How to Read Guitar Chord Diagrams
Updated: May 9
If you're still quite early on in your guitar journey then maybe you've come across chord diagrams and aren't too sure how to read them. In this post we'll explore this topic so that you can start learning to play new chords by yourself. There's even a video at the bottom with a full explanation; I recommend reading this post and watching the video so that you can get the information from two different angles and are more likely to remember.
NOTE: Before you begin, all the below information applies to right handed guitar players (that means that your right hand is your plucking hand and your left hand is your fretting hand) so if you're a lefty, just flip everything around.
What is a Chord Diagram?
A chord diagram or 'chord box' (as they're also called) are two different names for the same thing. On the left is the blank chord box and on the right is the guitar, both are showing the first four frets. As we can see, the diagram on the left is a quick, easy way of showing us the guitar on a sheet of paper without having to draw an actual guitar. It's also pretty chunky which makes it easy to read.
Can you see where I've labelled the nut? That thick black line is super important because it tells us which way up to read the chord diagram. Now, obviously we don't play our guitar in an upright position so we have to flip it in our minds as we look at the page and hold our guitar in the normal position.
Can you see where I've labelled the strings also? The thickest string 'E' is all the way on the left and the thinnest string 'high e' is all the way on the right (if you're wondering why it's a lower case 'e' - it's so that we can distinguish between the two E strings).
In the picture above, I've done the chord diagram on a nice fancy chalkboard background but most of the time you'll find them on a white background like the one below and the nut and strings won't be labelled so it's important to memorize where they are.
How Do I Memorize the Guitar Strings?
E, A, D, G, B, e - from thickest to thinnest (left to right).
OR you can memorize the below saying:
Eddie, Ate, Dynamite, Good, Bye, eddie
The Fretting Hand Fingers
Before you can try your first chord, you'll need to memorize the fretting hand finger numbers too. Most importantly, don't include the thumb as a number; we simply call it 'thumb' and it's labelled with a 'T' - easy eh? The rest from left to right are 1, 2, 3, and 4 as shown in the illustration below:
Thumb, 1, 2, 3, 4. In that order, always. If you're just learning this information and you're still quite new to guitar, you're not likely to come across any chords that use the thumb just yet.
If you've played the piano before it's very easy to get mixed up with the piano fingerings. On piano; from the thumb they're labelled 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. Be careful with this! If you haven't played piano, feel free to ignore this paragraph.
One Finger Chord
Now we have some basic information, let's try our first chord. We're going to try a simplified version of a G major chord (also known as just a 'G' chord) which uses only one fretting hand finger. Have a look at the chord diagram below:
Most obviously, the big letter at the top is the name of this chord. We can call it 'G' or 'G Major', they're both the same thing when talking about chords.
Next, at the top above the nut (remember the nut is the thick black line) we can see an 'X' above three of the strings and an 'O' above two of the strings. When we see an 'X' above a string, it means we do not play that string. When we see an 'O' above a string, it means we do play that string. In this case we play the G, B and high e strings (feel free to hop back up to the top of the page if you haven't yet memorized the strings). When playing strings this way without pressing down any frets, we call them 'open strings'.
There's also a big black dot (with the number '3' inside) sitting on the line that represents the thinnest (high 'e') string that is also going to be played. This black dot indicates the string that needs to be pressed down which in this case is the high e string at fret three. The number inside the dot indicates the fretting hand finger to be used which is finger number 3. Be careful not to mix the fret and finger numbers, it's just a coincidence that they're the same here.
So in conclusion, we press finger 3 of the fretting hand down on fret three of the high e string and then strum with the plucking hand only the 3 thinnest strings.
Two Finger Chord
As we learned before the big letter/s at the top is the name of the chord. This one is called 'E minor'.
We can see an 'O' above four of the strings that tells us to play the E, G, B and high e strings as open strings.
There are now two black dots that indicate the two strings that must be pressed down which in this case is fret two of the A and D strings. The numbers inside the black dots indicate the fretting hand fingers to be used which here are fingers 1 and 2.
In conclusion we're going to press down fret two of the A string with the 1st finger and fret two of the D string with the 2nd finger then strum all of the strings together.
Here's a video of me in a peaky blinders hat to explain this further:
About The Author
Aaron Carrington is the owner of Carrington Guitar Academy in Bath, UK. Since graduating from The Institute of Contemporary Music Performance in London Aaron has played in high profile locations such as Buckingham Palace, The Savoy and The London Eye.
He’s been a regular part of the UK wedding and corporate gig scene and has travelled internationally to the Middle East to play in top quality residency bands 6 nights per week. The finesse gained from this level of playing experience is passed on to his guitar students.
Now permanently in Bath, Aaron strives to deliver the highest standards of guitar teaching at Carrington Guitar Academy by offering a personalized lesson plan tailored to each student’s goals. You may also catch Aaron busking regularly on the streets of Bath. If you're interested in guitar lessons get in touch to book a FREE trial lesson!