So, this whole guitar thing still feels a bit awkward. You pick up your six string and wonder: What in heaven’s name do people do to produce these melodious and smooth sounds? It seems as if the chord diagrams are trying to tell you something, but what? Well, stop looking and read on my friend, because this article explains it all.

What is a guitar chord diagram?

You can think of a guitar chord diagram as a map, which gives you the following information: the position of a chord on the guitar neck; the strings you need to play a certain chord; and the fingers you have to use to make a chord sound the way it should. Are you ready for this? Here we go.

Strings & frets

The vertical lines in a chord diagram represent the strings of your guitar. The horizontal lines refer to the frets. We’ll tell you more about frets in a sec, but first it’s important to know how the lines and strings correspond to each other.

These diagrams are made for right-handed guitarists, so it’s assumed you are strumming with your right hand and pressing down on strings with your left hand. The strings, from left to right, are as follows: E, A, D, G, B, e. The capital E stands for the lower E string; the lower case e is the high e string.   

Mapping the fretboard 

As we mentioned already, the chord diagram is like a map that helps you locate a chord on the fretboard. So what does this mean? As an example, let’s take a look at the Am chord diagram. Notice the number 1 in the upper left-hand corner of the picture. 

This number is the “You are here” of the map; it’s how you find your bearings. In the Em case it’s a 1, so you start positioning your fingers from the first fret onward. If we look at another chord, a Gm7 for instance, you’ll see a number 3; indicating the first fret shown in the chord diagram is the third fret.

Strumming the right strings 

Now we know how to discover the location of a chord. In the next step we’ll check out which strings you’ll have to strum and which you’ll have to mute. This may sound a bit technical, but the chord diagram actually shows you what to do with two simple symbols: an open circle and a cross.

You can find these circles and crosses at the top of the diagram. A transparent circle means you have to play that string open. A cross stands for a muted string. Moreover, there are black circles that are drawn over the strings in the diagram. Those stand for the position of your fingers on the fretboard. Let’s take a closer look at the Em chord.

Placing your fingers

So, do you know where the Em chord is located? Yup, at the top of the fretboard. And why is that? Because the number in the upper left-hand corner says 1. For this chord you don’t have to mute any strings, which you can tell from all the transparent circles at top. But you do have to place two fingers next to each other on the A string and the D string, second fret. 

The numbers in the black circles on the fretboard stand for the fingers you should use to play this chord: 1 is your index finger, 2 is your middle finger, 3 refers to your ring finger and 4 is your pinky. Check out the picture below.

Time for practice 

This is how you have to read a chord diagram. Don’t worry if you still don’t get it by the way. It’s a skill you will develop soon enough. All it takes is a bit of practice. Want to try out some chords? Let’s go! Take the D chord for example. 

What strings do you have to play open, according to the diagram? Yeah, take your time. Don’t rush it. And right you are indeed… it’s only the D string. You mute, or just don’t strum, the E and A. 

So, which fingers are required for this chord? Again, take your time and don’t rush it. Before you answer, check the hand again. That’s right! For the D chord you use your index finger, your middle finger and your ring finger. And on which strings do you place them? Trick question? No, it’s kind of obvious isn’t it. Try it out and happy jamming!

Interested in simple chord tutorials? Check out our chord explanation videos on YouTube. Don’t forget to subscribe to stay in tune with everything we post.

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Teo creates content, which means he writes, a lot, about music, and all things interesting. When it comes to jamming, his weapon of choice is the bass guitar.