No sheet music, no problem! Guitarists have chord diagrams, a visual tool to show you exactly how to play a guitar chord. They’re easy to read and make learning songs a breeze.

In this article, we’ll go over 

  • The different symbols and what they mean
  • How chord diagrams can help you digest music theory
  • What makes them more useful than sheet music

What the lines on chord diagrams mean

Depending on how you see the world, chord diagrams show the six strings of the guitar either vertical or horizontal. 

  • The thickest string produces the lowest note.
  • On a horizontal chart, it’s located at the bottom of the graphic (like TAB).
  • On a vertical chart it’s on the left side.
  • Vertical orientation is more common for chord charts.

The lines running across the six strings represent the fret wires. The space in between them is called a fret

  • You can assume that the chord diagram starts at the first fret – unless you see a small number next to one of the frets.
  • For example, in the graphic below, the ‘6’ on the left side tells you the diagram is referring to the sixth fret. 

What the symbols in chord diagrams mean

Chord diagrams are meant to be visual shortcuts and once you know what the symbols mean, you’ll be able to read them quickly.

A chord diagram will always show which

  • Notes to fret
  • Strings to strum
  • Strings to mute

They will usually show

  • The chord name
  • Which fingers to use for each fretted note*

*Sometimes the numbers on the frets will indicate intervals instead of fingers (more on this in a moment).

Example 1: Open chord diagram

The chord diagram below is a C major chord. 

  • The name of the chord is usually written above or below the diagram. 
  • The ‘x’ above the lowest string means that you don’t play that particular string or that you have to mute it.
  • The ‘o’ above the G string and high E string means that you play those open strings.
  • The ‘1’, ‘2’, and ‘3’ refer to the fingers you use to fret each note – ‘1’ refers to your index finger, ‘2’ your middle finger, etc.

Example 2: Bar chords

One more thing you’ll encounter on chord diagrams is a bar

  • In the example below, the bar is marked with ‘1’, which means you play it with your index finger.
  • A bar will always cover multiple strings – anywhere from two to six strings. 

Below is an example of an F major triad (three-note chord) with the bar on the 10th fret.

Using chord diagrams as a guitar study tool 

There are a few things you can do with chord diagrams that will enhance your practice.

  • You can make yourself cue cards and practice chord shapes when you’re not around your instrument. 
  • Draw the chord diagram on one side and the name of the chord on the other.
  • You can also use your time away from the instrument to draw chord voicings from memory.

The more chord diagrams you get to know, the more moveable patterns you will discover. 

Use the Pickup Music guitar chord tool to see how each note relates to the root note of the chord (AKA intervals).

Below is the same F major triad from the previous diagram, but this time each dot shows the interval. 

  • R’ stands for root note 
  • P5’ for perfect fifth
  • M3’ for major third. 

Memorize intervals with color coding

You might have noticed that some of the notes in our chord diagrams are red and others are black.

  • Black circles mark the root note of the chord.
  • All other intervals are in red circles.

Other chord diagrams might have a circle around the root note and no marker for other intervals.

Some might even have a more complex system, using one color (or geometric shape) for the root, a second one for the third and fifth, and a third one for all other intervals. 

Below is an example of a C7sus2 chord diagram:

Visually emphasizing where the root is, will help you memorize the rest of the notes in relation to the root note. 

  • This is crucial for playing the chord in different keys.
  • It also helps when you want to modify a chord voicing. 
  • For example, in order to add the 9 you need to know where the root is.

Why chord diagrams are better than sheet music

Sheet music has a lot of benefits, but when it comes to the guitar, chord diagrams have a big advantage.

  • Chord diagrams tell you exactly which frets to play for each note.
  • There are plenty of different ways to play a single chord on the guitar – so knowing which position/voicing to use is very handy.

For the same reason, they are also a great tool for songwriters

You might come up with an amazing song but only jot down the chord names. After a week passes  that might not be enough information to remind you exactly how to play it.

Chord diagrams solve that problem, so you’ll never forget how to play your own songs.

Need more help with learning chords?

Try a free 14-day trial to check out our Beginner Guitar Learning Pathway – no prior guitar skills necessary. 

All you need is a guitar! We’ll show you exactly how to get started on your guitar journey with step-by-step lessons, guided practice exercises, playalong jams, and opportunities for custom video feedback on your playing.