Make Your Chord Changes Smoother

Here’s a great article from the archives on making your chord changes smoother and easier.  This is a topic that all guitar players face early on in their playing.  We have all struggled with chord changes.  If you are a new player or want to improve your chord work, read this great article.

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One of the biggest challenges guitarists face is learning how to change chords. Many struggle with complex finger arrangements and how to move fluently from chord to chord to chord. Stumbling between chords slows a song down and makes it painfully obvious that you haven’t yet mastered the mechanics of chording.

The first thing you should know is that there is no magic bullet for overcoming this hurdle. The ability to change chords seamlessly is perfected through good old-fashioned practice and by employing a few basic techniques. Once you learn the strategies behind effective chording and practice these techniques faithfully, changing chords will become ingrained in you and as effortless as writing your own name.

Relax. To begin with, you need to focus on staying relaxed from the shoulder clear down to the fingertips and remaining that way as your fingers move to new positions. Smashing your fingers down on the notes and holding onto a chord for dear life, the whole arm knotted up with tension, is not exactly conducive to easy chord changes.

Not only does tension make it next to impossible to achieve smooth chord transitions, but you’ll also create a feeling of great discomfort in your arm, which will cause it to cramp and tire in no time flat. If you experience tension when playing, stop, shake out the arm, roll your shoulders, and reapproach with just the right amount of pressure—not too loose, not too tight. We’re having fun here, remember? No need to be tense.

Get Your Fretting Hand Down. Holding your instrument properly is essential for expert chording. First of all, keep your overall posture in check. Sit up straight, don’t hunch over. You should approach the strings with the fingers of your fretting hand in a relaxed curl and slightly spread out from one another. Always remember to play up on your fingertips so your chords are clean. The thumb should be anchored on the back of the neck to oppose the pressure of your fingers pressing the strings from the other side. Don’t drape your thumb over the top of the neck or use your palm to cup it. There needs to be space between your hand and the guitar if you are to move freely about the fretboard.

If you are unsure about proper thumb placement, check out Christopher Schlegel’s lesson on the Mechanics of Fretting.

Learn Basic Chord Shapes. You most likely already know the five most important chord shapes of C, A, G, E and D or, mnemonically speaking, CAGED. They were probably the first chords you learned when you picked up the guitar. Most all other chord shapes can be thought of as variations on these five shapes. As long as you know a chord’s root note, or the note upon which the chord is built, you’ll be able to play any chord anywhere on the fretboard. When forming a chord shape, you will always want to reach for the root first as that will be the first note to be struck when strumming that chord.

Listen to what Ben Lindholm has to say about the CAGED system in his lesson on Major Chord Shapes.

Minimize Finger Movement. Too much finger movement costs you time. The goal is to move only what you have to. You don’t want your fingers to be going out and over and down for each and every chord. You want to make your changes as economical as possible.

Keep your fingers close to the strings. The time it takes to move your fingers an extra half inch may seem negligible, but those are the types of small changes we’re talking here. You don’t want your fingers floating in mid-air while you try to decide where each finger should go. Keep them hovering over the fretboard, close to the strings, ready to strike. And if you aren’t using your pinky for a particular chord, keep it close to your third finger so it can drop into place when called into action. Train your pinky to stay attached to your third finger when not in use. Think of it as hitching a ride.

When changing chords, do so intelligently. Lift only the fingers necessary, not entire chords, when there are notes in common. For instance, the C Major and A Minor chords both share the E and C notes. What a lot of new players do after strumming the C chord is to lift all the fingers off the fretboard before laying down the A Minor. Why move all three fingers when all you really need do is move one. There’s no reason to lift a finger just to set it back down again in the same place. This eats up precious time and results in choppy chord transitions. Instead, leave your fingers on the E and C notes and simply move your third finger back and forth, alternating between the root C and the third string A notes, to change between the two chords.

As soon as your hand comes off the fretboard and your fingers pull apart, you’re in trouble. You’ll never make the chord change in time. The secret to flawless chord changes is to eliminate unnecessary movements. Make it as simple as possible.

Work Your Muscle Memory. When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort. The movement becomes automatic. You’ve no doubt built up muscle memory in many everyday activities like riding a bike, typing on a keyboard, and manipulating your video game controller. The same can be done for playing chords. With enough practice, you will start to get a “feel” for them.

Getting your fingers to move independently without consciously thinking out where to place every digit takes time and practice. Say you’re stumbling going from G to D. Practice strumming each chord all the way through, making sure you have no dead notes, before moving to the next chord. Spend time alternating between just these two chords—back and forth and back and forth—to help improve muscle memory. When you can move gracefully between them, add a third chord to the mix and then a fourth. Work to get chord changes fluid.

Be sure to move fingers together when making changes, not one digit at a time. Laying down a chord should be a coordinated effort. One automatic motion. Do not get into the habit of building your chord finger by finger.

Invest in a guitar stand and keep your guitar out in a room that you spend a fair amount of time in instead of packed it away in its case, hidden in the dark recesses of your closet. This way you’re much more apt to grab it when you have a spare five minutes, say before your dinner’s ready or before you have to run out the door. You don’t necessarily have to sit down for an hour or two at a time to work on your chords. Little five- and ten-minute sessions add up and can make a difference. Even if you’re just vegging out in front of the television, pick up your guitar and practice alternating between chords.

Lisa McCormick teaches you how to move quickly between chords in her Chord Change Boot Camp. She also offers a series of Chord Change Drills in a variety of common keys that will help get your speed up.

Practice Clustering. Keep your hand in the same formation when moving from chords of similar shape, such as an E chord to an A Minor or a C to an F. Remember, less finger movement equals more effective chord changes.

Anticipate Your Next Move. Visualize where your fingers are headed before they make the move to the next chord position. You want your fingers to move automatically to the respective notes. You don’t want to slow things down for even the instant it would take for you to figure out what comes next. As the Boy Scouts say, Be Prepared. Again, lead with your root finger. The rest of your fingers will follow suit.

These are but a few tips to help you overcome the challenge of learning to chord like a pro. Be sure to check out all the lessons pertaining to the strategies of chord change on the GT site.

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