Making sense of basic Chord Sheets

Thanks for the tips. the lessons I’ve been working on since Dec are on truefire. I am currently in “Learn Guitar 2” over there. Working on a module now that introduced the “baby F” chord and basic arpeggios. Just working on getting smoother and faster on a version of “House of the Rising Sun”.

The lessons there have had a great progression for me. They got me started better and faster than anything I’ve tried previously. But I have certainly learned that there are gaps with most people’s teaching and that not all instructors are created equally. I tried one online intro lesson once where the instructor introduced 2 chords and then said, “in the files attached to this lesson I have included a list of songs that use the two chords you just learned”. So I go look at those materials and there is a list and it says which chords each song uses, but there is nothing else. Not even a chord sheet with the lyrics. No word on how to use this info. Assumption in the lesson is that this is week 1 material starting from 0 with music. I looked up the songs elsewhere and nothing even matched the chords in the materials. Even if I used transposition tools to shift the pitch. Sigh.

Anyway. All that to say that I’ve been working through these fairly slowly for awhile. I’ve played quite a few songs…some of which I continue to play. The ones that have worked best for me use really detailed notation that I love. And I typically get to a point where I can play them from memory. But to this point, nothing there has really addressed chord sheets, which I am seeing right now as the biggest gap in what I have learned so far.

I have decided to also work through the lessons here, spending more time on things that JG teaches a little differently or especially that I haven’t done before. The 1 minute chord change exercise was new to me. So I worked on that using the A and D chords to see where I was. I did 78 changes per min on my first go, and I liked the exercise. So I’ll be using it with the other chords I know, too.

It’s good to hear that JG’s lessons do cover material that is maybe more specifically applicable to using song sheets. I’ve worked on a few different strumming patterns that seemed to me to be rhythms specific to the songs I was playing at the time. but not the one referred to as “Old faithful”.

I’m no stranger to some basic theory anyway, but most of it was long ago. I have been holding off on diving into it more because a lot of what I’ve seen discussed online so far is well past the stuff I’m wanting to mess with.

Thanks for that. I’ll have to add that site to my bookmarks. Being that I’ve started on the JG lessons to get somewhere close to the point I am with the other ones I’ve been working on, I have plenty to work on, plus it looks like some more songs. That will keep me busy for a hot minute. It looks like some of those are going to touch on some tips/skills/techniques that will help with this particular challenge.

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Apologies if I’m repeating things others have written above…

The thing with chord sheets is that the information you are looking for is not clearly or reliably presented in that format. As mentioned at the top of this thread, the simplest (and perhaps only) solution is

Slow the recording down, repeat sections that are not clear. Write things down. Or - do the best you can and make the song your own! It’s not required to exactly reproduce the original. I’m don’t think Justin’s lessons provide much more guidance than this on reading chord sheets.

This process is still a heavy lift for me at my skill level (I’m working on it though!), so I rely on learning songs that have a lesson. Justin has many excellent song lessons, and of course there are many other sources as well, though few are free. That reminds me: Justin does have a Tabs subscription that provides chords and tabs for the songs in his lessons. Some (not all, and maybe not even a majority) of those include sheet music. I subscribe, and for me it’s well worth the price.

Finally, Justin has several song books. I don’t know if these are songs you want to learn. He provides lyrics with chords, strumming patterns, some riffs, and other guidance. I think there are video lessons of each of these songs. (But not all his lessons are in a book, to my knowledge.) I find the book I have is a great supplement to the recorded lessons. Of course, licensing fees make it impossible to post these details on the web for free (hence the Tabs subscription).

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I guess part of the problem here is how pervasive the expectation that super early beginners can just figure it out without being given a few tools.

I get it. Some amazing musicians before the internet (hell, before electricity) did just that. But I’m not that, and I never will be.

Thing is, we’ve figured out some really great methods for teaching lots of things. I teach adults how to mountain bike. In a couple hours I can get brand new riders of any age getting their wheels off the ground reliably.

Why not this? Why is this notation so prevalent when it seems to actually get in the way of playing songs?

