Premier Guitar features affiliate links to help support our content. We may earn a commission on any affiliated purchases.

4 Ways to Kick Ass at Chord-Chart Sessions

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.

In the excellent documentary film The 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 bit

more complicated than a cowboy

strum-a-strum-a-strum on 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


(2) Reading for a session.

If you are reading cold at

a live gig sans rehearsal, 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 problems before you

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 Bohlinger is

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 at