I spent a few years teaching the Monday night Guitar I class at Harford Community College here in Maryland.
It was fun, I met a lot of great people – some of whom are still my students to this day – and I learned a ton about what works and what doesn’t work for absolute guitar newbies.
Without a doubt, the most common question was…
“OMG, why is this sooooooo stinkin’ hard to do???”
I, of course, translated this to mean: “How do I change chords more quickly and accurately, Mr. Schneebly?”
Luckily for my Monday night School-of-Rockers, I had the answers.
Ye Shall Be Rockin’ In My Show
The ability to change chords lies at the heart of all guitar playing. And without a doubt, this is one of the major physical challenges for the rookie guitarist.
If I learned anything from teaching the Monday night class, it was discovering exactly which strategies and mental cues are the most efficient for changing chords. And these strategies don’t really change, no matter how advanced you become.
[Tweet “Smart chord changing strategies don’t change, no matter how advanced you become”]
Two Foundation Concepts
Before you can employ any chord-changing strategies, you first have to make sure you’ve locked in the two foundation concepts behind each individual chord:
1 – Know the shape of the chord.
Without this element, nothing else matters. A guitarist MUST be able to visualize a chord and break it down finger by finger, fret by fret, and string by string, if asked to do so. This means flawlessly memorizing the chord diagram.
Some chords resemble particular shapes if you “connect the dots” on the diagram. For example, connecting the fingers of an open position D7 chord gives us a triangle shape. By contrast, the D chord is an upside-down triangle. This can be a helpful strategy.
You don’t need your guitar with you to get this sort of practice in, just a little desire and imagination.
2 – Make a good sound with the chord.
Once the chord shape is memorized, the next step is to properly execute the fingerings so that each string rings clearly. This is the step that requires a lot of patience and determination.
Since each chord has its own requirements, you must be meticulous about learning what makes each chord sound good.
Ask yourself a few questions: Am I leaving some space between my palm and the guitar neck? Am I arching up on my fingertips? Is my thumb placed in a position to help me or hinder me?
Three Chord-Changing Strategies
Now for the good stuff! Below I’ve listed three strategies that will maximize your efforts and help you get the most out of your practice. Put these strategies into use and you’ll find your chord-changing abilities improve almost instantly – or your money back!
The Common Finger strategy is one where we “anchor” a finger that occupies the same fret and string in two consecutive chords.
One of the best examples of this strategy is the change between C and Am. Look at the diagrams below and notice that C and Am have two fingers in common: finger 1 and finger 2. It would make no sense to lift these fingers when changing, since you’d have to just put them right back down in the same place anyway.
The best execution here is to leave fingers 1 and 2 in place and only move finger 3. Starting from C, you lift finger 3 and “tuck it” behind finger 2 (placing it on fret 2/string 3) to make the Am. When changing back, you lift finger 3 and extend it to fret 3/string 5 to form the C. The anchored fingers allow you to be more efficient, which translates to faster, more accurate chord changes.
The Common String strategy is so-called because it takes advantage of a finger that stays on the same string between chords.
A great example of this would be D and E, which both use finger 1 on string 3. We can use this Common String to our advantage by releasing the pressure from finger 1 and letting it guide us to the next chord by traveling lightly along string 3. This would be a kind of “soft anchor” that helps us stay connected to the string, but remain moveable.
The Common Shapes strategy is a little more broad, as a couple different concepts are potentially at play. But the idea is essentially the same across the board: use the geometric “shape” of one chord to relate to another chord.
The most basic example of this would be two chords with identical shapes, like Am and E. In this case, you would play Am and then lift all fingers and hop over to E, all the while maintaining the shape of the chord with the fingers. This is often tricky for beginners, but it is essential to hold that shape in mid-air for efficient chord changes.
A second example of Common Shapes would be two chords that have similar shapes, but need a small adjustment, like C and G7. In this case, C and G7 are almost identical in shape. The adjustment we must make here is in “widening” the C to make a G7, or by contrast, “narrowing” the G7 to make a C.
Noticing a similar or identical part of a shape is the third example of this strategy. This would work well in changing from D7 to A7, for example. The D7 chord has a triangle shape with fingers 2 and 3 positioned on fret 2. Therefore it would make sense to play A7 with fingers 2 and 3, using the common shape to ease the transition.
[Tweet “Using Common Finger, String and Shape strategies will make a huge difference in your chord changes”]
Using Multiple Strategies
In the real world of chord changes, we’re likely to see the three Common Strategies employed at multiple points within the same chord progression. Consider the following, admittedly extreme, example:
G – Em – G – D7 – Am – E – Am – C – A7 – D7 – G
Here’s the step-by-step process, with the Three Strategies in parentheses:
G (common finger 1 to…)
Em (common finger 1 to…)
G (common string 1 to…)
D7 (common finger 1 to…)
Am (common shape to…)
E (common shape to…)
Am (common fingers 1 and 2 to…)
C (common finger 2 to…)
A7 (partial common shape to…)
D7 (common string 1 to…)
With the Two Foundation Concepts and the Three Chord Strategies in place, it’s time to take the next step and learn to change chords in rhythm. This is almost always the most problematic item for new guitarists and the one that I receive the most questions about.
But remember – you must OWN the material in Part 1 to get the most out of the next installment. So start practicing and I’ll see you at Part 2!
QUESTION: Do you have any additional tips for easy chord changes? Any particular chord changes that always give you trouble? Leave me a comment below!