Ever seen one of these?

Maybe you have. It’s called a guitar chord diagram. Guitar chord diagrams are the standard way to teach and learn guitar chord shapes.

But for some people, these diagrams don’t make a ton of sense. Dots, lines, X’s, and squiggles run together like latte art on the Gram.

If that’s you, I feel ya. I remember when I was first learning…decoding diagrams can be the pits. It’s like learning the cupid shuffle from a how-to guide. 

In this post, I’ll try to demystify these diagrams so you can apply essentially any chord you find. Quickly.




Chord diagrams are just illustrations of a guitar neck.

Slightly crummy illustrations.

Basically, for the sake of efficiency, we draw them in a way that takes up less space – even though the proportions get pretty skewed. This can make them tricky to read, but I want to go through a Chord Diagram Checklist with you that will make reading these things a cinch.

But first, let’s take a look at what each part of the diagram represents…

Make sense? Basically, the diagram represents a guitar in this position:




So now you know what’s what. But even with this info, the diagram can still be a little frustrating to try to read. The Chord Diagram Checklist is a systematized way of looking at these diagrams. It gives you a routine for translating the chord from the page to the neck without too much error or headache.


So let’s get into it.


The Chord Diagram Checklist

Step 1: Mentally spin the diagram.

I know this sounds goofy. But mentally (and in some cases physically!) spinning the diagram can make it far less confusing.

See, chord diagrams are usually oriented like this:


…however, when we’re playing the guitar, we actually see something more like this:


So here’s a chord diagram – rotated to the player’s perspective –  with the head of the guitar penciled in:

And here’s the same diagram with the string numbers:

So when you see this…


…think this…


Step 2: Find the finger.

Next, look at one of the dots, and determine which finger is being used. In my diagrams, I like to put the finger number in the dot, but some diagrams show it above or below the string.

If you’re not familiar with the finger numbers on the left hand, here’s a reminder:

NOTE: with VERY few exceptions, we don’t use the thumb to fret notes, so it doesn’t get a number.



Step 3: Find the string.

Determine which string the dot is on. The strings are numbered (and named) from right to left.



Step 4: Find the fret.

Next, we need to find the fret number. Remember, the black bar in the diagram is the nut. (If you don’t know already, the metal bars are called frets – but so are the spaces. It’s a bit confusing. Basically, when we say “the first fret,” we’re referring to the first space…the space JUST BEHIND the first metal bar.)

So now we have the finger, the string, and the fret.

NOTE: obviously, you’ll do steps 2, 3, & 4 for each fretted note in the chord. If a chord uses three fingers, you’ll need to follow these steps three times. Finger, string, fret.


Step 5: Check for muted and open strings.

Lastly, we need to check for other details notated in the diagram.

“X’s” indicate muted strings. When a string has an X over it, you need to do one of two things: (1) pass over that string when you strum, or (2) mute it with one of your left hand fingers. Option #1 is usually best. It takes some getting used to, and it’s not an exact science; just try to generally “miss” the excluded string(s).

NOTE: sometimes, muted/excluded strings are indicated with a squiggly line through the string.

Also, look for “O’s” above the strings. This means the string is open. You don’t have to do anything with these…just let them ring out (make sure you don’t accidentally mute them with left hand fingers).


Cool? That’s the process!

Now let’s try it out.

Some of you might already know this chord. It’s the G major chord, and it takes three fingers: 1,2, & 3.

Let’s review our checklist:

First, mentally rotate it. It’ll look like this in your mind:

Next, we find a finger number. Let’s start with finger 1.

Determine the string number. In this chord, finger one goes on the 5th fret.

Find the fret number. In this case, it’s the second fret.

(Repeat the finger-string-fret sequence for each fretted note in the chord.)

Lastly, we see there are three open strings, and no muted strings.


There ya have it! Go learn chords. It’s really not a complicated system…you mostly need to get comfortable with seeing a not-so accurate-looking diagram and visualizing the fret-board.


Thanks for reading! Feel free to leave a profound and sagacious comment. 😉 I’d love to hear from ya!




  • Momma Hackel / Reply

    This is fantastic! I just bought a guitar at a garage sale to play around with- so I’m going to use your ‘checklist’ and see what I can do! ? Thanks Ben!

  • SamBam / Reply

    Slick! Now if only I had a guitar…

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