How to Read These Chord Charts

These pages all use a standard folk charting system popularized by the renowned fake book Rise Up Singing.  The system is designed to be compact, and uses a number of conventions to minimize the space that the chord charts take up in the song.  This site is, after all, primarily for singers.  Us guitarists are just an after-thought.

The most important thing about the system is that it's not intended to teach you a song that you don't already know.  It's assumed that you have at least a passing familiarity with each song, or someone to teach you.  The charts only give you the basic chord progression.  They don't tell you what syllable to come in on, precisely how long to strum, or any incidental embellishments that might really make the song.  It's all strictly rhythm guitar stuff.  Note also that I've taken the liberty, wherever I felt like it, of simplifying the chords or transposing the song into a key I preferred.  Sometimes I noted how much to capo your guitar to get back to the original recorded key.  However, this site is not intended to get you to perfectly reproduce a recorded version of a song.  It's here to help you make your own version.  So I'm not terribly attached to any particular key.

Finally, particularly unusual chords (those being the ones I had to look up) are shown as fingering charts in the songs themselves.  Those graphics are made using Robert Allgeyer's wonderful FretQwik font.  My apologies if the charts include chords you don't find easy or well-known, and which I didn't call out.  But there are many sites which can give you basic fingerings for all sorts of chords.

OK, first things first.
So I bought a guitar and I practiced real hard
I wasn't much good, but I was willin'
Till to my chagrin, my girlfriend came in
And she said, "Can you sing any Dylan?"

/ F - C - / F - G - / C - F - / C G C - /
The most important parts of these chord charts are the slash ("/"), the dash ("-"), and the individual chords.  The slashes separate lines.  Note above that the four-line verse has four blocks of chords separated by slashes.  Thus, each line in this song has four chords to it.  In every song, each chord symbol (including dashes) occupies the same amount of time as each other symbol within that song.  The dash tells you to play the same chord again.  A line that says "/ A - - - /" would tell you to play A the whole time.  In the above example, the first line, / F - C - /, tells you to strum F for 2 beats, and then C for 2 beats. 

So you have to have some idea of the rhythm of a song to figure out how long to strum each chord symbol.  As my foot taps, each line above has four beats to it, so each separate chord symbol occupies one beat.  Each song may have a different number of beats per symbol, but it will be consistent through that entire song.  A particular song will not necessarily have the same number of chords for every line, of course.  If a line has fewer chords, it's because it occupies less time than other ones.
A long, long time ago
I can still remember how that music used to make me smile
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And maybe they'd be happy for a while

/ GD Em / Am7 C Em D / GD Em / Am7 C / Em Am D /
There's one important additional note about chord duration.  If you have two chords without a space in between them, they occupy a half duration each.  In the above example, the first line might have been written / G D Em - /.  To save space, since the majority of chords occupy two beats, we wrote it as / GD Em /.  GD in this case means a half-space of G and a half-space of D.  This should be distinguished from the standard chord notation G/D, which means "G major with a D bass note."  We use that notation where appropriate as well.  In those rare circumstances where complex chords need to be squished like that, like a C and a C/B in rapid succession, we'll put a dash between them like C-C/B (or use an arrow - see below).  This is separate from a stand-alone dash, and should be easily distinguished from one by the spacing.  In those cases where the song is 3/4, it's possible to have three chords strung together, like GGD, and sometimes for readability we might separate them with dashes, like G-G-D.
You set my ever-lovin' heart on fire, Airline Amy
Tell me I'm your favorite frequent flier, Airline Amy
Found a little piece of heaven on a 747
And no one else can take me higher than Airline Amy

/ E D A - / / D - A D / A E A - /
Just as dashes denote that you should play the same chord again, empty slashes tell you to play the same line again.  In the above. the first two lines are / E D A - / E D A - /.  To save space, we omit the second line and just put another slash, and the player knows to repeat the same chords again.
Words are flowing out
Like endless rain into a paper cup
They slither while they pass
They slip away across the universe
Pools of sorrow, waves of joy
Are drifting through my opened mind
Possessing and caressing me

/ C Am / Em - / Dm7 - / G7 - / 1st, 2nd / Dm7 Fm6 - /
For cases where the chords for the first few lines repeat later on in the verse, I'll tell you to repeat the chords for those lines with notation like "1st" and "2nd".  I don't recall any songs getting out to "4th". 
I believe the sun should never set upon an argument
I believe we place our happiness in other people's hands
I believe that junk food tastes so good because it's bad for you
I believe your parents did the best job they knew how to do
I believe that beauty magazines promote low self esteem
I believe I'm loved when I'm completely by myself alone

