Learning how to properly play chords is a skill that is critical for any guitar player to succeed. That’s because – along with scales – chords provide the foundation for just about every song that has ever been written.

That being said, it makes sense that chords are among the very first things that a beginning guitarist is taught. The big question is this: what is the best way for someone to understand how to play chords correctly? The first thing you need to learn is how to read guitar chord charts.

With little exception, using chord charts is the simplest way to understand what you need to do. They are a great way to take some of the (potentially) confusing music theory out of the picture, and just have you get to the nitty-gritty of things. They are super easy to figure out once you know how they work.

What is a chord?

Before we explain how to play a chord, it’s a good idea to briefly explain what a chord is. And, truthfully, it’s a lot less complicated than you may think.

A chord is simply three or more notes played at the same time. That’s it! Not so hard, right?

A lot of confusion comes in when the discussion turns to exactly what notes need to be played to make up a specific type of chord.

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

That’s more of a ‘music theory’-type discussion, and probably is a topic best saved for a later time where we can dig into it a little deeper.

How to read a chord chart

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 kind of chord in the right way. The one on the left shows how to play an open position D chord, and the one on the right depicts the same D chord but played in a ‘barre’ format.

Guiar D chords open and barr

The two styles have minor differences, but the basic idea of how each chart works is the same:

The vertical lines represent the six strings of your guitar, with the one on the far left being the low (thickest) E

The horizontal lines detail the frets of the guitar itself (those thin pieces of sturdy wire installed on your guitar’s fretboard)

The ‘X’s and O’s’ at the top 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

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

Playing open chords

Using another example again below, this chord chart format shows how to play what is called ‘open’ chords. Open chords are nothing more than chords that have open strings mixed in with the fretted notes.

Guitar chord D Major strings played-not played

More often than not, open chords are played within the first 4 or 5 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.

If you read the chord chart correctly, playing an open D chord will be like this:

The sixth and the fifth strings are not to be played, because they have the ‘X’ over them at the top

The fourth string is played open (no notes are fretted on that string)

The third-string is to be fretted at the 2nd fret, using your index finger

The second string is to be fretted at the 3rd fret, using your ring finger

The first string is to be fretted at the 2nd fret, using your middle finger

Playing barre chords

Pretty much all of the mechanics of how a chord chart works is precisely the same between a chart for an open chord and a chart for a barre chord. There are a few minor differences to keep in mind, though.

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 instead of the guitar nut.

Guitar D barr chord 5th fret

One other thing to notice is the way that the fingering locations and designations are called out. You’ll see a thicker curved line that goes over a group of strings. This is how a chord chart shows you that several strings are fretted with the same finger.

Just as with 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

The fifth string and the first string are fretted at the fifth fret, using your index finger to bridge the five remaining strings (that’s what the long curved line depicts)

The fourth, third, and second strings are fretted as a group with your ring finger (shown by the shorter curved line)


That’s really 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. We do have to say that even though chord charts are the ultimate in simplicity, there is excellent value of understanding the music theory components behind each chord. But – as a beginner – that kind of knowledge can come later.

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

Post a new discussion about how to read guitar charts in the music theory forum.