How to Improve Chord Changes on Guitar ... Forever!
Chord Progress Destroyed for Lack of Knowledge?
The basic mechanics of chord-changing has traditionally been one of the most poorly explained topics on guitar.
Layman's advice (and too many supposed guitar teachers') states to "keep doing it and you'll get it" but that is found to be wanting in vastly more cases than not and undoubtedly contributes heavily to the ever-mounting number of failed and frustrated guitarists.
The Universal Solution!
We can use exactly the same approach to effectively practice any chord changes on guitar whether considering beginner open chords, challenging barres or the most sinew-snapping jazz shapes. The basic idea is incredibly simple to understand although the "doing" thereof can make for a satisfying life-long challenge.
This is a pet subject of mine and I've fully covered the basics publicly twice before; first in 2008 in this video from my 6 week long investigation into relearning the guitar left-handed:
... and again in 2017 with a one-off video devoted to the topic:
To date I've yet to see any evidence of this key knowledge becoming mainstream so here I'll go again, this time deeper than ever before, in an attempt to create a comprehensive and definitive guide you can use to practice and solve any problem you'll ever encounter with chord changes on guitar.
When Did You First Hit a Dead End with Chords?
At the lowest level of changing chords it's beneficial to move fingers individually. This helps to pick up on the patterns they make and is the method I use with beginners for their first chords, A, D and E (click here to view).
One of the most common hidden roadblocks on guitar is a player's chord changes remaining at this lowest level. The problem is compounded when there are inefficient movements "programmed" in that mean certain chord changes can never become easy.
In this case you can only get better at executing those wasteful movements between chords meaning things are made much more complicated than they need be and putting a severe limit on ease of playing.
Until what you're playing becomes "easy" it will never sound or feel the way you want it to! Here's how to make that happen!
LIFT ... AIM ... FIRE!
How to Practice and Play Chord Changes on Guitar
Companion video demonstrating the examples discussed below (Click to play)
Links to relevant sections will be provided throughout this article
Changing from chord to chord in as efficient a manner as possible involves viewing things as just two movements, one up and one down.
(1) LIFT the old chord from the fretboard while we
AIM our fingers for the next shape
all in a single movement.
If this is done correctly we can then
(2) FIRE the new chord back down to the fretboard
in another single movement!
More on that shortly but first it's important to make sure you have a solid grip on this vital concept ...
How to Change Chords while Strumming
Although I'll begin by focusing on a beginner's chord change (G to D), the exact same approach presented here applies equally to any other chord change you'll ever encounter, no matter how much more advanced that may appear.
We'll look at some of these examples later in this article once this basic approach has been fully covered.
Ex.1 (Click for demonstration)
The Usual Problem ... and the Solution!
If we arrive at the end of the first line with our G chord still on the fretboard we're left with a mad scramble to get the fingers across to play the D chord on beat 1 of the second line and likewise when coming back from D to G.
What works much better and the way that good guitarists deal with this issue is to "steal" the final offbeat of the bar to prepare the next chord in good time.
Zooming in Closer!
At the end of the bar of G, on the "and" of beat 4 (offbeat) we:
LIFT the G chord and
AIM (prepare) a D chord above the strings
(Lifting the G chord means we'll be strumming open strings for half a beat; don't worry about that ... it isn't a problem)
Then on beat 1 of line 2 we
FIRE the prepared D chord to the fretboard as we strum
Coming back from the D to the G chord at the end of line 2 works similarly. Here are those full mechanics written out:
Ex.2 (Click for demonstration)
"When you see the complexity of what you think is simple, you will see the simplicity of what you think is complex"
I've quoted above Jamie Andreas (founder of the "Principles of Correct Practice for Guitar" and the only other guitar teacher I've come across to date who works outside the mainstream) as this pearl of wisdom applies extremely well to the subject at hand here.
The skill of changing shape mid-air can and indeed should look very simple when watching a guitarist doing it well however after 23 years of teaching I've yet to meet a new student who didn't have at least some major problems with their understanding in this area and I'd estimate 95%+ are totally unenlightened as to any of this!
