How To Read Guitar Chord Diagrams (EASY Beginner Lesson)

by Johnny Lee, Author, Teacher, and Former Guitarist at P.B.'s Cocktail Bar

If you want to play your favorite songs on guitar then learning to read guitar chord diagrams is absolutely critical.

Especially for beginners interested in pop, rock, blues, and other styles of guitar. Chord diagrams are the key to correctly fingering the chords used in any song whether you are working with TAB, music notation software, or even a song book.

More importantly, it’s not enough to know that a song uses C, A minor, E7, and D… you must also know which version (which EXACT fingering) is being used in any particular song. Otherwise the song may sound pretty awful.

Fortunately, it’s an easy skill to pick up once you know the tips below. And after that I’ll also show you my secret way to master playing these chords faster. So by the end of today’s lesson, you’ll be reading and playing chords like a pro!

What do chord diagrams look like?

When you look at a piece of music, guitar chords are typically displayed to you in 2 ways:

1. Numeric chord notation
This is especially common among text-based TABs on the internet
Example: C major = x32010, G major = 320003

2. Chord diagrams
This is more common in professionally published song books or music notation software

Let’s go through each one…

Numeric Chord Notation

Let’s take the D major chord.

The D major (or simply D) chord will be notated like this:


What each number means is what FRET you need to press. There are six strings on the guitar which pair up with the six numbers in the chord notation. We usually speak of guitar strings from LOW to HIGH like so:

HIGH (closest to the ground)

High E string – 2

B string – 3

G string – 2

D string – 0

A string – X

Low E string – X

LOW (closest to your head)

Look again at the chord notation: xx0232

  • The first thing you see on the left is an “x”. That means you “mute” or don’t play the Low E-string. The second number is also “x” so we don’t play the A string as well.
  • Then you see a “0” on the D-string, which means play the D-string but leave that string un-fretted to ring open.
  • Next you see a “2” for the G-string, which means press down on the SECOND FRET for that string.
  • Next you see a “3” for the B-string, which means press down on the THIRD FRET for that string.
  • Lastly, you see a “2” for the High E-string, which means press down on the SECOND FRET for that string.

Do you notice something missing?

The major disadvantage to this type of notation is that it does not tell you which FINGER (index, middle, ring or pinky) is used to press down on each string, only the fret to press down on. This makes it a bit trickier for beginners who have to then guess.

Fortunately, there’s a solution…

Full Chord diagram

The diagrams that include the fret being played as well as the FINGER being used are the full chord diagrams.

Here is an example for the same D major chord above:

Do you see how this works? This diagram is essentially a mini-FRETBOARD. It’s as if you took the entire head of the guitar and rotated it so that it pointed vertically up like so:

At the top, the thick black bar represents the guitar’s nut (the white bar at the end of the fretboard neck, right before the head end):

The boxes below the nut represent the different frets. The first row of boxes represent the first fret, second row represents the second fret, and so on.

Guitar fret

The vertical lines that run down the diagram represent the six strings on the guitar. The leftmost line represents the Low E-string (the thickest string closest to your head) and the line all the way to the right represents the High E-string (the thinnest string, closest to the ground).

Guitar strings

Now here’s the best part…

Finger Numbers

Take a look right at the bottom of the diagram. See the three numbers “1 3 2”?

Those numbers tell you which FINGER to use. Here is what each number represents:

Do you see how this whole thing works? As long as you can picture the guitar neck rotated 90 degrees, pointed vertically to the ceiling, then reading these chord diagrams will be a piece of cake.

The Secret of “Pit-Stop Practice”

As important as it is to know your chords… this is only the first step to becoming a great guitar player.

Even more important is understanding how to PRACTICE in a way that get’s fast results. Because let’s face it, most people struggle the most with the PHYSICAL parts of playing the guitar. Anyone can learn the theory with some explanation, but I’ve seen almost nobody who can correctly explain the physical aspect to playing the guitar.

That’s why so many people hit a wall and begin to struggle. They assume it’s a “talent” issue when the REAL reason is that they’re practicing the wrong way without realizing. And it leads to years of frustrating results and dangerous bad habits.

So how about I help you fix that?

If you’re interested in easier ways to learn guitar, I have 5 simple guitar tips that will change your life. Plus I’ve discovered a master secret for guitar called “Pit-Stop Practice” that allows you to learn your favorite tunes in HALF the time…

NOTE: It’s not for advanced players, but it’s perfect for a beginner-intermediate player who just wants to play beautiful music on guitar without a lot of time, hassle and effort.

Click here to learn this amazing technique
I’ve taught to 15,000+ beginner guitarists