Tips for Understanding Guitar Notation

Although you don’t need to read music to play the guitar, musicians have developed a few simple tricks through the years that aid in communicating such basic ideas as song structure, chord construction, chord progressions, and important rhythmic figures. Pick up on the shorthand devices for chord diagrams, tablature, and rhythm slashes, and you’re sure to start coppin’ licks faster than Vince Gill pickin’ after three cups of coffee.

You really don’t need to read music to play the guitar. Many guitar pros do not read music. With the help of the chord diagrams, tablature, and rhythm slashes you will find here, you can pick up on everything you need to understand and play the guitar.

Chord diagrams

Don’t worry — reading a chord diagram is not like reading music; it’s far simpler. All you need to do is understand where to put your fingers to form a chord. A chord is the simultaneous sounding of three or more notes.

The following list briefly explains what the different parts of the diagram mean:

  • The grid of six vertical lines and five horizontal ones represents the guitar fretboard, as if you stood the guitar up on the floor or chair and looked straight at the upper part of the neck from the front.

  • The vertical lines represent the guitar strings. The line at the far left is the low 6th string, and the right-most vertical line is the high 1st string.

  • The horizontal lines represent frets. The thick horizontal line at the top is the nut of the guitar, where the fretboard ends. So the 1st fret is actually the second vertical line from the top.

  • The dots that appear on vertical string lines between horizontal fret lines represent notes that you fret.

  • The numerals directly below each string line (just below the last fret line) indicate which left-hand finger you use to fret that note. On the left hand, 1 = index finger; 2 = middle finger; 3 = ring finger; and 4 = little finger. You don’t use the thumb to fret, except in unusual circumstances.

  • The X or O symbols directly above some string lines indicate strings that you leave open (unfretted) or that you don’t play. An X above a string means that you don’t pick or strike that string with your right hand. An O indicates an open string that you do play.

If a chord starts on a fret other than the 1st fret, a numeral appears to the right of the diagram, next to the top fret line, to indicate in which fret you actually start. (In such cases, the top line is not the nut.)

In most cases, however, you deal primarily with chords that fall within only the first four frets of the guitar. Chords that fall within the first four frets typically use open strings, so they’re referred to as open chords.

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Tablature

Tablature (or just tab, for short) is a notation system that graphically represents the frets and strings of the guitar. Whereas chord diagrams do so in a static way, tablature shows how you play music over a period of time. For many musical example, you’ll see a tablature staff (or tab staff, for short) beneath the standard notation staff.

This second staff reflects exactly what’s going on in the regular musical staff above it but in guitar language. Tab is guitar-specific — in fact, many call it guitar tab. Tab doesn’t tell you what note to play (such as C or F♯ or E♭ó). It does, however, tell you what string to fret and where exactly on the fingerboard to fret that string.

The top line of the tab staff represents the 1st string of the guitar — high E. The bottom line of the tab corresponds to the 6th string on the guitar, low E. The other lines represent the other four strings in between — the second line from the bottom is the 5th string, and so on. A number on any line tells you to fret that string in that numbered fret.

For example, if you see the numeral 2 on the second line from the top, you need to press down the 2nd string in the 2nd fret above the nut (actually, the space between the 1st and 2nd metal frets, right?). A 0 on a line means that you play the open string.

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Rhythm slashes

Musicians use a variety of shorthand tricks to indicate certain musical directions because, although a particular musical concept itself is often simple enough, to notate that idea in standard written music form may prove unduly complicated and cumbersome. So musicians use a road map that gets the point across yet avoids the issue of reading (or writing) music.

Rhythm slashes are slash marks (/) that simply tell you how to play rhythmically but not what to play. The chord in your left hand determines what you play.

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If you see such a chord symbol with four slashes beneath it, you know to finger an E chord and strike it four times.

What you don’t see, however, is a number of differently pitched notes clinging to various lines of a music staff, including several hole-in-the-center half notes and a slew of solid quarter notes — in short, any of that junk that you needed to memorize in grade school just to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on the recorder.

All you need to remember on seeing this particular diagram is to “play an E chord four times.” Simple, isn’t it?

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