What’s A Chart Supposed To Be?

As a guitar player we are often faced with “charts…” Either we’re reading them to know how a song goes, or we’re writing them in hopes of sharing a song with a band or a friend or a group.

Now, growing up in the before-times (before the internet) and hanging around jazz musicians, charts were an everyday occurrence in “The Real Book,” which is basically the bible of all tunes jazz (or, at least it used to be… I suspect nothing has really changed except that it’s now found in an app.)

The main thing you have to remember about a chart, as opposed to sheet music, is that a chart is NOT going to explain how a specific recording of a song is played. It is not a transcription, it is simply the melody, and the chords, to a song. No more, no less.

(In fact, sheet music is not a transcription either. Sheet music is, in general, more verbose than a chart, but it is still not the act of listening to a specific recording and writing down (transcribing) what is actually played by the guitar player.)

What we commonly call “TABs” today are sometimes like a lead sheet (and usually not even that much) and sometimes more like a transcription… depending on the source.

Sometimes you’ll also hear a chart called a “leadsheet” or even a “fakebook arrangement” of a song. It allows a band to “fake” their way through the song without having to have heard it before.

It contains the 3 fundamental aspects of a song – the chords, the feel, and the melody… again, nothing more and nothing less.

Now, if you’re the player, how well you can get through a chart like the image above is simply about how well you know your chords, how well you can make up some sort of rhythm figure on the fly, and (if you have the melody) how well you can read the melody.

For a jazz combo (and I’ve done a LOT of those over the years) it’s typical that all I have to do is play the chords and let either the piano or a horn take the melody. Every once in a while I’ll take a melody or we’ll pass it around – it depends a lot on the group. Once we’ve played the whole chart through (the melody is called the head) then we go back to the top and play solos until everyone who wants to solo is done (or the client has fired us for noodling too much) and then we play the head again and end the tune with either whatever ending is written, a tag, or a standard ending.

Your approach to a chart is also going to have a lot to do with your familiarity with the tune being played. If you know the most popular recording of this tune and you’ve heard it many times, you’ll likely have no trouble getting pretty close to the recording because you know the general feel and style of the original recording.

But let’s turn it around – what if you want to make a chart for a group (or maybe just you and a friend,) how much do you need on it?

Well, first, let’s talk about the lyrics, because a lot of “charts” I see these days look like this:

And… let’s be really clear about something… this is useless to anyone unless they are VERY familiar with the song.

But if you intend for this to go to someone who has never played the song before, you’re asking for trouble. There is no sense of rhythm or time, and there are no barlines or anything to give any guitar player any indication of how long to play any given chord.

The especially “trainwreck-y” parts will be the chord changes all scrunched together at the end of a line because there are no words under them as they are typically instrumental. It’s total guessing game for any guitar player, bass player, drummer, keyboard player, etc.

This is a fine example of something I would use (and do often) to remind myself of a song I’ve played many times before, but probably haven’t played recently. I might forget some lyrics and I might forget a chord or 2, so this acts as a prompter, if nothing else.

So it’s not useless, by any means, but it’s probably not as useful to someone else as it would be to the person writing it.

Another type of chart, or really more of a transcription, that I see lately looks like this:

This is intended to be a transcription – in other words this is EXACTLY what was played. The problem is, it’s not doing a very good job of telling me what’s going on because there is no rhythm.

It’s telling me the notes using TAB, but I don’t know what notes are 1/8th notes, what are 1/16th notes, if it’s in 4/4 time or 12/8 time – none of that is there.

So again, it assumes I know very well what this is supposed to sound like, and that I have good enough inner time to make it sound that way.

For most people I encounter, that’s a BIG assumption and if you’re trying to learn songs from this sort of TAB… and it doesn’t sound right, that may be why (aside from the fact that the person who wrote it may not play as well as you do and it’s likely incorrect.)

So let’s look at something that might be more useful… here’s a chart I made for a rhythm section (bass, drums, keyboards) assuming that someone else (maybe me, maybe someone who knows the song) is singing – so there is no melody:

Click on this image to see it in full size

But you can see that I have some important things:

  1. The chords are listed, and arranged on measures so that anyone following along will make the changes at the right time.
  2. No rhythm or tempo is given, I’m assuming the band is familiar with the tune. If they were not I’d put something like “Moderate Mellow Rock” or something at the top left to indicate a feel and tempo. I could even go so far as to notate a metronome marking (quarter = 90, for example.)
  3. I’ve noted that “guitar only” starts the tune, and I’ve noted where “band in” begins.
  4. I’ve noted that the ending is a “repeat and fade,” so that means we’ll have to work something out and whomever is leading the band at that time will have to indicate an ending (which is usually just a slight ritard and hit on the downbeat at the beginning of a repeat.)
  5. There are whole notes to indicate areas where a chord is held – this will help drums and bass know not to play through those measures.

