Whether you just want to learn to play the guitar to play at home, around the campfire, or at a local eatery, there is a lot to learn to be performance ready. Learning how to read guitar chords and implement them is an essential part of any guitarist's journey.
Chords are arguably even more critical than scales. While scales are the atoms that make up all chords, those chords are what make a song. Chords give the music depth.
What Are Chords?
Before learning how to read guitar chords, we need to ask this question.
Most chords occur when you play three or more notes simultaneously. The one exception to this rule is power chords, which contain only two specific notes.
It's essential to understand the difference between notes and strings. For example, you play a power chord using three strings, with two of those strings being the same note, but in different pitches. Having both high and low versions of a note gives the chord depth.
When you only play two strings, it's called a double stop and does not count as a chord.
Guitar chords differ from chords of other instruments in one critical aspect: The way the strings are tuned gives the chords a unique shape.
The names of the chords and the notes they contain are all the same as other instruments, but the arrangement of those notes are not. This arrangement, among other things, gives the guitar its distinct sound.
Basic chord theory
Although you don't need to know a lot of chord theory to start using them, it's useful to have a general idea of how they work.
The most common types of chords are major and minor chords. You've probably heard that major chords have a bright and happy sound, while minor chords sound darker or sad.
What a lot of people don't know is that these chords only use three notes, and both are very similar to each other. The chord A major, for example, contains the notes A, C#, and E. The notes for A minor are A, C, and E.
Major and minor chords are both made of the first, third, and fifth notes of a scale, with the third note deciding whether it's major or minor.
See how the only difference is the notes C# and C? These notes are only one fret apart on the fretboard. That's why the chord shapes for A major and A minor are nearly the same.
More chord types
Other common chord types include seventh chords and suspended chords.
Seventh chords are just a major or minor chord with the seventh note in the scale added in for a little extra tension. Suspended chords swap out the third note in the scale for the second or fourth.
The notes A, B, and E played simultaneously are considered a suspended chord. This chord type adds suspense to a song because your ear is used to hearing major or minor chords.
For this reason, suspended chords often resolve to their major or minor counterparts, giving the listener a sense of completion.
There's a lot more to chords and music theory in general than we've discussed. But hopefully, this helps you understand that most chords with the same letter name only differ from each other by one note. How that note interacts with the rest of the chord is what gives it a unique sound.
How to Read Guitar Chords
We now have the knowledge required for learning how to read guitar chords.
Unfortunately, there's no all-encompassing way to write chords. The people writing them usually have their own style. However, there are several elements you can look for.
Most chord charts will have the name of the chord, lines representing the strings and frets, numbers for what fingers to use on which strings, and symbols for the strings you don't play.
How to read guitar chords: Chord names
You already know about major and minor chords. When writing them out, it's more efficient to use abbreviations than to write out A minor, for example.
Musicians always write major chords with only the letter-name of the chord. That is, the first note in the scale that the chord is built from. So D major is just D.
We abbreviate C minor to Cm, with the lower case "m" showing that it's minor.
Seventh chords can be a little more complicated. For example, you will see A7 and Am7, which are major and minor chords, respectively.
But, because major and minor sevenths are different, sometimes a chord will be minor and still have a major seventh. In that case, musicians write it as Am(maj7) or AmM7. The chord is minor, but the seventh is major.
Suspended chords have no major or minor quality because the third note in the scale has been replaced by the second or fourth. Therefore, we write these chords as Dsus2 or Dsus4.
There are other chord names out there that we won't go over today. You now know how to figure those out when the time comes.
How to read guitar chords: Frets, strings, and fingers
Usually, people write chord charts, so the vertical lines represent the strings, and the horizontal lines are the frets. When you hold your guitar vertically with the strings facing you, it is oriented the same way as the chord chart.
So from left to right, the strings will be E, A, D, G, B, and E.
Sometimes there will be numbers along the left or right side of the chart to show which frets to play the chord on. If not, the top fret is fret one, the next is fret two, and so on.
Other charts might only number the top fret. If the top fret is fret five, you can assume the following ones are six, seven, and eight.
