Without a doubt, the greatest technical challenge to newbie guitar players is making chord changes cleanly and on time.
No contest – this is your winner.
[A close second is jumping off your Marshall stack and landing safely, while keeping your rock and roll face intact. Check out the pic to the left for pointers. But I digress.]
Meeting this chord-changing challenge and conquering it can be a frustratingly slow process at times. After all, there seems to be a hundred things to keep track of.
You’ve got to instantly recall your left hand shapes, find the sweet spot on each fingertip, try not to bump other strings, keep the right hand strumming – and do it all in rhythm!
Well, I’ve got a technique three-banger for you that will help to get you over the chord changing hurdle once and for all. I call it the Chord Change Trifecta!
The Basics of Chord Changes
I’m a “first things first” kind of guy, so let’s get our basics squared away.
You must be able to visualize the chord shapes clearly in your mind. If you can’t visualize them enough to draw your own chord diagram, you don’t know them well enough to proceed.
You have to be able to make the chords sound good. This is the part that likely will take the longest to conquer, since each individual chord has its own specific requirements. Spend some time on each chord in your song and really nail down the physical part of it.
You have to be able to strum down and up in an 8th note rhythm. It should sound like, “1-and, 2-and, 3-and, 4-and”, with the downstrokes coming on the numbers of the beat and the upstrokes coming on the “ands” of the beat. Remember that it mimics the movement of your foot tap.
The Chord Change Trifecta
Changing chords in rhythm is too complex a set of movements to just say, “Keep practicing; you’ll get it” – no matter what the YouTube guitar gurus may say.
[What the above phrase really means is, “I don’t know how to clearly explain what I’m doing, so see if you can figure it out on your own.” Great lesson. Thanks, bro.]
We need to have a clear, step-by-step picture of what’s going on. To that end, I’ve fashioned a sweet little guideline to help you in your rhythm guitar journey.
1 – SLOW DOWN INTO THE CHORD CHANGE
The operative words here are “slow down”. Notice I didn’t say “stop”.
Stopping your strum to change chords might just be the single biggest obstacle in your quest for rhythm guitar glory.
Contrary to our basic instincts, the left hand doesn’t have to be fully in place before continuing with the strum. It just has to be mostly in place, and we slow down to accommodate that.
Follow the The Golden Rule of Strumming and never stop your strumming hand.
Stopping is the kiss of death because music occurs in time. The band (or your iPod) will not stop and wait for you to figure out how to get to the dreaded B7 chord.
[Disclaimer: Slowing down is still not good enough to play along with a recording, but it’s better than stopping. Stopping gives you no chance of maintaining the rhythm and timing. Slowing down at least gives you the sense that you’re making the changes in rhythm. Enough quality repetitions should gradually nudge you into full speed chord changes.]
Basic Method: Play through the first couple of beats, counting out loud, and slow down markedly on the “4-and”. Power through the strum and let the left hand play catch up.
2 – LET GO AT THE SWITCH POINT
The switch point is a term I coined to indicate the specific point at which you let go of a chord in order to change to a new one.
Sadly this technical concept is rarely, if ever, addressed in method books. But knowing when to let go is the crucial sticking point with chord changes. Most folks just don’t know when to let go!
The switch point always falls on the final rhythmic subdivision before the chord change. Assuming that your new chord falls on beat 1 of a measure, the switch point would then occur on the “and” of 4 of the previous measure.
Basic Method: Think “4-and-CHORD!” Strum down on 4, let go of the chord as you play the upstroke at “and”, and land your new chord on “CHORD”. Be sure to let go exactly on the “and” of 4, as holding on even a hair too long will thwart your plans to land the next chord in time. Precise timing!
3 – STICK THE LANDING
The final step is the toughest, because it involves getting all the fingers in place for the new chord at the same time. This is daunting – but that’s why we first slow down, then let go of the last chord, before we move to the new one.
The goal is to stick the landing like a champ on that new chord. Think of an Olympic gymnast coming off the vault, twisting through the air and hitting the floor strong.
I understand that getting all fingers in place can be tough for rookie players, so why not start with one finger?
Basic Method: Start by landing only finger 1 for the new chord. When that’s solid, land fingers 1 and 2; visualize just that partial shape and practice that. When you’ve mastered that, add finger 3 – and you’ve got the whole thing. You could also reverse the numbers.
So many folks think “all or nothing”, but there is no rule that says you must practice your chords this way. Use your imagination and break complex chords into smaller, more manageable bits. Once the bits are fixed, piece the chord back together. Works like a charm!
I hope this lesson has given you some insight into the complexities of chord changes. Next time you’re practicing your chords, remember to hit the Trifecta!
QUESTION: What is the biggest issue with your chord changes? Has the Trifecta helped to shed some light on it? Leave me a comment below!