How to Read Guitar Chord Symbols

Guitar chords, or any chords for that matter, can be expressed in a variety of different ways.  Sometimes this means guitar chords might include weird symbols or numbers.  

I want you to be able to identify the different ways guitar chords can be written, even if you don’t quite have a full grasp of what the chord might be representing.  For that reason, I’m not going to go too deep into the theory behind these ways of writing guitar chords or show you how to play these chords.  To learn how to play guitar chords, visit our growing list of guitar chords with chord chart diagrams here.

1. Major guitar chords

Often major guitar chords are just represented by a capital letter.  For example: G, D, C.  Sometimes major chords might have an added “maj” attached to the letter like: Gmaj, Dmaj, Cmaj.  Those can all be understood as major guitar chords.

2. Minor guitar chords

Minor guitar chords will often be represented by a capital letter followed by a lowercase “m” or “min.”  For example: Em, Amin, C#m.  Sometimes a minor chord will just be represented with a lowercase letter like: e, a, or c#.  This is uncommon though in pop music.

3. Chord Inversions

Examples: G/B, C/G, D/F#  

The above examples are ways to express a chord inversion.  The first letter before the slash is the type of chord.  The letter after the slash is a note taken from the chord that will be put in the bass.  G/B reads: a G major chord with a B note in the bass.  The notes in a G major chord are G, B, & D.  In other words, the lowest note of the G major chord will be the B note of the G major chord.

4. Seventh (7th) chords

Seventh (7th) chords are represented by the number ‘7.’  Examples of seventh chords are: G7, Gmaj7, Em7, C#m7.  

You might be wondering, “What’s the difference between a G7 and a Gmaj7 chord?  Aren’t they both major chords?”  

There is a difference.  A G7 chord is a dominant seventh chord, while a Gmaj7 is a non-dominant seventh chord.  

5. Diminished chords

Diminished chords are represented often with a little circle or a degree symbol superscripted next to the letter name of the chord.  The letters “dim” will also commonly follow too.  Examples are: , F#dim, C#°.

6. Augmented chords

Augmented chords will either be represented by plus (+) sign or the letters “aug.”  Examples of augmented chords are: E+, Daug, G+.

7. Altered chords

Altered chords are chords with extra markup in them like b5, add9, #5.  These chords require a bit of music theory to fully understand.  Again, we won’t go into this here.  Examples of altered chords are: Cadd9, Gmin7b5, D9.  

In the examples above, the number represents a note.  In the case of Gmin7b5, the 5th note of a G minor chord is a D.  The flat symbol or ‘b’ preceding the number 5 indicates that the 5th note should be lowered one half step or “flatted.”  So a Gmin7b5 chord would be understood as a G minor chord with an added seventh and with a flat fifth.  

Let me know if you have any questions about this.  Let’s plan on diving into the theory behind all of this soon!

About Brett McQueen

Brett McQueen is a musician, songwriter, and the founder and editor of Guitar Friendly and Ukulele Tricks. Learn more about him here and follow him on Twitter at @GuitarFriendly.