Whether you write your own music or want to play covers of songs you like, you must be able to read and write various kinds of music notation.
There are seven different types of music notation for guitar, from advanced sheet music (treble clef or G-clef) to simple chord diagrams.
Six of the guitar notation types are for performance while the remaining one is for practice. I include descriptions of each type with graphics and have downloadable PDF files for download.
Commonly used music notation for guitar
Below are all the various types of music notation that you will see in music books or on websites. Check out my Downloads page for links to most of the music notation sheets listed below.
I am not going to go into great detail on all the symbols for standard notation and guitar tab. There are countless websites on that. This article is the only one you’ll find that lists all the types of music notation for guitar, so that is what I’m focusing on.
1) Standard music notation (treble or G clef)
Standard notation has the most information on the rhythm, harmony, and melody for a song. But you have to be able to read sheet music, everything. You need to be able to read the notes on the treble clef, the duration of the notes, rests, ties, and a whole lot more.
Just for reference, here are the notes of the open guitar strings in Standard Tuning as they would appear on a treble clef with the low E and A strings as they also appear of the bass, or F clef:
If you can’t read sheet music you should start to learn. I have a version of Blue Sky by the Allman Brothers and the sheet music has the opening riff and mid-song lead by Duane Allman – and it’s exactly what you hear in the studio version!
Here are the basics on standard notation:
- There are 5 lines on the staff. The notes are placed on or between the lines.
- Every music staff begins with a clef, and for the guitar, that would be the treble clef or G clef.
- The clef defines a certain note on a line to act as a reference point so you can determine all other notes.
- Ledger lines are the short lines above and below the staff ( the E & A guitar strings above).
- Some of the other clefs you will see in sheet music are the F clef (bass clef) and the C clef (alto clef). As a guitar player, you’ll see the F clef but not the C clef.
- Other symbols you’ll see on the G clef are time signature, key signature, and symbols for time values of notes, articulation (slides, bends, etc.), accidentals and bars/measures…
Learning to read sheet music is a great skill to learn.
2) Lead sheets
Lead sheets, also called fake sheets, also use the treble clef along with a time signature but do not include as much musical information.
In general, lead sheets only show the chord names above the staff, the melody on the staff and the lyrics below the staff. Sometimes the lyrics are omitted. It’s common to have an entire song on one page of a lead sheet.
Lead sheets do not show chord voicings – that’s up to you to figure out. The limited information in this type of music notation allows for creativity and shows that you have the chops to play any piece of music.
A collection of lead sheets is known as a fake book (you have to fake your way through the song). I have the E♭ version of The Standards Real Book, a huge collection of jazz lead sheets. Download a PDF file of my blank treble clef music sheets.
3) Guitar tab (the preferred music notation of guitarists)
Guitar tablature is a must if you do not read standard notation. Here is a G7alt lick I made using a program called TuxGuitar. After that is a G7 arpeggio that I created with a graphic design program called Inkscape.
Notice that they both include tab along with the corresponding notes in standard notation.
Here are the basics of how to read guitar tab:
- Each line of tab is a guitar string, with notes indicated by fret numbers as opposed to quarter notes, eighth notes, etc.
- The duration of the notes is determined from the standard notation above the tab.
- You’ll see plenty of articulation symbols such as slides, bends, hammer-ons, pull-offs, harmonics, etc.
- The low E string is on the bottom, high E on top and is assumed to be in standard tuning (EADGBe) unless otherwise notated.
- Besides fret #’s, you’ll also see an “0” for playing open strings and an “X” for muted strings.
- Tab also shows notes to be played together, such as for chords and double-stops or intervals. In those cases, fret numbers are stacked in a vertical column – one on top of each other.
- There are a lot more symbols for guitar tab but those are the basics.
4) Chord charts
There seem to be three versions of what are called chord charts:
- The basic rhythm and harmony of a song are shown below the chord symbols on the G clef as slashes placed on each beat. It’s basically just the chord progression of a song but is quite useful.
- Chord names placed above song lyrics which are only good for songs that you know. I don’t consider this type of music notation as chord charts but rather just song lyrics with chord names – not really a “chart”.
- And finally, there are downloadable charts with chord diagrams of “beginner” or “must-know” chords. They are a column and row graphic of various beginner chords. Don’t bother with those. You should be building a chord diagram book as you encounter new chord types or chord voicings.
Here is an example of a ii-V-I chord chart in C major:
So what you will see with a quality chord chart is:
- Chord names above the treble clef staff
- The time and key signature of the song and the strumming pattern for the chords.
- You may see rests or beats where chords are not played as well as muted chord strums.
- There is no melody notated with chord charts.
- They tend to be used for guitar, piano, bass & drums
Another variation of a chord chart is only the chord progression which I often use and is basically a version of NNS or roman numerals but with the full chord name. An example would be something like:
C – Am – Fmaj – G7 (common 1-6-4-5 chord progression), or as
C / / / Am / / / Fm,aj7 / / / G7 / / /
5) Chord, scale & fretboard diagrams
Chord diagrams, or chord blocks, show where the notes of a chord are played on the guitar. These are the first thing a beginner guitar player should learn. When you know basic chords you can play a lot of songs.
In general, chord diagrams are vertical but you will also see horizontal chord diagrams where the bottom line if the low E. I create vertical chord blocks for my chord book but I always turn it sideways so that it is horizontal (easier to read).
- There are 6 vertical lines for each string, the far left is the low E and the far right is the high E. Fret divisions are the horizontal lines.