On the other side of things, the disparate movements that make up many chord changes can be very complex, both mentally and physically. Your challenge is to practise effectively (correctly) to ensure that executing those complex movements gets easier and easier until doing so has become a simple task.
Let's now examine exactly how you can practice this core guitar skill most effectively for the fastest possible progress with any chord change issue you're dealing with.
Zooming in Even Closer!
We can put our full focus on the mechanics of any chord change by pulling out the relevant two chords and making what many would call an "exercise" from them. I've put that term in quotes because I don't consider these to be exercises as such (it's certainly more than possible to repeat them endlessly in a way that offers no improvement), but rather tests of our ability in a particular skill.
Below I've done this with the two changes from Ex.2 above, repeated to fill a full bar. Extracting the "action zone" (the first and last 8th notes of each bar of Ex.2 where the chord changes happen) means that the chords function in this test exactly as they do in the full example.
Ex.3 (Click for demonstration)
With this or when testing your skill at changing between any pair of chords the question to be answered is ...
"How fast can you do this ... perfectly?"
If for instance you need to play/perform Ex.2 at 150bpm, you'll want to work Ex.3 (the smaller, more focused version of the problem sections) up to the same speed and ideally higher, to allow a comfort zone
To ensure maximum effectiveness in our practice it's essential to be aware of progress (or lack thereof) which we can easily do with a "benchmarking" table like this:
Jot down the date and your top speed (in bpm, beats per minute) and you'll always know whether your practice is working. If it's not, try something different; hint: the answers are often slower, smaller and harder than you'd expect.
Watch Yourself Improving!
I've added these progress sheets (you'll find them from pages 55-60) containing all the examples referenced in this article to the package "Discover Taplature" (book plus video) sent free to all subscribers to this blog. Click the image to subscribe and download, then print out and start keeping keep track of your improvement today!
Easy? Thought Not!
To lift a G chord and aim a D shape above the strings with each of three fingers pointing exactly where we need to fire them to may feel impossible the first time you try it.
Fight the temptation to put fingers down individually! That's what you need to leave behind. We need them all moving together, or not moving at all!
Now ... here's the "secret" that opens the door for anyone to get things working correctly as described.
The Game-Changer: Practise "Changing" a Chord to Itself!
One new student who'd been mainly self-taught for about 5 years looked at me like I was mad when I asked him to show me how he'd get on changing from a D chord to a D chord.
Five minutes later, once he'd realised he couldn't, he was on board with my line of thinking and the lesson was underway.
If you're about to play a D chord the chord you're changing from is irrelevant. Whatever that previous chord, the requirement immediately after lifting it is to aim a D shape at the fretboard ready to fire!
Now, if you have problems aiming a perfect D shape back at the fretboard after lifting the D chord from the fretboard it should be clear how much more difficult it is to form that D shape if you begin with any other shape.
"Program" yourself to become a guitar playing machine!
What's needed is to "program" your mind and fingers (muscle memory) deeply enough that you can aim a D chord instantly no matter where or what the previous chord shape. That's what we'll examine next.
The Taplature Cure:
Ex.4 (Click for demonstration)
Here I've filled a bar with 4 changes of a D chord "to itself". Practising with a single chord is the easiest way to get the correct habits of chord changing "programmed in" and trains you to hold that chord in the position you'll need to make when changing into it.
There are 2 steps for each beat, each made up of 4 requirements which are to be executed simultaneously:
1. Tap your foot.
Say "One" (or whatever the current count is) out loud.
Fire the D chord to the fretboard.
Strum the D chord.
2. Lift your foot.
Say "and" out loud.
Lift the D chord.
Strum up over the top few now open strings.
Notice how arm, foot and chord all move together. Unless they're all moving, nothing moves! No creeping fingers down out of time is to be allowed. Everything moves together like a robot!
Down ... up ... down .. up
I thought these guys deserved a second appearance
Repeat slowly and deliberately until you are 100% sure that things are functioning as prescribed. Now you can stop saying the out loud count as we've moved from a practice to a playing (testing) situation.
