How to Play Guitar From Chord Charts and Lead Sheets

Not all classical guitarists practice chords outside of pieces of music. However, this skill can make everything we do easier.

When we know our chords and can play classical guitar accompaniment, we can learn music faster. We can more easily play with other people. And we understand (and memorize) our pieces more readily.

One way to practice this skill, is by playing along to “chord charts”, which are also called “lead sheets”.

What is a Lead Sheet, or Chord Chart?

The terms “chord chart” and “lead sheet” are used interchangeably. They refer to the same thing.

A chord chart is most often a single line of music (the melody), with the chord names written above the staff.

chord melody

Chord charts typically give the melody, with the harmony (chords) written above as letter names or symbols.

The chord names (aka “chord symbols”) are written above the beat intended for the chord. For instance, a chord name written at the beginning of a measure signals that the chord should begin on the first beat.

The most common placements for chords are on the first beat, and on the third beat (in common 4/4 time).

The Most Important Beat of the Measure: The First

Our goal may be to play elaborate picking patterns along with the chords. This is lovely. However, our first priority is to play each new chord on the beat intended.

chord changes

Job #1: play the new chord on the exact beat above which it’s written.

Important note: it’s more important to play the chord (or the bass note of the chord) on the beat, than to finish the preceding pattern.

It’s fine to miss the last few notes of the preceding chord. It’s better to cut off a chord early to get to the new chord, than to let the previous chord ring for the entire duration.  A chord played late is wrong.

So how can we practice to master this?

How to Practice Playing from Chord Charts and Lead Sheets

To begin playing guitar from a chord chart, first look through and make sure you know all the chords.

Next, at a steady tempo (speed), play each chord once, strumming on the beat indicated in the music. Counting aloud will help to ensure you stay with the music. If you miss a chord, skip it – keep counting and get the next one. Going back doesn’t make it right.

As you become comfortable with this, you can add complexity. You can add more strums. You can speed up. Or you can add right-hand patterns.

Often, a particular chord combination will give some trouble. If so, practice switching between those chords outside the context of the piece. When practicing with the chord chart, stay in rhythm and let missed chords go.

Over time, we can learn to think of the chords in our pieces as well as the notes. This gives us deeper understanding, and can help us to memorize, or learn faster.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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