Now sometimes charts are general charts, like you just saw… but if you want a musician to play something a certain way, you will probably have to have something that is very specific – approaching sheet music quality like this:

This leaves a whole lot less to the imagination, and some charts can be even more specific. It all depends on what you can expect from your musicians – can they read it? And will they be familiar with it already?

Making Charts –

There are several options for making charts…

My favorite is still good old pencil and (staff) paper. You can download free staff paper (or TAB or whatever) from blanksheetmusic.net and get to work. Most charts I do are done this way because it’s simply the fastest way for me.

But software tools are getting more plentiful and easier to use (meaning, more like writing things out by hand…)

Typically I use Sibelius because that’s what I use for all of my books and courses, so I’m used to it and can move around fairly quickly. However, it’s WAY overkill for just charts and, because of that, can be a bit cumbersome for something so simple.

I’ve recently discovered an app for my iPad called Notion and I did the “Melissa” chart above with that in about 20 minutes. It has handwriting recognition for the notes, but not for the chord symbols, so that was a little disappointing as the process for entering the chord symbols was a bit tedious. Overall, however, at first glance it’s been working pretty well.

There are also less expensive options for your computer like Guitar Pro, TablEdit (linux), and Notion for a PC. Many DAW (Digital Audio Workstations) also have notation features built in, but they vary quite a bit.

The bottom line is this – your workflow and what is comfortable to you is the big key. If you have to spend a lot of time learning and futzing with software, you’ll forget what you’re doing with the chart and it’s SUPER frustrating. Even when I use software to make a chart nice, I usually do a sloppy copy on paper so that when I’m using the software I don’t have to think about the music – I can’t think about how to use the software and the music at the same time. I’ll copy the music into the software or app, not write the music in the software.

So the next time you need to convey your musical message, you’ll know how to consider the needs of your musicians and get them what they’ll need that is both useful to them, and gives you what you expect to hear.

Likewise, if you’re the musician and the “chart” in front of you doesn’t seem to be working to get the sound that is expected, hopefully you’ll now have a better idea as to why.


  • Michael Chappell

    Reply Reply October 16, 2017

    Happy Birthday Griff,
    I hope you have a great day and get spoilt by Laura and the kids and family and friends.

    Thanks for this great doco.. Easy to understand and most of the songs I am learning have the chords under the lyrics and simply watch the original recording gives you a great idea of the feel.

    All good.

    Michael-Sydney- Australia 10th Oct 2017.

  • Ozziejohn

    Reply Reply October 12, 2017

    Surprised you didn’t mention my favourite format, which is the one you use in your course documentation – a combination of classic and TAB. The first gives the timing cues, the latter the actual notes. Works for me.

  • J

    Reply Reply October 11, 2017

    Excellent examples and ideas. Thanks a-mil–jbjr

  • Rick g

    Reply Reply October 11, 2017

    Thanks griff. Chris G just a suggestion they have a mouse out that scans anything as large as a full size poster so that would problably resolve your problem you d be able scan it and save it as a file then I
    Sure you can print it out with a little re size

  • alan

    Reply Reply October 11, 2017

    First, Happy Birthday.
    Great information, all you mentioned I struggled through. Thankful for your courses and recording. Listening to you play the song,lick guided my guitar learning not only for blues but soft rock too.

  • Jeff

    Reply Reply October 11, 2017

    Happy Birthday!

    When you want to write a quick chord chart–just quick, plain, and simple–Band In A Box is super easy to use. Just type the chords you want into the measures and print them out. (Example: C | Am | F | G7 ). It’s literally that easy to do. It’s as fast, or faster, than writing chords out by hand on blank staff paper. You can use BIAB even if you have never even used the software before. It’s that easy.

    With only just a little more familiarity with the software you can add a melody line without much difficulty.

    The downside is cost. Band In A Box is a little pricey. But it does a LOT of cool stuff. You can make a backing track in a few minutes. Just pick a “style”, type in the chords, and hit “play”. You can generate a backing track in a minute or two (and print out your chord chart, if you want).

    YouTube “Band In A Box” for a demonstration of this versatile software.

    • ChrisGSP

      Reply Reply October 15, 2017

      Ho Jeff, I’d forgotten about BIAB. I’ve got it hanging/hiding around my music room somewhere – it’s on 3.5 inch floppy disks (yep, the one I’ve got is that old) and that’s probably why I’d forgotten it.
      Cheers. ChrisG.

