How To Read Guitar Chords

Learning how to read guitar chords is one of the first things you need to know when learning how to play guitar. This free guitar lesson will show you how to read guitar chords and explains the finger numbering system that specifies the guitar finger numbers for playing notes in chords and scales. You will also learn about fret and string numbering.

Guitar Finger Numbers

Guitar notation and chord diagrams rely on a system which assigns guitar finger numbers to each finger of a guitarist’s left hand. Whenever you see these finger numbers (usually within a circle) as part of a scale or chord diagram it means that you should use that specific finger to play that note on the guitar fretboard. Of course for left-handed guitarists this guitar numbering system applies to their right-hand fingers.

Guitar-Note-Fingering-Chart

Guitar String Numbers

Guitar strings are numbered from 1 to 6, going from the thinnest string (the high E) to the thickest. When you see an O above the string it indicates that the string is to be played open. An X above the string means that it should not be played (i.e. do not pluck it or mute the string so that it so that it can not be heard).

Guitar Fret Numbers

As you can see in the diagram above, frets are numbered by starting on the first fret after the nut.

How to Read Guitar Chords

Now that we know guitar fingering, fret and string numbers we can use this information to decipher the guitar chord diagrams below.

How to Play an A Chord

A guitar chord diagramIn the open A example, we can see that we see that:

  • Our first finger holds down the fourth string (D) at the second fret
  • The second finger holds down the third string (G) at the second fret
  • The third finger holds down the second string (B) at the second fret
  • We do not play the low E string (X)
  • We play the high E and low A strings open (O)

Playing a D Major 7th (D Maj7 or DM7) Chord

DM7 chord

In the D Maj 7 example, we can see how:

  • Our first finger holds down the first (high E), second (B) and third string (G) at the second fret
  • We do not play the low E string (X)
  • We play the A and D strings open (O)NOTE: This type of chord is sometimes referred to as a partial barre chord as one finger covers multiple strings

The C Dominant 7th (C7) Chord

C7 guitar chord diagramIn this example, you can read the chord chart as:

  • Our first finger holds down the second string (B) at the second fret
  • The second finger holds down the fourth string (D) at the second fret
  • The third finger holds down the fifth string (A) at the third fret
  • Our fourth finger (the pinky) holds down the third string (G) at the third fret
  • We do not play the low E string (X)
  • We play the high E open (O)