- The chord name is at the top of the chord diagram and it is assumed the chords are in Standard Tuning (EADGBE) unless otherwise noted.
- Notes are represented as black or white circles placed on the strings at certain frets.
- There are other symbols such as “O” for open strings, “X” muted strings or strings not played, fret numbers, etc.
- Sometimes they come with finger positions for the notes of the chord. The finger placement is either below the strings or in the note circles.
- Some chord diagrams have a thick black horizontal line at the top of the chord to indicate the nut. I feel that is totally unnecessary.
- You will also see 2 types of symbols for a bar, or barre, chord: the curved line or a thick black bar spanning 2 or more strings
I personally also include the chord intervals at the bottom of each chord block. Blank chord diagrams are also great for practicing scales in the CAGED positions.
Here is a chart for the symbols I use on my chord and scale diagrams:
Here is a C major chord diagram in 1st position with optional G notes on the low and high E strings:
An example of a C major pentatonic scale diagram in the G voicing:
Besides scale and chord diagrams, you’ll also see fretboard diagrams to “map out” chords or scales along the entire fretboard. Those are really useful. Below are the dimensions of my fretboard diagrams (8 to a page) that I have available for download:
I mapped out every chord type in every key along the entire fretboard using fretboard diagrams. I may have missed a few chord voicings (oops) but I basically found all of them!
Both chord diagrams and fretboard diagrams are for learning, not for playing songs. Though as you learn chords and scales, you will use those to either write your own songs and licks or to make your own versions of cover songs
6) Nashville number system
The Nashville Number System (NNS), or Nashville notation, uses #s instead of chord symbols for the chords in a song. This is common for popular music session players. But you have to have knowledge of the triads built from the notes of the major scale.
In case you don’t know, the 1st, 4th and 5th scale degrees of the major scale build major triads. The 2nd, 3rd and 6th scale degrees build minor triads. You don’t often see it in popular music, but the 7th scale degree builds a diminished triad. Here are examples in C and G major:
C major scale: C-D-E-F-G-A-B
C major triads: C, Dm, E, F, G, Am and B dim
G major scale: G-A-B-C-D-E-F#
G major triads: G, Am, Bm, C, D, Em, F# dim
All you do is replace the chord names with their respective numbers. So a 1-6-4-5 chord progression in C major is C-Am-F-G and in G major it is G-Em-C-D. You will also see it written with slashes:
1 / / / 6 / / / 4 / / / 5 / / /
Beat one is the number and the 3 slashes are beats 2, 3, & 4 in 4/4 time.
The benefit of reducing scale degrees and chords to numbers is that you can more easily remember the chord progression and transposing to other keys is simple.
For example, Transposing the 1-6-45 chords from G major (G-Em-C-D) to E major is easy (E-C#m-A-B). You just have to remember that the 2, 3 and 6 are minor chords.
Song examples expressed with the Nashville Numbering System
Here are some examples of songs with a 1-4-5 chord progression:
Louie Louie, Sympathy for the Devil, Wild Thing, Sweet Home Alabama, Get Off of My Cloud, La Bamba, Twist & Shout, Summertime Blues, and practically every blues tune.
Examples of songs following the 1-6-4-5 pattern:
Stand by Me, Every Breath You Take, All My Loving, A Hard Days Night.
Nashville numbering and Roman numeral analysis (see below) are best for transcribing a chord progression to any key. But both methods require that you know basic music theory and the pattern of major and minor triads in the major scale.
7) Roman numeral analysis
Roman numeral analysis uses roman numerals in place of numbers as in Nashville numbering, otherwise, it is the same thing (only better).
Upper case Roman numerals represent major or augmented chords and lower case are minor and diminished. So instead of 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 with NNS, you would use I-ii-iii-IV-V-vi-viio.
So the word “analysis” is a little misleading. Yes, using roman numerals in place of actual chord names aids in analyzing the harmony of any song, but using Roman numerals is also fantastic for writing out the harmony of any song. It also aids in memorization and transposition to other keys like NNS.
Let’s skip the analysis part and focus on the music notation aspect. Here is a basic chord chart, NNS and Roman numerals for one of the most common chord progression:
Chord chart: C – Am – F – G, or C / / / Am / / / F / / / G / / /
NNS: 1 – 6 – 4 – 5, or 1 / / / 6 / / / 4 / / / 5 / / /
Roman: I – vi – IV – V, or I / / / vi / / / IV / / / V / / /
They all show the same chord progression. It’s up to you which one you prefer, but you need to be familiar with each type in case you encounter them. I personally prefer Roman numerals.
Here are the Roman numerals for the natural minor, harmonic minor and melodic minor scales:
Natural: i, iio, III, iv, v, VI, VII
Harmonic: i, iio, III+, iv, V, VI, viio
Melodic: i, ii, III+, IV, V, vio, viio or VII 7alt
The reason why Roan numerals are best, in my opinion, is because of the use of chord substitutions. For example, in C major the 2 chord is Dm but it’s not uncommon to play a D7 (dominant substitution) begore going to a G chord. In that case, you just write II7 instead of ii7. I’m not sure how that would be expressed in NNS.
I hope these 7 methods of music notation, some specifically for guitar, help you in writing and playing music. Get familiar with all of them so that you’ll know what to play when you encounter them in sheet music, on websites or when handed a sheet of paper in a jam session.
Check out the Music Notation page on Wikipedia for an in-depth article on the subject.