  • ChrisGSP

    Reply Reply October 10, 2017

    I’ve read Guitar Player magazine since the 1970’s, just about every month. These days I read it online. In the September issue there is a lesson by Jesse Gress on Transcribing guitar music. I quote from the first paragraph: “with pencil and paper – yes I still prefer a soft pencil and a ream of manuscript over computer notation programs”. Enough said?
    One problem with traditional music manuscript paper is that it won’t fit into a scanner, so you can’t simply scan what you’ve written into a (say) PDF or GIF file. I find that a real pain, because I’ve got stuff written on manuscript paper going back to the 1960’s and I can’t get it onto the computer. Sadly, some of the paper is starting to fall apart and the actual books are tragic, held together with love and hope mostly.
    Cheers from the Land of OZ,

    • Mr.Dave

      Reply Reply October 14, 2017

      Instead of using a scanner, you could take a picture of each manuscript sheet. I have an iPhone and camera is good enough to capture the details. You can set the resolution lower to save space if needed. There are apps such as “Tiny Scanner” that turn the camera into a “scanner”, they will straighten-out the page, let you remove keystoning (when camera is not perfectly parallel to page, top or bottom or a side can look larger than the opposite edge of the page, lines are not parallel — scanner apps can fix all that). Then you have manuscript on your phone so you can practice playing it anywhere, or you can send pics to your computer. Very handy!

  • Jerome Henderson

    Reply Reply October 10, 2017

    Happy birthday my friend/Brother I have learn much,I have been taking. Lessons for over 10 years but had finger problems. Due to diabetes can not keep a pick in place ,any recordations about picks I love all the information you send me,I’m hoping my granddaughter get your courses for my birthday in November again thanks love you for all that you do an thank the MRS too Jerome i Am 66 my wife pass away 2014 ,she always supported me taking Guitar lessons money been tight I have to raise my Granddaughter an Greatgrand son but she wrote stick with the Guitar

    • Alan

      Reply Reply October 11, 2017

      My right arm and hand were messed up in a bike crash. I use a thumb-pick, downstrokes only. It’s not perfect, but a lot better than nothing. All the best!

  • Robyn

    Reply Reply October 10, 2017

    HI Griff,
    Hope you had a great Birthday. I had my sister over to celebrate 82 on 10th October. Is that your Birthdate? MY sister has a twin brother and he was born 9th October.
    I love these gems of info you so generously email. This was most interesting and informative. I very much appreciate your efforts. Thanks x

  • Steve

    Reply Reply October 10, 2017

    Happy Birthday Griff!!

  • Taura Eruera

    Reply Reply October 10, 2017

    Writing this article for my students has been on my list for so long. Now I don’t need to. I’ll just refer them to this article. Great article Griff. Thanks for taking the time to do this one.

  • Vincent Prainito

    Reply Reply October 10, 2017

    Happy Birthday and thanks helping clear things up.

    • PAUL

      Reply Reply October 10, 2017


  • Dudley Gibbs

    Reply Reply October 10, 2017

    Hope you had a good day Griff…you deserve it.

    Love your `Stuff`

  • John Smale

    Reply Reply October 10, 2017

    Happy birthday Griff. Thanks for all that you do for us.

  • Jake L Whicker

    Reply Reply October 10, 2017


    See you in Allen.

  • fearless freddy

    Reply Reply October 10, 2017

    Happy Birthday and God bless.
    fearless freddy

  • Dan Stark

    Reply Reply October 10, 2017

    Well done Griff. Keep up the good work and Happy Birthday!

  • TK

    Reply Reply October 10, 2017

    Happy Birthday! πŸŽ‚πŸ°πŸ¨πŸ§πŸŽπŸŽ‰πŸŽŠπŸŽΈπŸŽ΅πŸŽΆπŸ»

  • RollyS

    Reply Reply October 10, 2017

    First off, let me wish you a very Happy belated birthday, from a fellow Libra. I believe that our little jam group could really benefit from your guidance here! Thanks so much for this and all the other words of guidance and instruction. Fall weather has brought us back together for the next few months and here in Canada we all look forward to our jams that will make the Fall/Winter months go by quickly!
    Thanks, Rolly

  • Wex

    Reply Reply October 10, 2017

    Super helpful Griff. Been using the “useless” chart of just lyrics and chords but can see where this will save my band allot of time.

