How to Play Chords

What Is a Chord?

A chord is three or more notes played at the same time. Chords are used in nearly all Western music. Each chord is made of a certain combination of notes. The most important note in a chord is the root. The root of the chord is the same as the letter name of the chord. For example, the root of a C major chord is 'C'. Visit the music theory section to learn more about chord construction.

Learn about the music theory behind chords

How to Read Chord Diagrams

Guitar chords are generally notated with chord diagrams (also called charts). Here is a C major chord represented by a chord chart:

C major chord diagram

Parts of a Chord Diagram

Chord Name

The chord name is a letter (from A to G) and possibly other symbols depending on the type of chord. It is found above the diagram. There are many different chord names and some chords may be called by two or more names. Below are a few of the more common names and symbols and how to say the name of the chord.

All of the chords listed above have 'C' as a root. The root of the chord is the same pitch as the letter name of the chord.

Vertical and Horizontal Lines

The vertical lines in the diagram represent the six strings of the guitar starting with the first string on the right-most line.

How the vertical lines of a chord diagram correspond to the strings on the guitar.

Horizontal lines represent frets. The top line may be bold in some cases. This represents the nut on the guitar.

X or O at the Top of the Chart

An 'X' means that the string isn't played. An 'O' means that string is played open. Circles and zeroes are used interchangeably to mean the same thing.

Explanation of X and O on a chord diagram


Dots mean that you fret the string and fret where the dot appears.

Dots on a chord diagram

Finger Numbers

Numbers at the top or bottom of the chart indicate which finger you use to finger the note on that string. You may occasionally see numbers on the diagram instead of dots rather than at the top or bottom of the diagram. These numbers also indicate which finger to use on that string and fret.

A chord diagram with finger numbers

The fingers of the left hand are numbered as follows:

Fret Numbers

A number on the right side of the diagram indicates the fret where the chord is played. Some chord diagrams may use only a number while others may be written as a number plus "fr," which is an abbreviation for fret.

A chord diagram that specifies the fret where the chord should be played.


A curved line indicates a barre, which is a technique where you play several strings with the same finger. This is a more advanced technique that will be covered in future lessons on barre chords so you don't need to worry about it now.

A curved line on a chord diagram to indicate a barre

Your First Chord

The first chord you will learn is the E minor chord. This is an easy chord to start with because it requires only two fingers and there are no difficult stretches involved.

E Minor Chord

Chord Diagram

Chord diagram for E minor


Fret the second fret of the fifth string with the middle finger and the second fret of the fourth string with the ring finger. Make sure you aren't muting the third string with your ring finger.


Tablature for E minor

Below an example of the E minor chord being fretted:

Playing an E minor chord

Playing an E minor chord

General Tips for Playing Chords

Position of the Hand and Fingers

The thumb should be kept behind the neck and parallel to the frets.

Thumb position for playing chords

Correct thumb position

The fingers should be curved and shouldn't collapse at the knuckle joint. Curving the fingers will make it easier to avoid muting other strings accidentally.

C major chord

How to curve your fingers

Making Adjustments to Get a Clean Chord

Play each string in the chord to make sure that each string that is supposed to sound is ringing. If you get a muted or percussive sound, you need to adjust your positioning to that the string will ring. Try the following tips for adjusting your hand position: