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A Quick Guide to Reading Guitar Chord Charts

When you’re first starting to learn how to play the guitar, it may seem a bit daunting. The good news is, it’s pretty easy to learn the basics and play quite a bit after your first few guitar lessons. Beyond that, learning how to read music – and guitar chord charts, specifically – can help a ton when you’re first learning those basic chords.

So where do you start? First, it’s important to understand how guitar chords are constructed, and a bit of music theory. It’s much easier to play if you know the basics of theory, especially if you’re interesting in writing your own music or transposing songs at some point down the line.

Blank Chord ChartNext, we’ll learn how to read a chord chart. Here’s what it a blank chord chart looks like:

 To begin, take note of the six vertical lines, representing each string on your guitar, and the six horizontal lines that represent the frets (except for the very top line, which is the nut of your guitar, where the head meets the fingerboard). Remember learning the notes on your guitar? The order of the strings is: E, A, D, G, B, E. As you’re learning how to read the guitar chord chart, move from left to right, so that the very first string is your low E, and the last string is your high E.

Next, we’ll take a look at a filled-in chord chart:

a7-chart

Take a look at the letter at the very top of the chart – this is the name of the chord. You’ll also notice red dots on some of the vertical lines, and open circles at the top of some of the lines. Those red dots represent which fret and string to place your fingers on, and the open circles tell you to play the string open (i.e. not fretted). On some charts, the red dots may also show a number, designating which finger to use. If you take a look at your hand, palm up, your index finger is 1, your middle finger 2, ring finger 3, and pinky is 4. Your thumb will be represented with a “T” in most cases. You might also see an “X,” which means the string isn’t used in that particular chord: either mute it with an unused finger, or simply avoid strumming it.

Now that you’ve learned how to read the chord chart, as well as what each symbol represents, you can learn to play any chord you need! Many guitar books list out chord charts, or you can easily find guides online.

How to Practice Playing Chords

Of course, the practicing doesn’t stop after you’ve learned how to read the charts. There’s still a lot of skill involved in getting your fingers to cooperate, as well as playing smooth transitions between chords – and this all takes time, patience, and practice! Here are some common problems beginners run into:

  • “I’m getting a weird buzzing sound…”

A few things can cause the dreaded buzzing sound. For one, you may not be pressing down on the string hard enough. If you’re a beginner still building up your calluses, this can be especially tough. Keep practicing – the more you do, the stronger your hands will get and the faster your calluses will build up. You can also try thinner strings, which have less resistance and are easier to play.

Another possible cause is that one of your fingers is touching an unnecessary string. Easy fix: keep your fingers straight – they should be almost 90 degrees against the fretboard. A good way to remember this is that your fingertips should be pressing down on the string, as opposed to the flat part of your finger. Again, practice makes perfect here. Try transitioning between chords with your eyes shut, and eventually your muscle memory will kick in.

  • “I can’t reach the designated fingering!”

Don’t worry! As a beginner, don’t worry about following the fingering exactly. The size of your hands, as well as the neck of your guitar, can affect which fingers you use to play the chords. While the guitar chord chart may designate a certain fingering, it may not work for everyone – and that’s ok! Find the fingering that’s comfortable for you. Still having trouble? Check out two helpful finger exercises here to build up your strength and improve your playing.

  • “My fingers hurt when I play the chords.”

As mentioned above, building your calluses can take some time. If you’re really struggling, try breaking your practicing into smaller (but still regular!) sessions. For example, practice for 10 minutes in the morning, 10 minutes when you get home from work, and another 10 minutes later that night. This way, you’re giving your fingers a bit of time to rest. Check out more of our tips here.

What’s next?

Now that you’ve learned how to read guitar chord charts, memorizing them is a great next step. Guitar chord progressions can make this process quicker, because they’re often incorporated into popular songs and are easy to remember. If you’ve seen this viral video from The Axis of Awesome, for example, you’ll notice that the same four chords (E, B, C#, and A) are used in many popular rock and pop songs. E, A, and B is another common chord progression – check out our video tutorial here to learn some helpful tips. As your brain makes the connection between these chords and common songs, it will be easier to remember each chord’s name and feeling on the fretboard.

Spend some time during each of your practice sessions working on individual chords. Try setting a metronome and practicing by strumming one chord on each beat – after four beats, switch to a new chord. You may need to try this slowly a few times to get your fingers used to the movement. As you master the transition, set your metronome a little faster and try again. Or, alternate chords on every individual beat, for as long as you can without messing up.

Keep practicing, and you’ll notice your playing getting smoother, quicker, and better overall.


 
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