Reading Chord Box Diagrams

It’s really important to learn how to read chord boxes. These diagrams can be used to show chords, arpeggios and note relationships. They show you where to put your fingers on the fingerboard and often include additional information such as the suggested finger(s) to use or the function (quality) of each the note in the chord (as shown below this example):

chord box

The six vertical lines represent the six strings of the guitar. The string on the furthest left is the thickest (E) string. Note that left-handed diagrams have the thickest string on the right.

A thicker (or darker) line (or sometimes two lines) at the top of the box represents the nut (the plastic, bone or metal piece that the strings go through on the headstock) and the rest of the horizontal lines represent the frets. The nut is not usually shown when the chord box depicts a chord played high up the neck.

The dots show you where to put your fretting-hand fingers (the left hand for right-handed players), and they are often numbered, to show which finger to use. Different guitar transcriptions use different systems; sometimes the finger numbers are written in the dot, sometimes beside it. Most books will (should!) have a guide to the system they use at the front or back of the publication.

If you are a pianist, make sure that you don't confuse the way the fingers are numbered for piano compared with the guitar. Piano finger numbering is completely different; for example, guitar players generally don't use their left-hand thumbs other than for very advanced techniques - or for showing off!

Notice the X or O symbols above the diagram. These symbols are used above those strings where there isn’t a fretted note to indicate whether you should play the string or not. The O means that you play the string ‘open'. The X means that you don’t play that string, either by avoiding it or muting it.

I like to have the 'function' of the notes (the relationship to the root note) shown below the chord box, but this is not very common and it's not found very often even on my own site! It can be confusing for beginners so you will usually see it in more intermediate or advanced material but I included it in the example above for clarity.

More than one note on each string?

Diagrams showing scales or arpeggios often have more than one note on each string. They/are primarily used to help you visualize a scale/arpeggio pattern, or ‘shape’, on the fretboard. I often include TAB to clarify how these diagrams are to be played, but usually you play the notes on the thickest string first, starting from the note nearest the nut, play any other notes on that string (moving towards the bridge), and work your way across to the thinnest string in this fashion.

Chord Box Shorthand

I sometimes use this method to describe chords - e.g., 320033 - which specifies the frets to be played from the thickest string to the thinnest. This quick and easy method doesn’t give you fingering numbers or any other information, but it can be useful in a text explanation or when there isn’t room for chord boxes. Use an x for strings that aren’t played in the chord. For instance:

Aadd9: x07600

In this example, String 6 isn’t played (x); String 5 is played open; Strings 4 and 3 are fretted at the 7th and 6th frets respectively, and Strings 2 and 1 are also played open.


Music Theory 2