How to Read Chord Diagrams

When you’re just getting started, chord diagrams can be confusing. Let’s break down how they work, and how you can use them to start learning chords on your guitar.

How a chord diagram fits onto a guitar.

Here is a diagram you’ve probably seen of a C major chord:

Chord diagram for the C guitar chord.

This diagram shows you:

  1. where on the fretboard you should put your fingers.
  2. which fingers are the most comfortable to use.
  3. which open strings you should play.
  4. which strings you should leave unplayed.

Let’s take these one at a time.

Where to put your fingers

Let’s start with the basics: what do the dots mean?

Simply put, the dots show you which finger to put where on the fretboard. The grid on a diagram shows:

  • vertical strings, going, left to right, from thickest to thinnest.
  • horizontal frets, going, top to bottom, from the end of the neck, up towards the body.
  • dots, each of which represents a single finger.

Let’s take another look at the C major chord, but take away everything but the dot with the “1” on it:

A one-finger version of C major

You can see that the dot with the 1 on it, that means your first finger, is supposed to be on the second string, just behind the second fret.

Let’s see what that looks like.


We rotated the guitar to match the diagram. Fancy!


Armed with that knowledge, let’s try to place the rest of our fingers.

Chord diagram for the C guitar chord.

X’s and O’s

OK, we’ve got that figured out. But what about the X’s and O’s above the strings?

X's and O's above a C major chord diagram

This one is pretty straightforward:

  • Whenver you see an X above a string, just don’t play it.

  • Whenever you see an O above a string, it should be played “open.” Just play the string. No frets, no fingers.

Put another way: ignore the O’s. Don’t play the X’s.


In this example, after you place your fingers, you’d skip the thickest string, and play the five thinnest strings, the five strings closest to the floor.

Chord diagram for the C guitar chord.

Wrapping up

For getting started, that’s just about it.

You learned the most important things there are to know. You learned that:

  1. the vertical lines represent the strings, and the horizontal lines represent frets.
  2. the dots show you where to put your fingers.
  3. the x’s and o’s tell you which strings to play, and which ones to skip.