In the excellent documentary filmThe Wrecking Crew[read more about it in Hot Links, April 2011], session legend Tommy Tedesco says, “Producers presented musicians with a road map, just chord symbols ... but that’s not music.” And he was absolutely right: Unless you are reading actual notes on a staff (which I enjoy about as much as doing long division), chord charts do not make a song.

Do you remember the first time you read a chord chart for a rock song? When I was 13, I wasted $4 on the sheet music for Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.” I thought I was buying the key to the mystery of that awesome intro riff and the funky verse vamp. What I got were the lyrics, a notation on the staff showing the vocal melody line, and this:

Playing both alone and with the record, I flailed away manically for an entire afternoon, never even remotely sounding like Joe Perry. Like most of you, I eventually sussed-out what he was doing, surmising it was a
bitmore complicated than a cowboystrum-a-strum-a-strumon an open C. Chord charts give the reader alarmingly little information: a time signature, a key, and some chords laid out in measures. In most cases, the chart is a simplification of the actual part, and there’s always a good chance that the chords on the paper do not match the recording.

Most chart-reading situations fall into two categories:
(1) Cold reading for a live performance.
(2) Reading for a session.

If you are reading cold at a live gigsansrehearsal, your best bet is to listen to the bass, drums, and vocalist, and find a simple part that works with them. It may not be a face-melting performance, but you will be a quiet hero for avoiding any train wrecks. Shine on the solos, but comp that rhythm with care!

If you are reading a chart in a recording session, ultimately, you’re doing more creating than reading (unless it’s a note-for-note karaoke track). That’s what makes great studio players—their ability to start with a rough road map and get to a destination that does not yet exist.

Here are a few tips that have helped me on chart-reading gigs. Regrettably, I learned these lessons the hard way by making many embarrassing mistakes (and missed takes).

1. If you don’t understand something, ask.Not sure how to voice Eb13b9? Off the top of my head, neither do I. Such chords are like esoteric vocabulary words we studied long ago and seldom use, so they fade in our memory. Start by counting out the scale like a fourth grader—find your notes and see how they sound in context. Find a voicing that sounds right but that also uses a practical fingering so you can smoothly change to the next chord. If it rubs the track, ask the piano player to spell out the notes of the chord.

Is what you’re playing conflicting with one of the other voices? Try substituting a plain old Eb7 and ask if that works better. In short, always discuss any questionable parts before you lay them down. It’s better to find problemsbeforeyou record, rather than when the engineer pushes the solo button on your track during playback.

Also, charts often have mistakes— you can’t always trust the paper. If you are playing what is written and it sounds bad, it may be a chart error. Probably the biggest mistake novice players make on reading gigs is that they bluff their way through. Afraid of revealing their ignorance, they refrain from asking questions.

2. Play the first pass conservatively.Begin with a simple part—just try to hit the right chords at the right time and focus on a groove. If you listen to the radio, you’ll hear a lot of simple parts played well, which is deceivingly hard to do. Focus on timing and intonation. Simple rhythm patterns lock with bass and drums much quicker than complicated parts. If you start with something wacky, it will make it more difficult for everyone.

3. Give your customers what they want. Ask the producer, session leader, or songwriter—whoever is writing your check—if they have any flavor in mind. A lot of arrangements begin with mimicking another song. You may hear, “This has a Hendrix-y, ‘Wind Cries Mary’ vibe,” “Give this an AC/DC-ish guitar riff,” or “Try a Motown ‘chick’ backbeat on the second beat of each measure.”

On sessions, I never take much stock in artistic integrity. My philosophy is “the customer is always right.” The best way to keep working is to do your best to give a voice to whoever is paying you. Inevitably, your voice will come through as well.

4. Once it sounds like a song, experiment.If everyone has found their part and pretty much nailed it, see if you can improve on what you’re playing. Maybe it’s adding a band push into the chorus, solo, bridge, or ending. Maybe a different chord inversion cuts better or blends better. You can always go back to the safe part you have, but a tweak here or there could add a deeper dimension. Plus, it’s just more fun for you.

Unlike classically trained string players who work exclusively with orchestras, we guitarists tend to be more comfortable jamming than reading. The problem with chord charts is that they can restrict what you play even as they don’t give you enough information to actually play a song. The trick is to let the paper guide you, but not control you. Ultimately, it’s up to you—not the road map—to get the song to its final destination.

John Bohlingeris a Nashville-based guitarist who works primarily in TV and has recorded and toured with over 30 major-label artists. His songs and playing can be heard in major motion pictures, on major-label releases, and in literally hundreds of television drops. Visit him