Making Sense of Basic Guitar Chord Symbols

How to Make Sense of Basic Guitar Chord Symbols

Translating guitar chord symbols onto the guitar fretboard can often be frustrating and confusing.

Today we will demystify some of the most common ways that guitar chords are symbolized, so you’ll probably want to bookmark this page for future reference.

We will focus on the most common chords that beginning guitarists encounter: chords called triads.

Now I’m not going to go into the theory behind these chords in this article.  All you need to understand right now is that a triad is simply a chord that contains three different notes.  In most guitar chord fingerings, you will find that some of these notes may be doubled, or even tripled.  This is how the four, five or six string chord voicings are built.

Rule #1

The first factor you need to understand about interpreting chord symbols, is the fact that there is very little standardization in their notation.  This means that you could pick up different books and sheet music and see the same chord voicing symbolized quite differently.  In some cases, you may even find the same chord symbolized two different ways in the very same song!  In other cases, you may see inconsistencies in how chords are symbolized within the same songbook, or magazine.

The good news is that as you start to understand how chords are symbolized, and begin to understand the theory behind chords, you will be able to look at a chord symbol and determine exactly what the composer, arranger, or transcriber actually meant.

Chord Symbolization

When chords are symbolized, the following abbreviations are frequently used:

Now Let’s Dig a Bit Deeper…


Often, the major chord will have no indication following its letter-name.  For example, the chords C maj, F maj and G maj, may be written as C, F, G.


Minor chords are often abbreviated as: “m”, “mi”, “min”, or a minus sign “—” is used.


The diminished triad is sometimes symbolized as “min b5”, “dim”, “dim (triad)”, or sometimes the degree symbol (o) is used.  Bear in mind that “dim” is sometimes incorrectly used to represent a diminished 7th chord.  The diminished 7th chord is not the same as a diminished triad.


The augmented chord, which is usually abbreviated as “aug”, is sometimes symbolized in contemporary music with a plus sign “+”.  For example, G+ and Ab+, would both be augmented triads.  You should note that the plus sign is used to represent the major chord in many textbooks that cover classical music theory.


The suspended 2 and suspended 4 chords are usually just symbolized as “sus 2″, and “sus 4″ respectively.  Sometimes, though, you will just see a chord symbolized as “sus” without a 2 or 4 following it.  This usually refers to the sus 4 chord.



Power Chords

One other chord symbol that you will frequently encounter as a beginning guitar player is the symbol for a power chord.  Power chords are not triads.  They consist of just two different notes and are sometimes called diads or dyads.

Power chords are most commonly written as the letter-name of the chord followed by the number 5.  So a C5 is a C “power chord”.  You may also see the power chord written with the letter-name of the chord followed by “no 3rd”, “(no 3rd)”, “(no third)”, “omit 3″, or “(omit 3)”.


Rule #2

As you can see from the summary above, capitalization is not used consistently.  Some musicians will capitalize the “M” in major, others will not.  The same is true for minor, diminished, augmented and dominant chords.

I agree with what you are probably thinking right now: “What a mess!”  But remember that as you improve your understanding of how chords are symbolized and the theory behind how they are built, you will be able to look at even the most ridiculous chord symbol and determine what the transcriber actually meant.

Below you will see a summary of the most common ways that the basic triads and power chords are symbolized.


Of course there are many other guitar chords out there and many ways for them to be symbolized.  In this short article, we looked at the most common triads and the power chord.  If you are ready to discover a fast and proven way to learn guitar chords and learn more about the theory behind guitar chords, check out my book called Guitar Essentials: Chord Master Expanded Edition.


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