Learning how read guitar chord charts is a skill that is critical for any guitar player to succeed. Chords, along with scales, lay the foundation for every song ever written.

I’ve got 50 different tunings in the guitar.” Joni Mitchell

That’s more of a ‘music theory’ discussion. It’s probably best to leave that for a later date when we can do a deeper dive into it.

How to read guitar chord charts

There’s no doubt that, as you’re learning to play. You’ll come across some graphic diagrams that look similar to the ones below:

Yeah…we know. They look like bingo cards..but they aren’t.

These are chord charts, and they detail everything you need to know to play just about any chord in the right way. The one on the left shows how to play an open position D chord. The one on the right depicts the same D chord but played in a ‘barre’ format.

Guiar D chords open and barr

Open D chords

  • The two styles have minor differences. However, the basic idea of how each chart works is the same.
  • The vertical lines represent the six strings of your guitar. The one on the far left is the low, (thickest) E.
  • The horizontal lines detail the frets of the guitar itself. Those thin pieces of wire are installed on the fretboard of your guitar.
  • At the top, the ‘X’s and O’s’ designate whether a string is played for that particular chord. An X means the string is not to be played at all.
  • An O means the string is to be played open.
  • The black dots show where you are to put your fingers on the fretboard
  • The numbers at the bottom tell you which finger you are to use for that particular note:

1 = index finger

2 = middle finger

3 = ring finger

4 = pinky

Guitar chords finger names

Guitar chords finger names

Let’s look at what it all means for playing open chords first. Then we’ll get into some of the differences using the barre method.

How to read guitar chord charts – playing open chords

Using another example again below. This chord chart format shows ‘open’ chords. Open chords are nothing more than those with open strings mixed with fretted notes.

Guitar chord D Major strings played-not played

Guitar chord – D Major

Usually, open chords are played within the first four or five frets. That’s the main reason why the horizontal line at the top of the chart is much thicker than the others. Instead of a fret, that line represents the actual nut of the guitar.

Acoustic guitar nut

Acoustic guitar nut

If you read the chord chart correctly, playing an open D chord will be as follows:

How to read guitar chord charts – D chord

  1. The sixth and fifth strings are not to be played since they have an X above them
  2. String four is played open. No notes are fretted on it.
  3. Using your index finger, fret the third string at the 2nd fret. 
  4. Using your ring finger, fret the second string at the 3rd fret.
  5. Use your middle finger to fret the first string at the 2nd fret.  

Playing barre chords

The mechanics of how a chord chart works are the same, between a diagram for an open chord and a chart for a barre chord. There are a few minor differences to keep in mind, however.

We are looking at our barre chord chart example below. You’ll notice that it says ‘5’ on the left side near the top of the chart since barre chords are, for the most part, yet again a topic for another discussion. Movable chord forms, that top line represents a fret higher up on the neck than the guitar nut.

Guitar D barr chord 5th fret

Guitar D Barr chord 5th fret

Another thing to notice is how the fingering locations and designations are named. You’ll see a thicker curved line that goes over a group of strings. Just like the open D chord chart, the barre chord format shows you how to play a D chord like this::

  • The sixth string has an X above it, meaning playing it is off-limits
  • To bridge the remaining five strings, use your index finger to fret the fifth string and the first string at the fifth fret. That’s what the long curved line depicts.
  • The fourth, third, and second strings are fretted as a group—the with your ring finger, shown by the shorter curved line.

Conclusion

That’s all there is to it!

There’s no complicated music theory to learn – chord charts are a simple way to quickly understand how to play almost any chord type that you’ll come across. Furthermore, we do have to say that even though chord charts are the ultimate in simplicity, there is excellent value in understanding the music theory components behind each chord. However, as a beginner – that kind of knowledge can come later.

Getting a handle on a useful chord vocabulary at the start will help you progress faster in your playing. If there’s one thing we know about learning to play the guitar, it’s that celebrating the little victories (like learning to play your first few chords) keeps you motivated and inspires you to learn more and more as your skill sets develop.