  • Jim King

    Reply Reply October 10, 2017

    Hey, Grif
    Just a thought; you mentioned that it’s difficult to name the chords in your app. Could you use the Roman Numerals instead? Put I-IV-V with 7s m(minor) or 9s? Then you’d just have to include a key at the beginning or tell everyone what key to play in. I do this often with my “charts’ that are really just lyrics & chords to jog my memory (like your second example in the blog). Hope your birthday month includes a new guitar or exciting new gear. πŸ™‚


    Reply Reply October 10, 2017

    That was very interesting and truthful about different music…I only knew about a medical chart…Did not know music is a chart…I am still stuck figuring out what the different markings on a CHART is…like many things….I am pretty good with a beat so I am still learnig this counting thing…I just mimmic the sound….This was very informative as always…AND HAPPY BIRTHDAY Griff Hamlin…you have tought me so much and it was quite interesting to hear you know JAZZ I get regular emails from Matt Wornock who is very good…But I LOVE the BLUES and look forward to learning…I LOVE to learn new things

  • Bassman Tim

    Reply Reply October 10, 2017

    Happy Birthday Griff,
    I liked your article, and agree with your descriptions of the different styles of notation. I have been playing in bands for over ten years, and about five years ago I discovered an app for my iPad called OnSong. This app allows me to enter a tabbed song with a link to the song, so I can play along with the song and follow the notation in OnSong. I use this all the time to learn the song and while on stage. I have developed a process to transcribe a song in playable format in about five minutes. To me it is the best way to play a three hour gig without memorizing all the songs. I can tell you my process if you are interested.
    Don’t eat too much cake today!!🀑


  • Dave Hofacker

    Reply Reply October 10, 2017

    Great informative blog Griff! As always you nail the info we need to become better musicians! Happy Birthday!! And thanks!

  • Mr. Miller

    Reply Reply October 10, 2017

    Great Read. Happy birthday Griff.

  • johnengland

    Reply Reply October 10, 2017

    Great article, very instructive. Happy birthday.

  • Keith

    Reply Reply October 10, 2017

    Hey Griff….
    Happy birthday! Thanks for the informa ion on charts. This will be extremely useful!


    Reply Reply October 10, 2017

    Hi Griff,
    Happy Birthday and many more. I cannot tell you how much these blogs and videos help me. As someone said above I have spent more hours than I am willing to admit trying to decipher TAB from the www only to find out that it was wrong to start with. Thank you Griff for being such a great teacher.

  • richard

    Reply Reply October 10, 2017

    Thanks for clarifying this. Happy 46th Griff!

  • Dave

    Reply Reply October 10, 2017

    Bet you thought I forgot your birthday again…

  • Billy Don Hickson

    Reply Reply October 10, 2017

    I would like to suggest a tip jar… Often, after something you’ve taught me for free, I want to leave you a tip.

    Thanks for being in my life

  • Bobby M

    Reply Reply October 10, 2017

    This is very good info, thanks and happy Birthday Griff.

  • Larry Puckett

    Reply Reply October 10, 2017

    First let me say happy birthday Griff. Very instructive. Thank you.

  • BobbyP

    Reply Reply October 10, 2017

    Happy birthday Griff have a goodin πŸ‘πŸŽΈ

  • JimJ

    Reply Reply October 10, 2017

    Happy B-Day Griff~!!

    Tuesday, Oct. 10th – 2017

  • Dave McKenna

    Reply Reply October 10, 2017

    Glad to know Im not the only one who finds the tabs that are available on the www frustrating. Wish I had a penny for every hour spent trying to figure out songs using some of them. I usually just revert back to picking up the needle and moving it back a few seconds or some other digital variation of learning by ear. Thanks for all you do to advance slow learners like me.

  • mike z.

    Reply Reply October 10, 2017

    Griff , thanks for the great advice . When I started playing an instrument [Trumpet ] long ago , we had “fake ” books to songs . They were portions of a song , meant for you to improvise . Today like you explained ,it is much easier . Happy Birthday , and thanks for this great lesson . Mike Z.

  • Bill Bellinzoni

    Reply Reply October 10, 2017

    Thanks Griff. Appreciate your insight and sharing.πŸ˜ŽπŸŒ΄πŸŽΈπŸ‡ΊπŸ‡Έ

  • Mark Wales uk

    Reply Reply October 10, 2017

    Cheers Griff
    For the advice as always excellent guidance
    And a happy birthday enjoy your day 😎🎢

  • cowboy

    Reply Reply October 10, 2017

    thanks Griff…later.


  • Colin

    Reply Reply October 10, 2017

    Very good Griff. It reminds me of a famous blues guitarist who said “If you can’t ‘feel’ it you can’t play it. You need to think phrasing, ‘feel’ and attitude.”.

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