You Don't Have to Read Music to Understand Guitar Notation: : absolute beginners tips

Added on Tuesday 5 Jul 2011

Although you don’t need to read music to play the guitar, musicians have developed a few simple tricks through the years that aid in communicating basic ideas like song structure, chord construction, chord progressions, and important rhythmic figures. Pick up on the shorthand devices for chord diagrams, rhythm slashes, and tablature and you’re sure to start coppin’ licks faster than Roy Clark pickin’ after three cups of coffee.

You don’t need to read music to play the guitar. With the help of chord diagrams, rhythm slashes, and tablature, you can pick up on everything that you need to understand and play the guitar.

Getting by with a little help from a chord diagram

Don’t worry — reading a chord diagram is not like reading music; it’s far simpler. All you need to do is understand where to put your fingers to form a chord. A chord is defined as the simultaneous sounding of three or more notes. 

  • The grid of six vertical lines and five horizontal ones represents the guitar fretboard, as if you stood the guitar up on the floor or chair and looked straight at the upper part of the neck from the front.
  • The vertical lines represent the guitar strings. The vertical line at the far left is the low 6th string, and the right-most vertical line is the high 1st string.
  • The horizontal lines represent frets. The thick horizontal line at the top is the nut of the guitar, where the fretboard ends. So the first fret is actually the second vertical line from the top. (Don’t let the words here confuse you; just look at the guitar.)
  • The dots that appear on vertical string lines between horizontal fret lines represent notes that you fret.
  • The numerals directly below each string line (just below the last fret line) indicate which left-hand finger you use to fret that note. On the left hand, 1 = index finger; 2 = middle finger; 3 = ring finger; and 4 = little finger. You don’t use the thumb to fret, except in certain unusual circumstances.
  • The X or O symbols directly above some string lines indicate strings that you leave open (unfretted) or that you don’t play. An X above a string means that you don’t pick or strike that string with your right hand. An O indicates an open string that you do play.


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