The Art of the Chart

By Dave Eichenberger

Guitarists are a scrappy bunch. We don’t quite fit in with the rest of the instrument world. We tend to follow our own rules, and then change them when we feel like it. Sometimes we will play a solo exactly like it was written, and sometimes we can go off and do our own thing. This is tolerated and even expected in a lot of instances. Imagine the second chair violinist doing that, or the trombone section. No way! They have music that spells everything out for them. They are told when to bow, when to breathe, and hey, they have to even watch someone who keeps the time for them all the time!

But all this freedom that guitarists enjoy comes with some problems. For us, tablature is more common than standard notation. Even more common is the use of chord charts, which allow a guitarist to play a reasonable facsimile of a song quickly. This article is about reading those charts, which are still published, downloaded, and used every day.


Well, what is a chord chart?

A chord chart can be as simple as the lyrics with the chords written above them (see the title picture), or it can be written in a mixture of standard notation with included pictures of the chord shapes (see the excerpt from the traditional tune House of the Rising Sun). Sometimes they will include strum marks that sort of look like this: Am / /  C / /. This distills the arrangement down even further telling you how many times to strum (you count the name of the chord as a strum, so the Am and C would be strummed 3x each). As you can see, there isn’t a lot of information. Like tablature, you’d have no idea of the strumming pattern, speed, or feel of the song if you never heard it.


But I’ve Never Seen These Chords Before…

Think of it as an opportunity. You have to dust off a good chord book, an app, or possibly ask a more experienced guitarist. Still, there are so many chords out there, and many versions of the same chord. How do we know which one to use? Unless they tell you with those chord boxes, you are on your own. They don’t call chord charts musical shorthand for nothing. They rely on past knowledge of the guitarist, his/her understanding of different shapes for the same chord, and interesting ways to strum. Compare this with (non-guitarist) musician that relies on all of that to be spelled out for them. Both are cool, but just different ways of working.


But what about that other type…the one with the lyrics and just the letter names?

These types of charts tend to give you the most basic of the basic. This is just the lyrics with the chord names above. Many tunes online are written this way, and it can be very confusing to a beginning guitarist. The chords may or may not line up with the lyrics properly, and you are really on your own here. Still, with knowledge of the song (or a good recording), you can pull it off. Still, a more experienced player will have a better feel for the particular style, and might use chords closer to the actual recording as they are using their ears the same time they are looking at the paper. To add to the confusion here, there are chord charts online (tabs, too) that can be hysterically wrong. As we become better players, we will be able to adjust them as we go. If you are trying to play from a chart you downloaded, and it doesn’t sound like the song, don’t immediately think it is your fault. What you are looking at might be flawed.


What is that crazy number system?

Players in Nashville invented their own language that comes from streamlining the process of creating and recording several songs a day. This is called the Nashville Number System, and it is yet another kind of musical shorthand that gets allows a recording or performing guitarist to understand (and change) an arrangement quickly, in the smallest amount of space. To understand how this system works, you need to understand how a Nashville session might be run: very quickly, where ideas and changes to the arrangement and key are quickly implemented. If you were using a standard chord chart, and the song was in D, things might go smoothly. But if the producer wants to make a quick change of the key from D to Db, new charts might have to be written, but with the number system, this isn’t the case.

Thing is, you need to understand some music theory here, and understand that many chord progressions in 1 key can be represented with Roman numerals. The quality of the chords (major or minor) doesn’t change when the key of the song is changed. Quick transposition skills and knowledge of guitar-unfriendly keys (like Db) are what is needed here. Symbols are used to designate alterations of chords (major 7th, augmented, etc).

This system isn’t as popular outside of Nashville, but it is great to test your knowledge of keys. This method isn’t used as much to learn songs (although it can be, and it is used from time-to-time), but used when the arrangement of a song is being solidfied. It is up to the guitarist to come up with something inventive within this system, as no indications are used to show how to strum or which inversions of each chord to play. That is up to the creativity and inventiveness of the player.

With all the different ways guitarists get the music on a piece of paper, there is none that is more important than the other. The idea is to communicate. Learn each method’s good and bad points for yourself. It is a great way to communicate basic musical ideas to other players, or get notes down for yourself so you can remember songs you write. You’ll be downloading chord charts in no time, and then complaining about how wrong some of them are!

What is your favorite chord book? Who is your favorite rhythm player?


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