets numbers to play in the same way as a chord box indicates.

With sheet music, you will have a staff, ledger lines, clefs (treble and bass), and then the same lines and spaces as on your tab, but going across a full measure of counts, indicated by the time signature. 

There are many different notes. The three most common ones are whole notes, half notes, and quarter notes. 

Number Above the Note

To play a note on a particular half string of the guitar, a number above the note tells you which string you are supposed to use. Likewise, if you are supposed to play a note with a specific finger, a number beside the note tells you which finger you should use.

how to play guitar chords as a beginner

It can be challenging to learn to read, and playing and reading sheet music together can seem very hard. However, there is a simple way that you can guide yourself through playing the chords, starting with some simple chords and learning rhythm patterns.

Having the correct technique when you play the guitar is necessary, which is why it can be an excellent tool to take lessons with a professional, who can instill you with the right habits and techniques for playing guitar. 

When you play the guitar chords, your thumb should be about halfway down the neck, since you don’t want it too far over the top or bottom. When you are playing you need to use this hand to press down the strings with the tips of your fingers (not on the pads). Keep your fingers up nice and tall on the strings to play chords more effectively.

When you are starting out it can help if you experiment with your fingers, playing with different pairs or sets of fingers to see what feels more comfortable for you. While finger placement can be standard, if certain placements are not feeling right to you, you can play around with different fingers over the frets. 

It can help you to watch an online tutorial that covers some of the basic guitar chords and how to play them as a foundation. Here are four of the most common guitar chords, how to play them, and tutorials with the acoustic guitar that you can watch to give you a visual that will help you in your learning. 

How to Play the G Chord

G Chord

The G Major chord can be a challenging one to play. Your first finger goes on the second fret of the fourth string, and the second finger to the third fret of the fifth string.

Lastly, place the third finger on the third fret first string, then you can strum all of the strings together to create a G Chord, like this:

How to Play the D Chord

How to Read and Play Guitar Chords 1

D major chord has a cool triangle shape to it. It can help to associate chord shapes when you are memorizing new chords for songs.

With D major, you will use your first two fingers on E and G in the second fret, then holding B down on the third fret with your third finger.

You will be able to recognize this chord easily and playing it should not be too difficult, either. Here’s a video to help you:

How to Play the C Chord

C Chord

C Major is a guitar chord used very often, since it covers the C, G, and E notes. It is typically the first chord you will learn to play and found in countless songs.

Your second and third fingers align a slightly slanted pattern across the frets as you can see above. It can take a little bit of finger stretching and working to achieve this over the strings. Here’s the video:

How to Play the E Minor Chord

E minor is an easy minor chord to start with. All you do is put your second finger on the second fret of the fifth string and your third finger on the second fret of the fourth string. Strum and enjoy the sound! Here’s the video to help:

Once you have practiced each chord individually, you can learn new chords, and start to pull them all together to create songs. 

Chord changes are more challenging when you haven’t mastered the chords first, so do yourself a favor and take the steps to learn each chord before trying to play them in a song. 

These four chords are excellent beginner guitar chords, and many of them are found in popular songs that you know well. 

learn to play the guitar today

You’re never too old to learn to play the guitar, and ultimately one of the best things you can do for yourself to learn how to play is to take guitar lessons from a professional instructor, whether in person or online

While you can teach yourself the guitar, taking guitar lessons is worth the investment so that you don’t develop any bad habits while learning how to play. Once those habits are picked up, they can be more challenging to break.

Fingering and playing the guitar will feel tricky when you are first beginning to learn. However, over time you will become more used to holding and playing the guitar, and your fingers will grow stronger and more agile to move across chords with ease. 

Soon you will be able to memorize the correct finger placements and feel how to play the guitar as it becomes more natural, and you will be a seasoned guitarist in no time.

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