As a guitarist you can play and compose your own pieces of music. But you’ll probably also want to play pieces by your favorite artists, guitarists, and musicians.

Whether you like listening to rock guitar, jazz guitar, funk, blues, hard-rock, classical or even flamenco, there must be pieces that you want to learn to play on your guitar. Otherwise, why is it that you want to play the guitar?

To get learning all these different songs and guitar you don't have a lot of options - you’ll simply need to learn your chords to play the song. No discussion.

Guitarists that can't play chords are unheard of. And a piece without a chord is really pretty rare too!

But how do you read guitar chords, and how do you play them? Can you get help in the form of guitar lessons or tutorials? Do you need to know music theory?

In this piece, we'll answer all these questions - and show you some of the easy techniques to get to grips with learning, reading, and playing chords.

Remind Me, What's a Chord?

For the beginner guitar player, there's a lot to learn. But of all the things you could get to grips with, chords are one of the most important.

A guitar chord, like a chord on any other instrument, is a number of notes played at the same time. That's it, in theory - and chords can be anything from two notes played together to five or six.

On the guitar, the basic chords to know are open chordsmajor chords, and minor chords. There are power chords too, but we'll leave these aside for just a moment.

A major chord, firstly, take the first (the root note), the third, and fifth note of a major scale. So, in the key of C major, the notes here would be C, E, and G. A minor chord, on the other hand, would move the 'third' down a half step - so, in this case, you have E flat, or Eb.

(The three basic notes of the chord make up what we call 'triads'.)

Open chords refer to a type of chord shape - and they are the first chord shapes you will learn. On the guitar, they refer to the types of chords that use the notes of the open strings. They are opposed to the more complex barre chords that require you to fret all of the strings across the fretboard.

To power chords, briefly. These are unusually among chords as they don't have the minimum three notes. They just have two - the third and the fifth note of the scale! Because of this, they are neither major nor minor - and this, we guess, is where their 'power' comes from.

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Guitar Chord Charts

To transcribe chords properly, musicians use what we call a chord chart or chord diagram. This is a visual representation of a chord on the guitar neck - meaning which fingers we would put where.

Thanks to this diagram, it is pretty simple to understand the movements you need to make for a chord.

Different chord diagrams and guitar chord charts
This is what guitar chord charts look like. You probably recognise them!

In fact, every chord for guitar can be rewritten on a chord chart - as, with these chord diagrams, you can represent any arrangement of fingers on the neck. It's quite straightforward, meaning that you don't need to know anything about the theory of chord progressions or scales - because all these show is the physical demands of the fingering of the given chord on the fret board. (Although, to know how to play guitar fully, you should engage in a bit of music theory!)

Essentially, chord boxes simplify reading chords in the same way that guitar tabs simplify reading music.

How’s a Chord Chart Written?

To read and play guitar chords, you must learn how to read chord charts and then how to play your guitar chords.

On the box, you’ll see three kinds of information - strings, frets, and fingers. With these three factors, you can represent any chord. A chord box will tell you exactly which finger to place, and where to put it. It'll tell you, say, to put your first finger on the second fret of the first string.

To read a chord box you should know that your guitar strings are represented by the vertical lines, and that the frets are represented by the horizontal lines. It's like an inverted tablature.

The double horizontal line that you can see (or sometimes a thick black line) represents the nuts on the neck of your guitar. If you see this, your hand needs to be right up there in the open position.

A chord box also includes numbers - each finger on your left hand is associated with a number between 1 and 4. The thumb is often indicated with a ’T’ or a ‘P’.

Differences between Guitar Tabs and Chord Charts

Tabs are a special way of writing music for the guitar. They are a visual representation of your guitar strings. They help you know where to put your fingers during many a guitar lessons.

On a chord box, you can see three key bits of information:

  • fingers
  • frets
  • strings

The combination of these three factors can describe any chord, and therefore charts may seem immediately a bit more complex than guitar tabs.

However, this isn't really true. Guitar players use these diagrams just to see the shape of the chord. There is no rhythm, strumming pattern, or anything else shown. It's just merely the shape of your fingers.

Reading a Chord Chart

On a chord box, you may see a few unfamiliar symbols. For example, an ‘X’ means a string should not be played or strummed. An ‘O’, meanwhile, indicates an open string which should be played without placing your fingers on a fret.

The numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4 correspond to the fingers on your left hand and tell you how the chord should be shaped.

  • 1 is your index finger
  • 2 is your middle finger
  • 3 is your ring finger
  • and 4 is your pinky.

If you see Roman numerals like I, II, III, IV, etc, they tell you the fret boxes on the neck of your guitar.

