- Published Nov 8, 2013 in Music 101
- Read time: about 4 minutes
Complex chord changes are like tongue-twisters for your fingers. But learn to master the basics and all your songs will sound better.
Guitar players at all levels of proficiency have often been stifled by an inability to make clean and efficient chord changes. Here are some basic principles that I have found helpful in facilitating this basic skill.
First things first.
Before even attempting to change chords, practice getting a consistent sound with each individual chord. Take the basic major and minor chords in all keys and play each note of the chord individually. Make sure that each note is sounding clearly and has adequate sustain.
Examine the left hand finger position to determine that the fingers are placed in such a way so as not to interfere with the adjacent strings.
Once you are able to play each note in the chord clearly, strum through the chord slowly and deliberately. Then gradually increase the velocity of your strum. Practice with a medium or even a heavy gauge pick for volume and clarity’s sake. Then move on to other basic chordal groups—7th and 9th, flat-5, diminished and augmented, etc.
Put your fingers in the right position to play each chord. Strike each note of the chord one at a time (this is called an arpeggio) and let each note continue to ring out. Concentrate on the clarity of each note in the chord.
A sense of balance.
There is a basic key to the universe in physics and guitar playing. To elaborate just a bit on Isaac Newton’s law of motion, every action requires an equal and proportionately opposing action.
Use your thumb to counteract the force of your fingers on the fretboard.
Counteract the downward force of the fingers on the neck by applying upward pressure with the thumb against the bottom of the neck. The thumb needs to move according to the needs of the fingers. Since the hand is constantly in flux while changing chords, this means the thumb must also move in order to find the center of balance in each chord posture. It is really the thumb that enables the hand to negotiate the guitar neck with relative ease.
Try to be as efficient as possible about the way you move your hand.
Every chordal grouping utilizes a different hand posture and thereby a new mechanical problem to solve. Once again, it’s a matter of physics: the fingers that have to travel the farthest to arrive at their respective positions must travel faster. The fingers that have more time to arrive in their places can take the time to work on greater precision.
When examining finger placement of a chord—and the change to the next chord pattern—try to be as efficient as possible about the way you move your hand. Proceed slowly and thoughtfully.
Making the changes.
Got your basic chords sounding good? It’s time to start practicing your changes. The first thing to think of is economy of motion. Try not to waste any finger energy; it’s just the movement and nothing extra. Since fingers sometimes need to operate independently of each other, think about which fingers need to go where, when. Not all fingers move at the same time.
This is a concept that takes a little time and practice to achieve. Once you feel you have a good flow from chord A to B, reverse the process and go from chord B back to A. Repeat several times. It’s critical to get into the habit of isolating the simple mechanical motions of moving the fingers from one chord structure to the next. Once again, practice what you can’t play. You already know what you know.
Set your metronome to a slow tempo and practice moving back and forth between two chords. Move between the two chords until the transition is smooth and even.
Gradually increase your speed
Once you can effectively switch chords with a variety of two chord structures back and forth, it’s time to pick up the tempo and practice changing chords more quickly. Make yourself some chord charts and practice reading through them forwards and backwards, while gradually increasing your speed.
Make sure you can execute each chord change clearly before moving on. Set your sights on being able to change chords quickly and accurately, in much the same way that you put one word in front of the other while speaking.
The language of music is, after all, just another way to communicate. Interestingly, success in the pursuit of this basic skill is well within your reach if you’re willing to put in enough of the correct kind of methodical practice time.