If you find you can't do this correctly scroll down for an even deeper breakdown of the mechanics required to get this working (the section covering "Strum, Relax, Lift, Touch")!
What's Your Top Speed Today?
The measurement of interest is the maximum speed at which you know for a fact that can execute everything perfectly. Of course this requires playing in time with a metronome or computer backing (Windows users see http://www.chordpulse.com/lite.html for a free and ideal practice partner).
If you can't manage things at any speed in time with a metronome write down the date and "XXX" in today's box. Your first challenge will remain as getting this to be perfectly functional even if it has to be at 10bpm or less!
If you need to drop to very low speeds you'll probably find that your metronome doesn't go below 20-30bpm. No matter; if you set it at double the speed you're measuring but use 2 clicks per beat (or 4 times the speed and use 4 clicks per beat) you have the same timescale.
The extra clicks can also be useful for keeping in time, like stabilisers on a bicycle.
How Fast Can You Improve? A Case Study
I followed this method back in 2008 when relearning the guitar left-handed as a way of testing out my own teaching methods. I've kept my record sheet and here are my benchmarks for the D to D chord "change":
(results of about 15 hours practice in total)
I can promise I was physically as unskilled as the least naturally-talented of you when first trying this although I certainly had the mental advantage of 25 years right-handed playing by this time. That notwithstanding I find that beginner students who practise as suggested can improve at a similar rate, reaching decent playing speeds (100bpm+) in a few short weeks.
If you've been playing for years and aren't much better than a decent beginner it's time to change that using the advice in this article!
What To Do When You Can't (Yet) Change a Chord to Itself!
It's not uncommon to find there are certain shapes you simply cannot get up and down correctly (with all notes ringing true). Of course we can always go deeper.
If this is the case for you with any chord here's the 4-step breakdown that guarantees the fastest results!
These 4 steps are to be executed at the speed you need to go to know they are all happening perfectly. Elaborating on each of them:
1. Push your chord to the fretboard and strum slowly through each of its notes one string at a time.
2. Slowly relax your fretting fingers, being sure to keep the chord's shape and never to lose contact with the strings. Stop when you are touching the strings so lightly that if you were to strum the chord now you would hear only a click from each fingered string.
3. Slowly lift the chord to a distance of 1mm from the strings focusing fully on keeping each finger pointing back exactly where it began. If there is even the tiniest of movements out of shape from any of the fingers return to the start and try again.
4. Slowly move your fretting fingers back toward the strings. Touch all fingers on the strings at the same time. You should now be in the same position as you were after step 2.
Cycle through this sequence examining whether or not, when you return to strumming (testing) at step 1, every note of the chord rings perfectly. Each time it is good, increase the distance you lift during step 3 by 1mm.
Once you are able to repeat this sequence correctly while lifting the chord to a height of 5mm you will be able to graduate to benchmarking the chord to itself.
This is a good way to learn what "slow" really means in relation to guitar practice. Look out for trigger (pre-programmed) reactions in your fretting fingers and learn to fight them! If you have to go at approximately zero miles per hour to override them then do it!
All this will probably feel like very hard work. Of course ... it's supposed to be.
That's why it makes you better!
Extrapolating the Key Skill of Changing a Chord to Itself
When we have two chords which we can change "to themselves" we are ready to learn to change mechanically correctly (efficiently) between them.
Once your "D to itself" change is functioning correctly try the same with "G to itself":
Ex.5 (Click for demonstration)
When both chords are working nicely up and down in perfect time you're in position to start changing between the two.
Expect the speed you can do this at to be somewhat slower than the speed you can manage the weaker of the two component changes and begin at zero miles per hour to make full sense of the requirements!
Ex.2 (again) ... (click for demonstration)
Identifying and Addressing Problems
If your top speed is improving regularly and you're ensuring that quality of execution remains high then you're practising effectively and reaping the rewards. What to do if your improvement stutters or stops though?
There's much to be learned from looking in even closer at the individual finger movements making up any chord change.
