How To Read Guitar Chords: An Essential Guide

Want to know how to read guitar chords? You’re in the right place. We’re going to show you EVERY possible way to read guitar chords.

how to read guitar chords

In this free lesson you will learn:

  • 3 must-know lessons on how to read guitar chords.
  • 2 quick and easy tips which will help you read chord boxes.
  • The secret to boosting your chord knowledge.

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Before we explain how to read guitar chords, you must know that guitar chords can be presented in a variety of different ways.

In this lesson we’re going to show you 3 of the most popular ways to read guitar chords. These are:

  • Chord boxes.
  • Guitar Tabs.
  • Music notation.

Let’s take a look at the different ways you can learn how to read guitar chords.

How Do I Read Chord Boxes?

This is THE most common way to read guitar chords. If you want to learn to play guitar, you must learn how to read chord boxes.

What’s a chord box?

A chord box is a visual representation of the fret board. A chord box tells you where to place your fingers on the fret board.

For this example, we’re going to use an Em chord.

To learn an Em chord, go here: How To Play An Em Chord

Chord Box Example

Em Chordbox

This box is a visual representation of what an Em chord looks like on the fret board.

The black circles represent where you place your fingers.

Here’s what it would look like on an actual guitar:

Understanding a guitar chord box

Can you see how the Em chord aligns with the frets and strings on the fret board? That’s all a chord box is!

If this takes a while to understand don’t worry. Everyone learns at a different speeds. Take your time 🙂

How To Read Guitar Chords

What does an Em chord look like in real life?

Here’s what an Em chord looks like on a real guitar:

How to read a guitar chordbox

To play this chord:

  • Find the 2nd fret of the A string. Put your 1st finger here.
  • Find the 2nd fret of the D string. Put your 2nd finger here.
  • Strum all the strings.

The following strings in this chord are left ‘open’.

  • Low E string. (6th string.)
  • G string. (3rd string.)
  • B string. (2nd string.)
  • High E string. (1st string.)

As these strings are open, they should not be fretted. Make sure they ring out nice and clearly.

That’s all there is to it!

Spend some time comparing a real Em chord to the chord box version, this will help you understand how chord boxes work.

It’s important that you understand how to read guitar chord boxes.

Here are a couple of frequently asked questions which crop up ALL the time.

Sometimes I see numbers inside the circles instead of black dots. What does this mean?

The numbers relate to your fingers, like this:

Guitar Finger Numbers

You may have seen an Em chord written like this:

Em Guitar Chord

The 1 and the 2 refer to what fingers you use.

Sometimes it’s FAR better to use specific fingers, this makes playing chords easier.

Here’s what an Em chord looks like:

How to read a guitar chordbox

Notice how the 1st and 2nd finger are being used.

What about string numbers?

Often on chord boxes you will see numbers on the bottom of the chord box. This refers to the numbers of the strings.

Like this:

Understanding Guitar String Numbers

  • The numbers of your fingers will ALWAYS be in the chord box.
  • The numbers of the strings will ALWAYS be on the outside of the chord box.

What does the ‘X’ and ‘O’ mean on a chord box?

The ‘X’ refers to the strings that you don’t play. The ‘O’ refers to the strings that you do play.

Let’s take a look at this D chord:

D chord on guitar

For this example:

  • Don’t play the low E string. (6th string.)
  • Don’t play the A string. (5th string.)
  • Play the D string (4th string) and the rest of the chord!

What about numbers on the side of a chord box?

This refers to the frets on a guitar.

Chord boxes aren’t always used specifically on the first 3 frets of a guitar. Often, you will see numbers on the side of a chord box.

Here’s a classic example:

In this example, start the chord on the 7th fret.

I’ve seen chords written as numbers, what does this mean?

Often many guitarists get lazy and don’t use chord boxes to write out chords.

Sometimes guitarists write out chords numerically. You may see this written on website such as Ultimate Guitar or Facebook.

If an Em chord is written out numerically, here’s what it would look like: 022000

Here, each number refers to the fret that you play. The format of this means you can’t specify what fingers to use.

The order of each numbers corresponds to each guitar string. It is laid out like this: EADGBE

Here’s an example:

For this example, let’s break down how a Em chord would be written out.

6th string (E) = 0 (No fingers here, this string is left open.)

5th string (A) = 2 (You must fret the 2nd fret of the A string here.)

4th string (D) = (You must fret the 2nd fret of the D string here.)

3rd string (G) = (No fingers here, this string is left open.)

2nd string (B) = (No fingers here, this string is left open.)

1st string (E) = 0 (No fingers here, this string is left open.)

guitar chords

What if the numbers are in a line?

Often, you will the same chord written vertically. Here’s what an Em chord would look like:

0

2

2

0

0

0

This is still an Em chord, however it is written vertically.

This can be confusing as people often get the strings mixed up. (This example starts from the 1st string, the strings are in reverse. Sometimes the internet can make it difficult to understand chords)

It’s important that you can see how ‘022000’ matches your Em chord.

Hopefully this chord box will help you understand. Can you see how each shape links up?

Em Guitar Chord (chordbox example)

What if I see an ‘X’ in this format?

You can apply the exact same rule for X’s in the written format.

Whenever you see an ‘X’, don’t play that string.

