How To Create A Chord Chart Your Team Will Love

How To Create A Chord Chart Your Team Will Love

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I once got lost on the side of a mountain in Haiti. Not fun! When I realized I was lost, it occurred to me that I could have taken any number of wrong turns at various places up the trail where it split in two directions.  I knew down was better than up, but I was totally lost and separated from my group.  A map of the trail would have been the difference between my humiliating calls for help (and my eventual rescue) and my arriving at my destination without shame.

Think of the chord chart as a road map.  The better the map, the more likely that people arrive at the destination.

Many worship leaders are like me: I have years of experience playing instruments, but little musical training. For a number of years I showed up for rehearsal with a stack of paper chord charts I had printed off Song Select or any number of pre-created charts that I cut and pasted off the internet.  Added to my lack of preparation was a vague idea of how I wanted the song to sound.  I am confident that I frustrated the musicians.

Six years ago our drummer (a skilled professional) pulled me aside and said, “Man, these charts are terrible, here is what you need to do…”  I have incorporated his tips since that time onward. Here they are:

  1. Measure Markers.  The common approach I see to building charts is to place the letter of the chord above the word or syllable it corresponds to in the lyrics.  This is a good start because it approximately tells you where the chord should fall.  The problem is you don’t really know how long to hold that chord between the lyrics.  The solution is really simple. Every song has a time signature (i.e. 3/4 or 4/4) which indicates the number of beats per measure.  In sheet music they are marked by line breaks on the staff, but in chord charts they are often mysteriously absent. The solution: somewhere below the delete button on your keyboard is a backslash  “ ”and when shifted a vertical line “| ”; use this vertical line for measure markers.  For example, if the intro of the song was 4 measures it would look like this —Intro:   D   |  C  |  G   |   G  | ( in 4/4 each chord would be played for 4 beats).”  So what if there are two chords in a measure falling on beat 1 and beat 3 (which is pretty common)? Here is where forward slashes come in to indicate beats that you sustain through—D  /   C  /    |   G  /   C  |. Likewise sometimes you have chords accented on beat 4 —  D  /   /   C  |   G   /   /   C |.  In this example you would only be playing the “C”chord for one beat in the measure.  Here is an example of what it looks like from the intro and verse 1 of “Oceans”:

Time: 4/4  Tempo: 63 BPM 

INTRO:  | Bm  /   /   A/C#  | D              | A              | G           |
Verse 1 (Pad/piano)
Bm               /     /    A/C#    |   D            
       You call me out upon the waters
                    |   A                                           |    G             |
       The great unknown where feet may fail

  1. Notes:  You can overdo it here, but select notes within the chord chart are essential.  For example a very common note I make on chord charts is “(cut on 1)”or “(Sustain on 1).”  Often while building out of a bridge, or heading out of a final chorus it is common to build into a sustain.  These often happen on the first beat of a measure, thus I simply write it in:   |   G          |    D  (sustain on 1).   Here are a few other common notes I provide in the chart.  “Add harmony”   “Band building”  “Eighth notes”  “Guitars only”  “Drums Out”  “Add bass”etc.  Basically if there is a major change involving parts coming in or parts moving out I make a note of it.  The real beauty of this work is not the day your team learns a new song, it is when you revisit the song two months later and have forgotten all those little details.  For me as a leader I almost never have to return and listen to a song I have already learned because I have those notes to remind me of how this song is supposed to go.

A few more things: These charts might not look as clean as a more simple chord chart, but there are major advantages.  Mainly, as a leader I don’t have to continuously remind my team how long the intro is, when they are supposed to come in, or what tempo the tune is.  This cut our rehearsal time way down to an average of 30 minutes to rehearse four songs or 40 minutes if we are learning a new song.  My expectation is that if I give the team a recording and a solid chart by Monday, they will come Wednesday evening knowing their parts.  If we are introducing a new song I try to get it to the team at least a week prior to rehearsal.

I’ve made an assumption here that most of us are using songs written by other people and that professional recordings are a great place to start when learning a new song.  That however, doesn’t mean you can’t write your own songs and create a detailed chart, or make the recorded song your own by changing the instrumentation, the flow, or the repeats —I encourage that.

Lastly, when building a new chord chart here is what I do: I print out the Song Select chord chart if there is one available.  I listen to the song 2 or 3 times. The first time I use my guitar or piano to make sure the chords are accurate and note changes on the printed sheet.  Second time I am writing in measure markers, the tempo, repeats and any other detail which seems relevant.  The third time I am checking my work for accuracy. I then simply copy and type that work into Planning Center Online or a Word document. Total time spent building a chart for me is about 30 minutes.  Putting the time into the chord chart is sure to save you time in the long run. Your team will thank you!


6 Responses

  1. This is great! Something we’ve used instead of “/” (because they can often be confused with G/B) is:
    | D – – – | Bm – A – | G – – – | Bm – A – |

    Something like that. 🙂 So that way you know exactly how many beats there are and when the changes are. You can get a little crazy with it too and actually put the dash where the down beat is:

    4/4 INTRO: | E – – – | – – –/B – |
    Be – hold He
    E – – – | A – – – |
    comes, riding on the clouds, shin – ing like the
    E – – – | B – – – |
    sun, at the trumpet call; lift your
    E – – – | A – – – |
    voice, it’s the year of Jubilee, and out of Zion’s
    E – B – | E – – – | A – – – |
    hill sal – va – tion comes And

    Hopefully when I post this it doesn’t change the formatting.

  2. Great tips Mark, thanks for sharing! Chord charts are both a blessing and a curse in our arsenal, but I’m always up for some good advice on ways to improve.

  3. Hey Mark this is killer! Can you share a complete chart for Oceans? I’m also interested in the way this would work in Planning Center. Thanks man.

  4. The “chords over words” approach hasn’t been all that helpful for me, especially when some singers hold words longer than others. I prefer Nashville charts, or something similar. With the charts I’m used to (picture a word doc here, with 8 chords per line):

    1 (tab) 4 (tab) 1(tab) 5-/1(double tab) 4(tab) 4#dim(tab) 1 (tab) 6

    Would be the beginning of a twelve bar blues. In C, this is C, F, C, G-/C (two beats each), etc, etc. As long as I remember what key we’re in (and scribble it out then write a new one when the capo moves) I’m golden.

    This doesn’t take any lyrics into account, but I don’t sing anyway. If all I could hear was the drummer, I could still play along and nobody would know.

  5. Is anyone interested in a PHP app I’ve written to keep track of set lists and song charts? I’m debating polishing it up a bit and throwing it up on GitHub. You’d need a web server with a MySQL database for it to work.

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