For example, if you see a III on a chord box, you know that the chord starts on the third fret on the neck.

If there’s no Roman numeral, but the double line for the nuts is there, that means that the chord should be played at the very top of the neck. This is common for the main major and minor chords on the guitar (the open chords!).

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Guitar chords written in tab
This is how chords would look in tab! We use chord charts to simplify this a little.

For those learning to play guitar, learning how to read chord charts is a valuable skill that will allow you to play different chords and to appreciate all of the different positions in which the same chord can be played.

The note that you generally begin to play your chord with, and the one that you start with when you’re breaking down a chord in arpeggio.

It’s also the bass note which gives the chord its name.

Some Chords You Really Need to Know.

If you want to quickly progress to playing chords and recreating pieces of your favorite music, there are a few key chord charts that you need to study, practice, and learn by heart.

The key chords to know are A minor, E minor, C major, D major, and G major.

Just by using these five chords you can play many popular pieces of music, especially segments of pop and rock songs.

Of course, this list of five chords is not exhaustive (not by any means!), and nothing requires you to limit yourself to them. All five are from the same chord progression, G major.

Practice to Improve Your Chords on the Guitar

This exercise isn't necessarily appropriate for beginners, but is more suited to people who’ve already had a few practice sessions with the guitar and are starting to feel comfortable.

  • Place your hand correctly on the neck of the guitar.
  • Position your fingers for a chord as you would normally, but keep your hand hovering over the neck and don’t actually touch the frets.
  • When all of your fingers are hovering in the right place, push them all down onto the neck at the same time and don’t move.
  • Lift your hand and repeat
  • If the chord sounds right, you can repeat this exercise with other major and minor chords to test your positions.
  • But if the chord sounds wrong, don’t try and check for the right position. Instead look at your hand to see if you can understand where you’ve gone wrong and try to fix your position.
A young girl practicing her guitar playing and chords.
Practice your guitar chords regularly - and they'll soon be easy.

It’s excellent practice that helps to recreate a real situation. When you’re playing a piece of music on the guitar, you can’t make any mistakes and all of your positions need to be right the first time around. Otherwise your playing will be sloppy and slow and you will lose the rhythm of your guitar playing.

Another advantage of this exercise is that it will help you gain speed - moving all of your fingers at once will help you get into the right position quickly, especially if you’re playing arpeggios. Your dexterity and fluidity will be improved.

Advice for Playing Guitar Chords

To achieve success reading and playing guitar chords, here are a few tips that apply to any guitarist whether you’re a beginner or experienced.

  • Learn to position your fingers correctly on the neck of the guitar. At the beginning, focus on your left hand and make sure that each finger is only touching one string at a time. Once you feel comfortable with the position of your hand on the neck, begin strumming the strings with your right hand.
  • If one of your fingers is in the wrong position, move it and put it in the right one. Don't try and move your fingers around too much, or you'll begin to pick up bad habits, make your position uncomfortable, and you won't be able to reproduce the sounds afterwards.
  • Keep it simple, begin each chord and position from the beginning. Pay attention and think about how each chord should be shaped.
  • Why are you having trouble? Is it because your fingers are touching other strings? Are you not pushing hard enough? Or are you accidentally pushing on other strings with your right hand?
  • When you’ve finally hit all of the strings right to play the chord, then try and play each string separately and keep the fingers of your left hand in the same position. Each note should sound cleanly without any muting or interference. If there's a lot of interference on the note, it means your finger positions aren't quite right. Either your fingers are touching other strings, you aren't pushing hard enough, or your palm is muting the sound.
  • Teach yourself to just push on the strings with the tips of your fingers. Work on your positions during every guitar lesson until you can play each chord without any errors. Your playing should be fluid and natural.
  • Practice regularly, at least 10 minutes every other day. Regular practice will help you build up calluses on your fingers. Your speed of playing will improve and you'll gain muscle memory.
  • Once you've mastered your chords, try playing them in one order and then in another. Do the exercise again, positioning your fingers above the neck without actually touching it. If you want to improve your skill playing guitar, this is the way in which you'll become better. This exercise will improve your precision, sound, and dexterity.

Every guitarist learns how to read and play chords, but you can distinguish yourself by making your playing precise and strong.

This is why we recommend starting slow, and breaking down each chord to its composite notes. Once you're comfortable, you can begin to increase your speed. This will help you stay motivated during your guitar lessons!

And whatever happens, make sure that you learn your chords by heart and then begin to integrate them into your playing.

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As an Englishman in Paris, I enjoy growing my knowledge of other languages and cultures. I'm interested in History, Economics, and Sociology and believe in the importance of continuous learning.