Here’s an example:

A D chord could be written like this:

XX0232

Or like this:

X

X

0

2

3

2

Regardless of what direction this written chord box is in, the goal here is to be able to play the chord.

guitar chords for beginners

Notice how ‘XX0232’ matches the chord.

Chord Boxes Can Be Presented In A Variety Of Different Ways

Watch out for rogue chord boxes, often it can be confusing when you see a different image of a chord box. Use your initiative when differentiating between different chord box layouts.

Here are some classic examples of how to read guitar chords:

How To Read Guitar Chords On Tab

Firstly, let’s take a look at an Em chord in tab form.

Em Tab

Unlike chord boxes, the numbers in a tab refer to the frets that you play.

On most amateur guitar tabs, there will be NO indication of what fingers you should use. However, if you source a tab from a professional tab book, it will tell you what fingers to use.

This is usually found at the bottom of the tab like this:

Em Tab WFingers

For this example:

  • Use your 1st finger on the 2nd fret of the A string.
  • Use your 2nd finger on the 2nd fret of the D string.

If you have a grade book or a formal music tuition book, the tab will show you what fingers to use. On sites such as Ultimate Guitar this is less common.

How Do I Read Guitar Tab?

Tab is presented like this:

  • The vertical lines represent each string.

The vertical lines are a visual representation of each guitar string.

From the bottom line to the top line, the strings go like this:

  • E
  • A
  • D
  • G
  • B
  • E

Like this:

how to read guitar tabs

When you look at a guitar tab, it is an identical representation of where your guitar strings are.

The numbers refer to what frets you play

Any time you see a number on a tab play the appropriate fret on the correct string.

For example, here’s a C chord written out on a chord box:

Here’s what it would look like in tab form:

how to read guitar chords

Can you see how the tab numbers relate to the frets?

What’s the difference between single notes and chords on tabs?

When you play single notes on a tab, each note comes one after the other.

Like this:

how to read guitar chords

To learn some epic beginner guitar tabs, go here: Guitar Tabs For Beginners: 20 Easy Songs That Sound Great

When you play a chord, the notes are stacked on one another. Like this:

 how to read guitar chords

What strings should I play?

Unlike chord boxes, ‘X’ and ‘O’ don’t exist in tab.

On a tab, if the note isn’t there. Don’t play it.

The tab will only ever tell you what you should play, not what you shouldn’t play.

To learn more about how to read guitar tabs, go here:How To Read Guitar Tabs

Why do I need to learn how to read guitar chords?

It’s essential that you learn how to read guitar chords. Here are 3 reasons why you should learn how to read guitar chords.

1) Learning chords enhances your musicality

99% of everything you ever do on the guitar involves chords. Without chords, you won’t be able to learn songs, write music, be creative or enhance your musicality.

Everything on the guitar is based around chords. If you don’t know how to read guitar chords you won’t become the guitarist you want to be.

2) Chord Boxes Are Often Featured In Songs

On sites such as Ultimate Guitar, chord boxes and tabs are often used as a reference to help you learn how to play songs.

If you don’t understand how to read guitar chords, you’ll never be able to play any songs!

To learn how to play easy songs, go here: 10 Easy Songs On Guitar

how to read guitar chords

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3) Helps You Understand Theory

Learning how to read guitar chords can help you understand theory. One of the quickest and fastest ways to understand music theory is to use your guitar as reference.

When you learn how to read guitar chords, this helps you play chords.

Chords form A LOT of music theory, so if you know how to read guitar chords this can help you understand guitar theory.

How To Read Guitar Chords Using Music Notation

90% of beginner guitarists do not need to know how to read musical notation. However this skill can prove useful when you become an intermediate/advanced guitarist.

Here’s what an Em chord looks like on a stave: (This does look a little scary, but don’t worry about learning this right now!)

how to read guitar chords

This format is known as:

  • A Stave.
  • Sheet Music.
  • Music Score.

Each line on the stave represents a musical note.

Chords are created by using groups of notes. So when you see an Em chord on a score, each note of the chord is stacked on top of one another.

If you’re a beginner guitarist you DON’T need to learn how to read music. It’s not essential to learn guitar chords.

However, it can be incredibly useful to learn music score as it allows you to communicate with musicians who play other instruments.

 A trumpet player doesn’t know how to read guitar tab or chord boxes. However they understand music notation.

If you ever played with another musician, you could communicate with them via music score.

Only learn how to read guitar chords on a musical score if you’re interested in learning about notation or if you need to for a specific gig.

Find Out What You Should Learn Next With Our Guitar Map

If you want to understand where you’re up to in your guitar journey you should take a look at our Guitar Map. It will show you what you ‘should’ know by now (and also what you need to learn next to move forward as a guitarist).

Most people find that the Guitar Map shows them how everything fits together and best of all, it will help you identify gaps in your knowledge that are holding you back.

(There is often just one piece of information that holds people back, 1 key insight that they need to know so they can continue moving forward and improving in their guitar journey.)

We made the Guitar Map so people like you can quickly identify what you don’t know, that you need to know next. We hope that makes sense!?

NOTE: The Guitar Map is now included in our free special report: 'The 7 Steps To Guitar Mastery'.

Want free guitar tips and video lessons delivered to your inbox?

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We'll send you a series of lessons that will move you to the next level of your guitar journey.

Learn how everything fits together quickly, easily and effectively. We share ninja tips (for instant fun!) but also timeless fundamentals that will deepen your understanding.

NGAEM

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