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Basic Chord Chart Writing

The Transcribing Course

An extra trick that many guitarists find very useful is to make a proper 'chord chart'. The type you might get if you were doing a chart reading gig.

I guess we better start by looking at the difference between a Lyric/Chord Sheet and a Chord Chart. Well lets start by getting the obvious one out of the way - the Chord Chart doesn't have lyrics on it - but it ads some other information which can be very useful: how many times each chord should be played. I have sometimes written in key lyrics in the chart to help me remember the sections if I needed too though, and no harm in it!

I have mostly used Lyric/Chord sheets when I was teaching because many students like to sing along and see the words, but many of them found it a lot easier to play when they had a Chord Chart that shows them exactly how many times to strum a chord before changing to the next chord. It also help you get that prepared in your mind, you can see the new chord coming up and you get ready to jump! There would be no harm in having both though. Most people have trouble singing along, so maybe learning off a chord chart and then using a lyric sheet when you memorise it? Whatever works for you.

You can see a bunch of examples of chord charts for my own songs - you can download them free and may be useful to download to check out as examples (Love And Levity pdf or Falling Next To You pdf). Btw, I'm using my own tunes to avoid copyright problems.

My chord charts were done in a program called Sibelius which I use for making charts and doing Tabs, but you can do them by hand too - that's what I did up until I needed to make chart professionally, and even these days I do them by hand and ask friends to put them into Sibelius because it's far quicker for them (cos they use it all the time and I have other things to be doing).

We'll come back and talk about how they are laid out in a bit, but first...


I have a couple of templates for you to check out before we get going, both are very useful, and it depends on how you want to use them. Get these downloaded and then we'll have a chat about how to fill them out.

The first template is a Chord Chart 4 Bar (CC4B) template - which means that I have each line (stave) divided into 4 bars. This keeps things neat and tidy for the most part and is what I would recommend when you start out.

You might find that having to have 4 bars on each line a bit of pain if you run into chord sequences that are say 5 or 7 bars long. In this case you might want to use the Plain Manuscript Paper and that way you can add your own bar lines in as you need them.

Start It Rough

When you start making charts you are going to make mistakes. Get used to it, and don't stress about it. I still always start with a rough chart and then re-draw it and must have made more than a thousand charts in my life so far. I'm going to be talking more about layout and how to keep it clean later - cos keeping it clear and easy to read is pretty important.

A Real Basic Chart - 12 Bar Blues

So lets just get together and make a chart ok? We're going to make a chart for a 12 Bar Blues in E because it's dead easy and you could write a thousand song names at the top of the page and would be right (Before You Accuse Me is an obvious example but there are literally thousands of songs that have the same chords).

Print out a page of the CC4B paper and notice that there are 4 bars on each line (stave). Being that we have 12 bars in a 12 Bar Blues (strange that!) so it's only going to take up 3 lines of the chart.

So at the start of the first bar we want to write the letter E7, but where exactly do you write it?

You don't have to do this all the time (but it's not a bad idea) write 4 evenly spaced strum lines in the first bar. You could check out Example #1 to see what I mean. You should write your chord where the first 'D' is. Inside the bar but only just. Don't write in the middle of the bar (a common beginners mistake).

In the second bar write A7 and in the third and fourth bars write E7. Now we're onto the second line write A in the first two bars and E in the next two bars. Now we're onto the third line of chart you are going to write one bar each of B7, A7, E7 and finally B7.

Play it again Sam...

At the end of the 12th bar (the end of the 3rd line) you should write a repeat sign, which looks like a thick line, a thin line and two dots. Look at the first line of the chart for Falling Next To You - at the end of the line is the repeat sign - but you also need to place one at the beginning of the chart so you know where you should repeat from.

A repeat sign must always have a "start repeat sign" so you know where to go back to. I always think of the little "eyes" on the repeat sign need to look back to the eyes looking forward. Take a look at my charts or any "professional" charts and check out how they are written.

Using repeat signs can save a lot of paper and writing time, but sometimes it is better to keep charts "long-form" without repeats if you need to make notes about different sections.

There are many other ways of showing repeats in charts but they will come under "advanced chord chart writing" and you shouldn't worry about such things until you have had a little experience writing basic charts as described in this lesson.

More then one chord in a bar

So far we have just looked at having one chord in a bar, but as you have probably noticed, chords often change more than once a bar.

If you have two chords in a bar and the chord changes half way through the bar then you can probably get away with having one chord at the start of the bar and one written half way. I do this most of the time and most people will assume that that if there are two chords written in a bar then the change will happen half way through.

If the chord changes on a different beat, the easiest way to write it is to add 4 slash lines in the bar (which will represent the 4 beats in the bar) and then write the new chord above whichever beat the change happens. Easy done.

Working this out can be a little challenging at first, but like everything else it just takes a little practice. One of the best things you can do is count along with songs as you listen and just get used to hearing (and instinctively knowing) where "1" is - that is you just get a feeling for beat one, and therefore every other beat too!

Not in 4?

Some songs are not written with 4 beats in a bar (4:4). For those songs you will need to write a different time signature at the start of the song (3:4, 6:8 or whatever) and each bar in the song will have that number of beats. If you are adding slash lines in the bars then the number of slashes you will add will be the first (top) number of your time signature. Time signatures need a lesson doing... will try and get onto that soon.

Keeping it simple and clear

The best way to learn about making charts is to make some! It takes practice to make them look simple and easy to read. The trick I think is always to "do unto others", make charts as clear and simple as you would like people to make for you!

As you look at other charts and find things that you like about them, or dislike. If you find a chart hard to read then try and figure out why, so that you don't make the same mistake. If you find a chart easy to read and follow then try to emulate it when you make charts yourself.

Once you have done a rough of your chart you might want to lay it out into sections so that verses and choruses start at the beginning of a line. You don't have to, but it keeps it easy to read.

Look at your draft version and see if you can see where you might be able to put repeat marks in. Look at the way that other people use them and then see what you can do to tidy up your chart.

Put it into practice

Now all that is left is for you to get out there and make some charts! So off you go! A great starting point would be to use some of my song lesson videos into chart for yourself. That way you are being shown the chords (you don't have to transcribe the song) and you can concentrate on making your chart look good - and looking good means easy to read... at least it should!

Good luck and hope that helps! time to get yourself busy ;)

Lesson ID: TR-302