Before I teach you the A, D, and E chords, let me briefly show you how to read chord diagrams, which show you where to fret notes and which strings to strum.

An Upstanding Individual

A chord diagram is basically a drawing of a guitar fretboard, as if it were standing upright like so.

Strings vs. Frets

The six vertical lines correspond to the six strings, with fat string six on the left edge, and skinny string one the right. The top horizontal line represents the nut, remember the slotted strip of plastic between the fretboard and the headstock? And the other horizontal lines represent the first, second, and third, and fourth fret wires.

Where to Put Your Fingers

You need to know three things before you can fret a note:

Which string am I fretting?
Which fret?
Which finger do I use?

Chord diagrams show you where to put your finger with a black dot. To show that you fret the 1st string, 3rd fret, you put a dot here. 2nd string, 1st fret, the dot goes here. 5th string, 4th fret, here. Let me give you a few more locations and you figure out where the dot goes.

3rd string, 1st fret.
4th string, 2nd fret.
5th string, 2nd fret.

To show which finger to use, you put a number in the dot. Fingers are numbered one through four. So in this case, your first or pointing finger goes on the 3rd string, 1st fret, your second or middle finger goes on the 4th string 2nd fret, and your third finger goes on the 4th string, 2nd fret. Incidentally, this is a little preview of the E chord you’re about to learn.

What About the Other Strings?

But first! Strings that aren’t fretted, that don’t have fingers on them, should have either an O or an X above them to show whether they should be played. O means open: Play that string. X means don’t play it. In the case of our E chord, you play all the strings, so we put “O’s” above all the strings that aren’t fretted. But with this E chord, you only play the 5th and 6th strings, because all the others have X’s above them.

OK, time to learn some chords!

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