Reading A Guitar Chord Chart

In this guitar lesson we are going to go over how to read a chord chart on the guitar. We are talking about the type of chord chart that you would find in a “Real Book” or when you show up to play a cover gig. If you have never seen a chart like this there is really not all that much to them. They are like a stripped down road map for a song. You could usually expect to see some chords above the staff, sometimes a melody, a suggestion for the musical style, maybe some rhythm indicators and some symbols to follow for the form of the song.

The best way to understand chord charts is to just jump right in a take a look at one. Let’s start with a simple example. Take a look at the chord chart that goes with this lesson. For each measure you will see four diagonal slashes. These are rhythm indicators. Usually, when you see consistent slashes like these you can come up with your own rhythm to fit the style of the song or you can play straight quarter notes. The keys to deciding what rhythms to play with the chord progression are listening to what the other players in the band are playing and fitting your playing to the style of the song.

The chord chart that goes with this lesson is a simple progression in the key of G major. The progression is B minor 7, A dominant 7, A minor 7, D dominant 7, G major 7. Each chord gets one full measure except for the A minor 7 and D dominant 7 chords. Look at the third measure of the chord chart. The A minor 7 chord is above the 1st slash and the D dominant 7 chord is above the 3rd slash. On a chord chart like this, when you see a chord placed above a specific rhythm, you should play that chord when that rhythm occurs. In this case you would play the A minor 7 on beats one and two of the third measure and the D dominant 7 chord on beats three and four of the third measure.

You will see charts like this a lot in jazz music, but there are times when you might show up to a pop or cover gig and see a chart like this too. Being familiar with following charts like this can get you out of some tight spots and make you look like a pro.

I suggest that you go out and buy a “Real Book”. This is just a huge collection of jazz standards that are all written out in a way similar to the example that you saw in this lesson. Start with some of the easy songs first to get more familiar with how these charts work. Find some songs that you like and listen to recordings of those songs to see if you are matching the style properly.