Within the chart itself will be dots to show you where to place your fingers.
There should also be numbers telling you which fingers to use on which frets. Your index, middle, ring, and pinkie fingers are numbered one through four.
The numbers are located on the dots themselves or listed along the bottom of the chart under the string where you place your finger.
You should always follow these numbers because it will make it easier to transition from one chord to the next.
How to read guitar chords: Barre chords, open notes, and muted strings
Open notes occur when you do not fret a string, but you still play it. For example, if you play the A string without placing any finger on the fretboard, it will play an open A note. Chords with open notes are open chords.
Chords that include open notes have Os along the top of the chart, above the string that you play open. It's as simple as that.
Likewise, if a chord does not include a string, it will have an X above it. Sometimes you will have to lightly touch the string with a fretting finger to keep it from playing.
Finally, when learning how to read guitar chords, you may come across a chord chart with a curved line at the top. These are barre chords.
You play barre chords by using your index finger to press down all the strings on the top fret of the chord chart. These are harder than open chords because they take more finger strength. Don't get discouraged when playing these; it just takes practice!
Congratulations, you now know how to read guitar chords!
Chords are a vital part of basically every song, even if it's not immediately evident. Lead guitarists, though they mostly play single notes and double stops, still center their melodies around notes in a chord. They use the other notes in the scale mainly to create tension that resolves to a chord note.
Learning new songs
Most guitarists do not know how to read music. Instead, they've created their own methods of passing on songs from one person to the next.
When learning rhythm, you'll often see a method of writing songs where the chord names appear above the lyrics. The location of the chords indicates where you transition from one chord to the next. It's up to you to decide what kind of rhythm you want to play.
If the song does not include chord charts, you can quickly look them up on Google Images.
You play rhythm guitar by combining chords with strumming patterns. When learning guitar, you'll usually be playing songs in a 4/4 time signature.
That means that there are four beats per measure, and you should count them out by saying one, two, three, four, one, two... etc. Using a metronome, ensure that each beat is lasting the same amount of time, and choose a slower speed until you get the hang of it.
Now pick an easy open chord like Em and strum down on all the strings once for every beat. When you're ready for something a bit more challenging, throw in an up-strum in between every down-strum.
Make sure the down strums are still on the beat, and all strums are equal length.
Next, try omitting some of the down-strums all together. Try a pattern like down, down, up, up, down. By not strumming on the third beat, it will give it a nice off-beat feel.
An arpeggio is a chord where you play out each note separately. Think of them as building blocks for lead guitar.
Use the Em chord again, but instead of strumming, try playing a different string with each beat. Just as you added in upbeats with your rhythm, start adding them in as single notes once you get more comfortable.
The note you play doesn't matter as long as the arpeggio sounds good. However, if you always play the low E string on the first beat, it will keep your melody more grounded. That's because it's an Em chord, and you want your melody to center around the root note, which is E.
Songs can get pretty dull if they only utilize one chord. On the other hand, using too many chords could make your song sound like it has no direction.
We call the chords used in any given song a chord progression. The most typical progression by far is called the I-IV-V progression, or i-iv-v if the chords are minor. Why is it named this way? Because it uses chords built around the first, fourth, and fifth notes of a scale.
Let's use the A minor scale as an example, which uses the notes A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. The first, fourth, and fifth notes are A, D, and E. In a minor scale, all of these notes are minor chords. So your progression would be Am, Dm, Em.
Give it a try! Start by strumming or arpeggiating each chord for one measure (four beats), and then mix it up to see what you can get. Try using Asus2 or Asus4 right before Am. Replace Em with E and hear the difference.
You can also add in B, C, and F, though you might just want to pick one or two. For example, the i, iv, ii, V progression is very popular.
Taking It Further
Now that you understand how to read guitar chords and some basic ways to implement them, it's time to experiment! Play around with progressions from different scales and mix up your strumming patterns.
Always remember, practice makes perfect!
Tell us about your experience with learning how to read guitar chords in the comments below. We'd love to hear about it!
Featured Image Source: Pixabay