How To Read Chord Diagrams

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Your first step in learning how to play chords is learning how to read chord diagrams. Chord diagrams are a neat way to show us a graphical representation of the guitar’s fretboard.

Visualizing The Fretboard

Below is a blank chord diagram. Think of it as a picture of your guitar sitting in front of you.

The 6 vertical lines represent the 6 strings on a guitar (low E on left side, high E on right). The horizontal lines represent frets except for the top line which is the nut of the guitar.

Putting Notes On The Diagram

Black dots on the diagram tell you what fret and string to place your fingers. Numbers inside the dots tell you which finger to use.

 White dots mean to play the string open.


Here’s how the fingerings are mapped out on your hand:

=second finger

Try it!

To play the chord on this chart, place your 2nd finger on the 2nd fret of the 5th string and strum all six strings.

You just played an E minor 7th chord!


If you see an “X” on a chord chart that simply means that you do not strum that string, otherwise all strings are played. In the example, A chord below you’ll see an “X” over the 6th string. This means that the string is not used in the chord, so you will not strum it when
playing the chord.

To play this chord, you place your 2nd finger on the D string (4th) at the second fret, your 3rd finger on the B string (2nd string) at the second fret, and your 1st finger on the G (3rd) string second fret. The A string (5th) and High E string (1st) will be played open (“open” means that the string is not fretted, but strummed in the chord pattern).

Chord Diagram Variations

All chord diagrams are not created equal. Sometimes you’ll see a diagram with no white dots to indicate open strings, but you’ll still have an ‘X’ to indicate strings that are not strummed.

Take a look at these examples (the same two chords we learned above):



If an X doesn’t appear above the string and the string is not stopped (fretted) then you’ll assume that the remaining strings are played open.

Other chord diagrams may not indicate the fingerings used. In this case, you’ll have to figure the fingerings out on your own. Here at Guitar Alliance I provide fingerings for all the chord diagrams.

Your Assignment

  • Learn how to play the Em7 chord and then the A chord using the chord diagrams.
  • Memorize these two chord forms
  • Practice playing the chords with a single strum
  • Listen for buzzing or dull notes and adjust accordingly
  • Compare your chord with the audio examples above- do they sound the same?
  • Watch the video for further re-enforcement of the material

Next Lesson: “The Five Basic Chord Shapes”