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How to Read Chord Charts and Tabs

How to Read Chord Charts and Tabs

Graphic by Hannah Travis

Introducing the Learning Guitar Series. Over the next few months, our friend and guitar teacher extraordinaire Haley Powers will teach you how to take your guitar playing to the next level. From locking down a practice routine to nailing an acoustic cover, Haley has you covered. 


One of the most frustrating feelings as a guitarist is when even simple tutorials gloss over things that you don't know. When you're a beginner, it can be confusing — and even discouraging — when your teacher assumes you already know how to read their charts and diagrams. It’s almost like when you’re applying to a new job to start getting experience, only to find all the jobs require 5-7 years of experience (ugh, we’ve all been there). 

Most guitarists will use chord charts or tabs to break down how to correctly play the guitar components of a song. The beauty of learning how to read these diagrams is that once you’re comfortable translating them, you’ll be able to look up how to play all your favorite songs.


In this blog, we’ll go over how to read both chord charts and tabs to get you set up to start learning songs all on your own. As always, I want to remind you to be patient and kind to yourself since it can be challenging to learn a new skill — practice makes perfect!

What Are Chord Charts?

Chord charts are a great beginner-friendly tool to use when learning how to play chords. The chord diagrams indicate where to put your fingers on the fretboard to make a specific chord shape. If you come across a chord you’ve never heard of before, you can use a chord chart to teach yourself the correct hand placement.

How To Read Chord Charts 

The easiest way to read a chord chart is to imagine a guitar top-down, starting from the headstock to the nut and fretboard. The first horizontal box represents the first fret on the guitar. 

Let’s start with a simple “A Major” chord as an example. This is how you play an “A Major” on the guitar. 


And this is how that “A Major” would be translated on a chord chart.


Now, let’s break down all the components of that “A Major” chord chart.



  • The vertical lines represent your strings from lowest on the left (Low E) to highest on the right (High E). 

  • The horizontal lines represent the frets on a guitar neck. The first fret always comes right after the nut. 

  • “X” means closed. Don’t hit this string with your strumming hand. 

  • “O” means open. You’ll play this string without pressing down on any notes so that the string rings open. 

  • The dots on the frets indicate where you should put your fretting hand. In this “A major” example, you’ll place your fingers on the D, G, and B strings all on the second fret. 

  • The numbers on the dots represent which finger to use. T= thumb, and it goes 1 to 4 from pointer finger to pinky. 


What Are Tabs?

Now that you know how to teach yourself new chords, you’re ready to start learning how to play notes on the guitar to form a song. Tablature — aka “tabs” is basically a simplified version of sheet music for guitar players (yes, please!). Tabs are essentially visual representations of the guitar neck.


How To Read Tabs

The horizontal lines represent strings and they go from the highest (high E) down to the lowest string (low E). The numbers on the lines represent the fret your finger is supposed to be pressing on that string. Tabs are especially helpful if you’re wanting to learn a specific part or solo that’s hard to pick apart by ear. If you see tabs on a song, don’t be intimidated. Once you take the time to learn how tabs work, it’s pretty straightforward!


Let’s break down all the components to read a simple tab for “Happy Birthday.”


  • The top line is the highest note (high E) and each line down from that goes B G D A E. 

  • Each number here is what fret to play the note, so the first “2” in this example would mean you put your finger on the second fret of the A string. 

  • You then read the tab from left to right in the sequence of the chronological number order.

  • When you see notes vertically on the neck, that means you play them at the same time — like you do at the end of this song. In this example, you’d place your fingers on the second fret of the D, G, and B chords — essentially, forming an A chord. 

  • Just like chord charts, the “X” means you don’t let the string ring out, while the “O” means that the open string should ring out. 


Overall, you can see the tab is a little more complicated than a chord chart since it shows how to play a specific part of a song, but it isn’t difficult to learn with a little practice. A lot of times, if you just know the basics of how to read a tab, it can be a resource in helping you figure out a portion of a fast solo where the notes are hard to hear. The more you use it, the easier it will get!




Haley is a guitar player, blogger, and guitar teacher based out of Nashville, TN. When she's not playing or writing, you can find her in line at her favorite breakfast taco shop, taking her dog hiking at the nearest waterfall, or binging Outer Banks with her hubby.