Picture how you'd make each finger operate if it was part of a chord-changing machine! What's the shortest path each finger could take as it lifts from its position in one chord and aims in preparation to fire into its position in the next?
This Lego-built guitar playing machine "cheats" by using different fingers for each chord. You only have 4 fingers. Use them wisely!
Now compare this to what that finger actually does in context of the full chord change. Any deviation from the ideal path shows clearly where movement is wasted. Once spotted it's possible to begin to work on making things function more efficiently and as you improve these micro-movements your top speed at performing that chord change will rise.
Your Brain Loves Patterns!
Further consideration of the individual finger movements involves spotting patterns to make things mentally easier and stronger.
I always teach a G chord from early on using a 2,3,4 fingering. There are numerous advantages to doing so although having to use the little finger can be a little harder to begin.
One of those advantages of this fingering is that we can now find a common pattern in the fingering for G, C and D chords which occur together in songs regularly.
Watch out for this pattern as you practise changing between any two of these chords.
Try to view fingers 2 and 3 as a single unit that lifts as one, aims as one and fires as one! If you can make that easy you've effectively reduced a 3 finger chord change to a 2 "finger" chord change.
A Fearsome Looking Diminished Chord
Here's another example. The first time you encounter a dim7 (diminished 7th) chord in a song it can look pretty scary.
Shown here on my Desktop Fretboard it's pretty spiky looking in both name and fingering however looking inside the shape at the notes in red you can see it's just a D chord fingering moved inside a string with the little finger added on the top string.
With that pattern in mind, once your D chord is strong, it's a reasonably short step to add in the little finger and practise using the method shown above to let you change comfortably into this shape too.
You can always find your own patterns along these lines to help bed in new chord changes. You can also possibly find them in chords you've played for years but never examined in this manner.
Perfect vs Bluffed Chord Changes
When benchmarking try to keep track of the top speed at which you know for sure something is working perfectly. This is the only way to be sure you're always measuring the same thing.
The target speed I set for beginners with basic changes is 150bpm. At this speed there can be no conscious thought involved; you just have to "do it". This is expected to take at least a few months to achieve but brings them to a good standard compared to most guitarists out there which I assess as being "GSCE" level (UK school qualification in Maths, English etc. achieved at age 16).
One thing that's always the case is that whatever the speed at which we can benchmark a student perfectly on a chord change they can then use that same change in a playing situation at a much higher speed!
For example, when we can benchmark a student as able to change intensively between G & D (Ex.6) at 40bpm they are invariably able to strum through full alternating bars of G & D (Ex.2) at 60-70bpm. I've yet to find an exception to the rule whoever the student and whichever the chords involved.
While one reason for this discrepancy is that the bottlenecks (chord changes) are now spaced out it's likely that at least a part is due to my not requiring the same level of perfection when students are in a playing situation. Now I'm much more focused on whether the whole is holding its shape and sounding musical.
Although this means possibly "bluffing" the chord changes slightly, as long as the student's rhythm and the overall product is not unduly affected it's a winning bluff.
I always make the point however that the faster you can change chords perfectly, the higher the speed you can bluff them at!
Changing Between Open and Barre Chords
This is a commonly raised issue but one that is no different in essence to what we've seen above. If you want to change for example between open C and a fully barred F correctly you'll first need to be able to change C to itself and also F to itself.
Ex.6 (Click for demonstration)
The biggest challenge is by far learning to change the F to itself (Try the "Strum, Relax, Lift, Touch" approach described above if this is proving impossible). Until that's functional you'll always have trouble but once that's working well you can then attack this benchmark using the same ideas discussed above:
Ex.7 (Click for demonstration)
Changing Between 2 Barre Chords (or Power Chords)
Here we employ the same with one slight difference. With the added control we have with our fretting hand when playing barre or power chords, rather than hitting open strings during the change it's recommended to keep in light contact with the strings and strum the muted strings while aiming the new chord shape.
