What is a Chord Chart?
A chord chart is simply a way to show all the chords of a song or music composition, including where the chord changes happen rhythmically.
For instrumental music, it can simply be sheet music with no melodic notation, and the chords above the staff.
Sometimes the treble clef of a chord chart can show rhythmic notation, as it can serve as a guide for the groove and harmonic rhythm to the bass player, rhythm guitarist, comping pianist etc.
A chord chart can even be useful to a drummer, because the actual chord changes (and optional rhythmic notation) are perfect markers for when to add fills, transitions, accents etc.
For vocal music, the chords are usually written just above the lyrics for each line, but still at the proper placement for when the chord change should happen.
Should you Learn Chords or Tabs?
Some instruments like the guitar, ukulele etc. have music notation in the form of tabs. Basically showing you what to do with your fingers on each string and fret. There is a piano version of tabs that have also become popular recently that shows notes falling into a piano keyboard.
And while playing from tabs will teach you to play a specific song or tune, it will not really teach you the structure of the song: the chord progressions and harmonies.
This is why I highly recommend to always try to learn songs by using chord charts first. If you have listened a lot to the specific song, you will probably already know the melody and lyrics, so you can focus 100% on the chords.
If you don’t know the song well, you will also need to do something even more important, which is to listen to it and analyse what is going on, while looking at the chord chart.
Because the chord chart lacks many aspects like: harmonic rhythm, groove, voice leading etc. And this is actually an advantage, because it gives you a lot more creative freedom which is great for your motivation when learning any instrument.
You will also automatically learning HOW to play the chords and harmonies, and not only what to play. In music, how you play, is always more important than what you play.
Learn How to Play all Chords first
Now, before you can start to play songs by reading a chord chart, you obviously need to learn how to play each chord of the song first.
Your goal should be to first learn how to play all essential chords on your instrument, particularly the major, minor and suspended chords in all keys. Then continue by learning all diminished chords, augmented chords, and all 7th chords (and variations).
But as a beginner, you may need to take a look at the chord overview for song before you start playing it. The chord overview will show each chord with a visual for how to play the chord on your instrument (guitar fretboard, piano keyboard etc.).
If you don’t know how to play each chord written on the chord chart of the song without thinking (it should be intuitive, like a reflex), you will struggle playing the song.