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Chord Charts 101

Learn how simple and intuitive reading charts can be with this handy guide.

Music is a magical thing, really, don’t you think, PG Nation? We swim in it, we bask in it, we speak a language to each other that the “muggles” can’t comprehend. But when it comes to codifying it, some of us get scared. It’s too much like math, and the creative part of us balks. “Nobody told me there was gonna be math involved,” we say. But when you’re trying to communicate your ideas to an ensemble comprised of everything from music majors to totally self-taught pickers, you need a way for everybody to be comfortable on the same page.

Charts are a great compromise between written notation and oral tradition. I’m surprised at the number of folks who aren’t familiar with reading charts, because it is so very simple and intuitive. Here are two easy methods, and I’m sure there are many others. Please share your favorite, if you have one.

Chord Naming Method
About the easiest possible way to do a chart is to write out the chords with slash marks for counts. Here’s an old favorite:

A / D A

Notice, for the second “twinkle,” I’ve just put a slash, because the chord doesn’t change there.

How about a fiddle tune like “Soldier’s Joy”...

D / / / / / A /
D / / / / A D /
D / G / D / A /
D / G / D A D /

There are eight counts in each line, so for the first line, you stay on the D chord for six counts, then play the A chord for two counts. Wow. Yep. That’s about as idiot-proof as it gets.

You can go nuts, if you want to get really specific. Sometimes when I want my bass player to hit certain intervals and avoid others, I’ll do something like this:

G6(no 3rd) / / / F9 / / /
Em / / / A5(no 3rd) / / /

This lets him know that I want most of these chords to be neither major nor minor, and he stays well away from anything resembling a third, like the bass playing angel he is.

Charts By The Numbers It’s done a little differently in the studios, Nashville in particular. Let’s take another look at “Soldier’s Joy,” only this time we’ll just put the chord numbers down:

1 / / / / / 5 /
1 / / / / 5 1 /
1 / 4 / 1 / 5 /
1 / 4 / 1 5 1 /

So you could play the tune in D, G, F, or whatever key you want. Same with the more complex chord names, although you really want to make sure you’re handing it to somebody who knows theory (at least somewhat) or they’ll look at you like you’ve just handed them the formula for Dr. Jekyll’s Famously Refreshing Soft Beverage and start backing away.

Another wonderful thing about both of these simple systems is that you can scribble down a chart for most songs in about a minute and a half, and have everybody playing quite happily almost immediately.

For those unfamiliar with chord numbers, here’s a quick tutorial for you. Remember the old Do–Re–Mi–Fa–So–La–Ti–Do? Replace it with 1–2–3–4–5–6–7–8, and you’re well on the way. But with chords, there’s one other step.

In a key center, you can build chords by stacking every other note on top of each other. The quality (major, minor, diminished) always follows the same pattern. Let’s take a look at this in the key of C:

C Dm Em F G7 Am Bdim
1 2 3 4 5 6 7

If you notice the qualities of the chord follow a specific pattern: major, minor, minor, major, major (or dominant), minor, and diminished. As long as you stay within the given key this pattern will hold true for every major scale no matter what. Below you can see what this looks like in the key of G and D.

G Am Bm C D7 Em F#dim
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
D Em F#m G A7 B C#dim
1 2 3 4 5 6 7

There are certain relationships that are fundamental. We all know about the I–IV–V relationship, right? Most of us also know about the relative minor thing, too, meaning Am is the relative minor of the C chord, Em to G and Bm to D. Every chord has a relative minor, and most of the time, they’re entirely interchangeable. Let’s take another look at “Soldier’s Joy” with a few chord substitutions. To find the relative minor of any chord, just count back a minor third or go up a major sixth.

D / / / / / A /
Bm / / / D A D /
D / Em / Bm / F♯m /
Bm / Em / D A D /

Substituting and F♯m for the A here works diatonically, but it doesn’t ring real true in the heart (hey, lookie there, there’s an “ear” in “heart”--you just think on that a bit). Experiment, but don’t scare the horses is what I’m saying.

If you can balance your checkbook, you can do this.
A little time spent familiarizing yourself with this very basic part of music theory will benefit you beyond all imagination. Get comfortable with the numbers and relationships, and playing, writing and jamming will improve overnight. This is an easy way to get better at one of the things you love most.

Gayla Drake Paul is a guitarist, songwriter and writer, working as a soloist and with the Gayla Drake Paul Trio. Her CD, How Can I Keep From Singing, is in the Ten Essential CDs for Acoustic Guitarists at Her new CD, Trio Plus Three: The Luckiest Woman, can be purchased at