So for example when changing between a barred C chord using an A shape at fret 3 and the same F barred at fret 1 we'd get something like this:
Ex.8 (Click for demonstration)
(Note: In my barred C the barre is the 3rd rather than the index finger and I mute the outside 2 strings)
Now, although our chords still come up from the fretboard the "lift" is just the relaxing of the fretting fingers, ensuring that no string is allowed to ring as we strum while moving to aim for the next shape.
Again you can break down your practice on this on by learning to change each chord to itself while playing a muted strum as you relax your fretting fingers.
It's sometimes tricky when strumming barre chords to tell for sure whether every string is ringing correctly. Click here for an examination of barre chords on my other website that takes a look at things from a different angle!
A "Fun" Long-term (Life-long) Challenge!
For those of you who fancy a real mind bender of a chord change between 2 jazzier sounding shapes (each of which even a beginner can play) I refer you to my previous video on this topic in which I examine the following change:
Still a favourite of mine in lessons
Although these chords are both physically and mentally a lot more complex than G and D you can use exactly the same approach to attack the problems they present. As mentioned in the video I'd expect the biggest hurdle to be learning to change the Amaj9 to itself.
If you can't (yet) do it write down "XXX" as your speed. I use this as it's eye-catching to remind you that attention is required.
Getting to the stage where you can do it, however slow, is always the major breakthrough. Then you can spend the rest of your life getting better at it!
The real benefit here is that by tackling and improving at tougher stuff you benefit the easier things by default and possibly at a faster rate than by focusing purely on the issues that appear more relevant.
"Jazz ... nice!"
Breaking Down Complex Chord Changing Problems: The "Stairway to Heaven" Intro Bottleneck
Sometimes the mechanics of a chord change don't fall obviously into the method described above. The following example shows how those same foundations remain fully related nonetheless.
Changing from the 3rd to 4th chord (C with a G as the bass note and D with an F# as bass note) in the intro to "Stairway to Heaven" is a fair challenge to execute cleanly since an almost instant change is required with no room to "cheat" it.
If your usual approach is to keep bashing away at things like this until they becomes easier (which may or may not happen), I'd suggest the following as a better way.
"There's still time to change the road you're on"
It's would make no sense if it weren't beneficial to have a good grip on each shape individually so let's begin by benchmarking them as shown above.
Until each of these is fully functional and up to speed it should be clear that the challenge at hand has to remain awkward at the very least, putting a block on your chances of a successful performance.
A Very Powerful "Trick"
Eliminating vertical movement (up and down the fretboard) for practice purposes can offer great insight by simplifying and clarifying a problem. Here's how it works!
Take the relevant two chord shapes but now play them at the same fret. Although the music now sounds very different, mechanically it remains similar:
This should be substantially easier than the full change. We've ditched a sizeable arm movement plus the stretch for the F/A is somewhat smaller than for the D/F#.
100% Clarity (and Brownie Points Too)!
The bigger benefit perhaps is that we can now focus better on the ideal requirements for each finger involved. It's common that a student is unaware of the advantage of keeping each finger in the "ready position", pointing at the note it will play next, when that finger is not playing its note.
Here, while playing the C/G be mindful to keep fingers 2 & 3 pointing at strings 2 & 4 respectively! While playing the F/A keep finger 4 pointing at the high E string.
When going back to try the full version again you'll only need this awareness in one direction but there's nothing but improvement to be had from practising in both!
"The tune will come to you at last"
If you've never done this sort of thing before then it may feel like very hard work. It's meant to be ... that's why it makes you better! It all pays off when you feel the ease of playing that bringing these benchmarks up to speed affords.
When practising like this I'd now say it's now extremely unlikely that the old adage "keep doing it and you'll get better" doesn't hold true. What's more, it's not just this piece of music that improves, it's countless other things that use the same skillset.
Keeping track of your top speeds allows you to see the benefit of even the smallest of improvements in your ability. Whatever the speed at which you can execute the simplified version, expect the speed of the more complex version to trail a fair number of beats per minute behind.
Keep improving the simplified version however and I guarantee the tougher version is improved by default!
That was a long one and I'm confident I've covered everything you need to know about mastering any chord change on guitar in this article. If there's anything you think I missed, let me know in the comments below.
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