How to Read Guitar Chords

In this lesson, we are going to discuss a little about how to read guitar chords, and wrap up our discussion with how to make guitar power chords.  As we learned in our very first online guitar lessons, all guitar chords in a major key follow the same sequence: Major-minor-minor-Major-Major-minor-diminished.

That is, in the key of C, the chords will be: C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, Bdim.  These are the beginner guitar chords, but an experienced guitarist who knows how to play chords on a guitar will know that other chords, like G7, Fmaj7, or Dm7b5 will also often find their way into a song in this key.

All guitar chords can be shown in several ways.  First, they can be shown as notes on a musical staff:

This, as we have already seen, is a C major chord.  Musical notation of this kind is the most common and ultimately the most useful, but it can be very difficult for beginners to learn how to read guitar chords with this method.

That is because learning to read beginner guitar chords with this system basically requires you to learn a new language.  Once you get comfortable with reading notes on a staff, though, it will come in very handy for playing all guitar chords, scales, arpeggios, melodies, and more.

Another method we have already looked at is tablature.  In today’s musical world, it is vitally important to know how to play chords on a guitar using tablature.  No method will ever replace traditional musical notation for flexibility and versatility, but tablature is a good way to become acquainted with beginner guitar chords.  Here is how the above chord is rendered using tablature:

You can see how tablature, unlike traditional notation, is useful for telling you how to play guitar chords by indicating exactly where to place your fingers on the fretboard of the guitar.  Even so, it takes some time to get used to knowing how to read guitar chords by identifying the numbers on the tablature, which is why it’s worthwhile also to get used to reading chord charts.  Again, here is a C chord as shown in a chord chart.

This method is nice because it gives you a graphical representation of how to play chords on a guitar and displays the neck of the guitar, showing exactly where your fingers need to go.  Some chord charts use numbers to indicate which finger goes where, which is useful when learning beginner guitar chords.  But others, like the chord chart above, just give dots where fingers go and leave it up to the guitarist to determine which finger to use on which string.

However, once a guitar player knows how to play chords on a guitar, all that is really necessary is to tell, rather than show him or her what chord to play.  That is done by placing chord names above a staff or a tablature, like so:

One very interesting system of notation is called the Nashville method.  This system doesn’t specify the chords used, or even the key the song is in, but rather it assumes you already know how to read guitar chords by reading the degrees of a scale (I-ii-iii-IV-V-vi-vii) and can apply them to any key. In the key of C, as we have seen, the chords are C-Dm-Em-F-G-Am-Bdim.

Nashville notation doesn’t use Roman numerals, but Arabic numerals: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7.
So, using the Nashville method, a chord progression like 1-6-4-5-1, played in the key of C would be: C | Am | F | G | C. This system of numbers can be applied to any key, so the same progression in the key of G, for example, would be: G | Em | C | D | G. See how easy that is?

Each number represents an entire measure of music.  But when there are two chords in a single measure, parentheses are used: 1-6-4-(5-4)-1

A “7th” chord is written like this: “5 7th” or “1 7th” and “major 7th” chords look like this: “4maj7.”

Once you know how to read guitar chords with the Nashville method, you’re ready to hit the bar circuit.  Nashville notation was devised by, and for, Country & Western and Blues bands, who use very straightforward chord progressions, so all guitar chords in this system are likely not to be very complex.

Trying to write out a jazz composition using Nashville notation would be a difficult task indeed.  The Nashville system is not for more “formal” music.  It is intended as a quick, albeit crude, way to write out music in a hurry.  If you’re reading Nashville notation, it’s most likely scrawled on a napkin in a smoke-filled bar.

Now, see whether you can play this chord sequence in the key of C.  Then try it in other keys, like D or G, or A.  Remember: each number gets 4 beats each, unless they’re in parentheses, then they get two beats each:

2-4-1-5-2-4-1-(5-5 7th)

Power Chords

As we have already learned, all guitar chords must have three notes, the “triad,” to qualify as a chord.  Guitar power chords, therefore, aren’t technically “chords” in the strictest sense.  Rather, music theorists call them an “interval” or a “dyad.”  That is because guitar power chords consist of only two notes: the root and the fifth, which is why they are sometimes called a “5” chord.  In other words, the chord shown here might be called a C5 chord:

You will see that in this case, the “chord” consists only of the C note and the G note.  If it were a real chord, it would also have an E note, right?

Guitar power chords therefore, have no “third” tone, so they are extremely flexible because they aren’t quite “major” and they aren’t quite “minor.”
Power chords are used most often in Rock & Roll and heavy metal.  Here is a brief example from “Battery,” by Metallica:

You can see here that these guitar power chords are made by playing the root, the fifth and the octave, which we already know is the root note again.  When this song is written out in traditional notation, it is shown as being in the key of Em, but by listening to it, it is difficult to determine whether it is in a major or minor key, because none of the chords include a “third.”

Sometimes, the “fifth” is played on the string below the “root” as with “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple:

You can see here that the notes on the G string (G-A#-C) are the roots, while the notes on the D string (D-F-G) are the fifths.

These are just two examples of the hundreds of songs that use power chords.  No doubt you will encounter many more during your guitar career.  But keep in mind that playing power chords is fun, but they should never be used as an excuse not to learn to read and play beginner guitar chords.