/ G D C Dsus4D / G D C D / : / F#m D E - / /
Another way to show repitition is by the colon, which looks suspiciously like the coda symbol.  In the above example, the coda tells us to repeat the first two lines as often as we need to, until we get to the last two lines, which will both be identical. 
Well we're living here in Allentown
And they're closing all the factories down
Out in Bethlehem they're killing time
Filling out forms, standing in line

/ Em7 A D - / Am7 D G - / Em7 A Bm F#m / Em D Asus4 A /

Well our fathers fought the Second World War
Spent their weekends on the Jersey Shore
Met our mothers in the USO
Asked them to dance, danced with them slow
And we're living here in Allentown

/ " / " / " / " / Em7 A D - /
The last way to show repetition is for when there are verses that are substantially similar, but with a few changes.  In those cases, I put a ditto mark for the line that repeats.  In the above example, the first four lines of the second verse are identical to the four lines of the first verse.  Only the last line is different, so only the last line is shown explicitly. 

Most lines won't have chords beneath them.  I only notate chords the first time they are used.  If the second verse has the same chords as the first, they won't be written out.  If the the first two verses have different chords, but the third and fourth follow the same pattern, then only the first two will get notation.  I assume you know the song well enough to know which goes where.  Some more complicated songs, as an aid to putting the right tune in the right place, have certain verses indented.  In those cases, the indented verses all have substantially the same chord pattern and/or tune, with any changes noted.  Some songs have several levels of indentation; each level has the same chords.  Yes, I'll do almost anything to not have to type a chord.
Winter time, northern lights
How'd they find me here
Spinning rhymes and holding tight
As midnight's drawing near

/ G D C G / C - D - / :
The down-arrow is a short-hand for a walking bass-line.  For the first line, the chord only occupies one space, and knowing the song, you'd translate that into C-C/B, making the whole line / G D C-C/B G /.  For the second line, since you have two spaces to walk that bass line down, you'd get four steps: C-C/B C/A-C/G.  The down-arrow is short-hand, and doesn't tell you exactly how to run the bass-line.  It assumes you're a reasonable enough guitarist to just sort of know, or to be familiar enough with the song.  If neither is the case, just strum C the whole time.  it won't sound perfect, but, like I say elsewhere, if perfect is your goal, you're on the wrong site.  There is also an up-arrow designation, which tells you to walk your bass-line up, but I don't think it got used more than twice in the entire site.
MacGregor, MacKenna, MacGowan, MacGraw
MacVitie, MacNeil, and MacRay
Aye all of the folk in the village were there
On my mother's wedding day
For pa had asked his friend MacPhee
And Mac had come with May MacGee
And May invited ninety-three
To my mother's wedding day
Then up the road came Ed MacKeen
With half the town of Aberdeen
Aye everyone was on the scene
At my mother's wedding day

/ C - - - / / / G7 - C - /
/ F - C7sus4 F / C7sus4 F C7sus4 F / F - C7sus4 F / G7 - C - /
/ " / " / F - Bb F / - Bb F - /
At least once I made a weird exception to the ditto-mark rule.  This will only occur on multi-line chord charts, and hopefully will be obvious from context.  Here, the ditto marks don't refer to a previous verse, they refer to the previous line of chords in this verse.  I could have written "5th, 6th", but then you'd be counting lines in the middle of the song.  I put the ditto marks more or less under the very lines to repeat - / F - C7sus4 F / C7sus4 F C7sus4 F /.  Under other circumstances, I'd have just written the lines out again, I found it a good cue to know that you're repeating the lines in chord and tune at that point.
Love is a garden of thorns
Love's garden of thorns, how it grows
And a crow in the corn
Black crow in the corn hummin' low
And the brake growing wild
Brake nettle so pretty and wild
And thistles surround the edge of the
Cold when the summer is spent
Dim dark hour as the sun moves away
In the jade heart's lament
Lamenting a lost summer day
For the faith of a child
Who nurtures the faith of a child
When nothing remains to cover her eyes?
Finally, a note about background vocals.  There are parts of many songs where two (or more) voices sing different things at the same time.  Such background vocals are shown by indentation of particular lines in the middle of a verse.  In the above verse, the indented, italicized lines are sung at the same time as the normal lines.  The verse itself would have only six lines of chords, because there are only six normal lines.  It's possible to have several voices all singing different things (like Paul McCartney's Silly Love Songs); each gets its own indentation level.

OK, that's all I can think of to tell you about how to read the charts.  Once you get the main gist, of slashes, dashes, timing and squished chords, the rest sort of starts to make sense.  As always, feel free to write with questions.  Or go buy Rise Up Singing (available at every music book store I've ever seen, including Sheet Music Plus and - their introduction to the system is much clearer and more thorough than mine.

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