Hello Nate,

Song sheets ( chords and lyrics only) presuppose that you have a handle on the songs rhythm; and perhaps both its harmony and its melody. If you don’t, then song sheets aren’t really the best initially. So, I’d put them aside as primary sources, until you know the groove of the song. How to do that?

Listening to the original is the absolute most important factor. And I don’t mean a Sunday afternoon, lay on the lounge type of listening; that’s for recreation. But critical listening; what the type of groove ( rock, pop, country, blues etc), how the beats sound and how many, the accents, chord progression, where the chords change ( not just in relation to the lyrics, but in relation to the ‘groove’ of the song). Sounds alot, and it is at the beginning, like anything. But, the more you do it, the more natural it feels, and the quicker you will lock into it. There’s no definitive system that will get you to competent level immediately. Its fumble and fall, and get back up and carry on.

As for the single strum per bar playing being boring; well, that’s where we all start, with any song. As you develop, you’ll spend less time there. Some songs, I might need one playthrough at single strums till I’ve ‘got the groove’. Others are more complicated, and take more time, but the single strum gives you those basic ‘anchor points’. Any strumming pattern, no matter how complicated it gets, are just strums in between these anchor points.
As for a definitive “system” that you can devise then apply; there is none. The ‘system’ is in the experience of doing it, fumbling and failing, and seeking guidance, tips, ideas etc from those that have gone before. Your journey will be experimenting from this pool of knowledge, and seeing what works for you. Much like anything in life.

So the “system” is the doing of it. Sounds BS, abstract, airy-fairy, unhelpful, I know….but it is the way.
The fact you are here posting, with all your frustrations etc, is proof that your system is working. I guarantee you are going to experience a breakthrough pretty soon. Every single person on this forum I think can relate to what you’re saying.

As for some specific,practical actionable items, I’d strongly suggest;

  1. Justin’s Strumming Course
  2. Justins ‘Sing and Play’ video. Search on youtube. It is THE absolute best I’ve ever seen.
  3. Write the song out i.e. pencil and paper. The tactile, sensory, and personal nature of it aids learning imo.

All the best,

Cheers, Shane.


The lyrics of a song are virtually never a good indicator of when chord changes happen.

In the vast, vast majority of songs, chords change on beat 1 or beat 3. Songs with a pushed rhythm have a chord change on a between &, commonly the & after 4.

This is essential because the chords (whether a lone guitar or multiple instruments together) are there making up the rhythm section to provide a solid harmonic structure, a secure pulse, a reliable foundation upon which the singer can build and grow and develop their story in melody.

By analogy, the ‘band’ playing the rhythm are the solid bed of ice at an ice rink and the singer is the figure skater who can glide forwards, backwards, pirouette, leap up, spin and perform all sorts of graceful movements.

Many chord charts simply have the text of the singer with the chord names / diagrams approximately placed alongside.
Any chord chart trying to line up the chords exactly with the word / syllable when a chord change occurs is doomed to still be an approximation because singers can come in early, or come in late, or start before a bar or cross the boundaries of bars, singing between and in the musical cracks of time.

If you’re trying to play a song, in my view, listening to the song is the least you should do. Multiple times.

Also, in the vast majority of cases, songs do not jump from 4/4 to 2/4 to 3/4 etc. so there is no need, most of the time, to anticipate bars of unequal length.

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What a magical description Richard !

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Thanks for the discussion, y’all.

I’m really getting the feeling that there are a lot of people out there just tossing these song sheets to beginners far too early.

And that it would behoove instructors to help guide their students through this process of figuring these sheets out early enough given how widespread they are, and once folks have enough chords in their repertoire that they’re beginning to get curious about learning more songs. Give them the tools they need to continue exploring themselves, right?

@Mustela watch this video about Mindful Listening
It will changemthe way you listen to music.


cool. thanks for that.

I appreciate all the help, y’all. this has been the most helpful guitar group I’ve found online so far. I’ve checked out a handful of others and the atmosphere there has been pretty typical toxic internet behavior.

Nate @Mustela

Apologies for not getting back sooner but I see you have had advice from community members far more knowledgeable than me.

The only thing I would add as Justin says in a few lessons “you have just got to listen” very good advice but sometimes easier said than done!