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How to Read Guitar Chord Diagrams

In previous lessons we’ve learned about reading guitar tabs and scale diagrams. Just as important as those skills is the ability to read chord diagrams as it’s the easiest and quickest way to learn chord structures. In this lesson we’ll break down how to read guitar chord diagrams and the different types of diagrams you’ll likely come across.

What are guitar chord diagrams?

Guitar chord diagrams, or chord charts, are graphical representations of the structure of guitar chords on the guitar fretboard. While chord diagrams vary widely, all diagrams will show the basic structure, or shape, of the guitar chord and the fret position at which the chord should be played. Additional information is commonly included, such as fingering, notes, and/or intervals of the chord.

Breaking down chord diagrams

If chord diagrams are completely new to you then they may seem a little strange or unclear as to what they’re representing. So let’s start with a basic overview of the general information provided by these diagrams.

As stated earlier, chord diagrams are just graphical presentations of the chord notes on the guitar fretboard. Therefore, every diagram will contain at least three standard pieces of information: strings, frets, and notes. Let’s first look at how the diagrams are structured, then we’ll look at the different ways they’re notated.

Chord diagram structure

The basic structure of the chord diagram is a visual representation of the guitar fretboard, which includes strings and frets. The diagrams are typically oriented vertically with the string lines running vertically and fret lines horizontally.

Chord diagram explanation

From left to right the string order runs from the low E (thickest string) to the high E (thinnest string).

Some diagrams are simple vertical lines to represent the guitar strings and simple horizontal lines to represent the frets, as shown below.

Simple guitar chord diagrams
Simple Chord Diagrams

These types of diagrams don’t include any additional note information, such as the note names, interval qualities or fingerings. They just use simple dots, circles and Xs to notate the chord.

  • Solid Dot = note to be played by fingering the note on the fretboard
  • Circle = represents open strings that are to be played
  • X = represents open strings that are not played

Some diagrams will also contain specific notation for barre chords to indicate notes that should be played using a barre. A couple of examples of this notation can be seen in the diagram below.

Barre chord notation on the guitar fretboard
Barre Notation on Chord Diagrams

The diagrams on this site use a bit more true-to-life representation of the guitar fretboard, which includes string thickness and fretboard inlays to more accurately depict the guitar. They also contain more information regarding the notes themselves. One other difference is the diagrams on this site only contain notation on the notes to be played and don’t include Xs for non-played notes.

Note notation on chord diagrams for guitar

Note notation on chord diagrams

One common way you’ll see chord diagrams notated is through the use of the note names on the note markers. These notes represent the notes that make up the chord, which are determined by the chord formula and the scale from which the chord is built.

The diagrams on this site have the root note highlighted using an orange marker.

Finger and interval notation on chord diagrams

On some chord charts you may see numbers or numbers and symbols, but what do they mean? These represent different things. Let’s take a look at each.

Finger notation on chord diagrams

Fingering notation for guitar chord diagram

In some cases you’ll see numbers 1-4 and sometimes a T on the note markers for chord diagrams. These numbers represent the recommended fingering for the chord and breaks down as follows:

  • 1 = index finger
  • 2 = middle finger
  • 3 = ring finger
  • 4 = pinky
  • T = thumb

When numbers occur on multiple notes on the diagram, those notes should be played by the same finger in the form of a barre across the strings.

Interval notation on chord diagrams

Interval notation for guitar chord diagram

Numbers and symbols on chord diagrams represent the intervals that make up the chord, which is also known as the chord formula. This is the notation most often used on this site. The ability to read guitar chords diagrams with interval notation is an important skill. Knowing the intervals of a chord is very useful to understanding the type of chord it is and not just knowing what type of chord it is. It also helps with your understanding of the underlying harmony.

Here’s a full rundown of what the interval symbols mean:

  • R
    • The R stands for root, which is the note upon which the chord is built. In the diagrams on this site, the root note is also highlighted using an orange note marker.
  • ♭2
    • The ♭ symbol indicates a flatted or minor interval. This interval is a minor 2nd.
  • ▵2
    • The ▵ symbol indicates a major interval. This interval is a major 2nd.
  • ♭3
    • Minor 3rd interval
  • p4
    • The p stands for perfect. This is a perfect 4th interval.
  • ♭5
    • Flat 5th interval
  • p5
    • Perfect 5th interval
  • ♭6
    • Minor 6th interval
  • ▵6
    • Major 6th interval
  • ♭7
    • Minor 7th interval
  • ▵7
    • Major 7th interval

Chord Diagram Notations

The diagram below shows all three types of chord notation diagrams:

Fingering, intervals, and note notations for chord diagrams on the guitar

Wrap up

The ability to read guitar chord diagrams is an essential skill guitar players need to possess. The information contained in the diagrams can go much further than simply showing a chord shape. It’s also a tool to learn relationships between notes and the impact the notes have on harmony, particularly those using interval notation.

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