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Have you tried to learn a handful chords for your favorite song, only to find that switching between the two is mission impossible?
Would you like to discover what you can do to make chord changes faster so that you can feel great when playing and strum along to actual music?
Today I am going to show you where most people get stuck and how to overcome the challenges that we face as guitarists when trying to learn new chord progressions.
First, if you have tried doing chord changes by yourself and you are pulling your hair out trying to get it right, you are not alone. When I first started playing guitar one of the first guitar method books I received from my father as a present was a book on barre chords. If you don’t know already, barre chords are when you use the mighty strength of one (sometimes more) of your fingers to clamp down over multiple strings. If you are new to guitar like I was at the time, this bone bending exercise was one that I will never forget. I struggled through months of sloppy chords, strings that didn’t ring out and broken skin on my fingers. Happy… friggin’… Birthday. Eventually I did get through the challenges and now I can play some slick progressions that sound and feel amazing (I have also forgiven my father as he is an awesome supportive guy).
So now that you know that you’re normal for struggling with chord changes here are just a few ways you can make the whole process easier. On a side note, I do not recommend attempting barre chords until you are quite comfortable with open chords and power chords. The strength you will build from these chords will make it a lot easier later when you want to play more difficult chords.
Here are the 5 things you can do now to help switch between chords faster.
You don’t have to have every note perfect to start making progress on your chord changes but being confident where the frets of each chord are needs to be done both physically and mentally. What this means is it is not enough to read a tab or a chord chart and think you know where the frets are, you must practice holding the chord, lifting all your fingers off and placing it down on the same chord repetitively until it is comfortable for you to play.
Trying to nail that 4-chord song but can’t get past the first two without hesitating between the chord changes? Don’t try to overcomplicate things yet, stick to two chords and spend a focused 5 minutes just switching between them. The extra focus you spend on your technique when you simplify things may be just what you need to reveal any issues in your playing that you weren’t aware of before.
Bonus motivation note – whenever you practice changing between two chords in isolation you are actually practicing two chord movements eg. C major to E minor and back from E minor to C major. So not only do you improve the chord change you are working on for your song, you also have another chord change ready for another musical use later.
After you are fairly confident you know how to play between 2 chords get out a stopwatch or use your phone and time for one minute how many chord changes you can do with just those 2 chords. There is no bad score here (except maybe zero) but repeat this exercise 5 times and write down your results. This can be a really fun exercise and helps track your improvement. Remember, if you do this exercise with a different pair of chords there are going to be new unique challenges, so don’t beat yourself up or celebrate too fast when you see different results. You only want to monitor the progress for each pair of chords as a fair indicator of how you are going.
a. Pivot Points (Best for beginners)
Practice 2 chords which share at least one fret in common with the finger you use to hold it.
In the example below the E minor chord and the C chord share fret 2 on the D string (shown by the red arrow) with the same middle finger of the left hand. Instead of taking off all your fingers from the fretboard, try keeping your middle finger fretted down and only move the other fingers to their new position. Having this pivot point makes the change simpler and will definitely help you with your speed.
b. Common Shapes (Helpful for Intermediate player)
Sometimes when practicing the switch between barre chords, you might move the barred index finger to the new position but will lift off all the other fingers to reposition the new shape.
Practicing 2 barre chords that have similarities in the shapes for the fretting hand will help the switch become seamless so that you can land the chord change on time, even if the barre of the index finger is over a different fret. In the example below there are two chords the Dm7 and G7. Both chords use a barre for the index finger and both chords have the ring finger placed on the D string two frets up from the barre. Instead of lifting the ring finger during the change between chords slide it up just as you do with the index finger and all you will need to do is place the pinky down. The benefit of doing this is the same as the pivot point method, having a reference will make it easier for you to land the perfect rhythm.
If you are practicing any new chord progression (or an old one that needs work). I recommend starting at a tempo that is slow and comfortable for you and gradually make the rhythm more challenging so there is less time between the chord changes. A metronome here is vitally important as you need something to keep you accountable to a fixed time so that your rhythm is tight, simply counting is not reliable as you may speed up or slow down without knowing.
Use the following exercises to build up your chord changing speed while still maintaining a steady rhythm. If you are not familiar with rhythmic symbols just strum the chords shown on the bold numbers and hold the chord without strumming on the numbers without bold. The numbers in the exercises represent the beats of the metronome, it will also help for you to count along out loud when playing with the metronome.
Exercise one. Whole notes.
Count to four on your first strum to the click of the metronome and then swap chords so that the first strum of the new chord is on beat one also.
Exercise two. Dotted half note.
This time we are going to strum on beats 1 and 2 and change chords after the fourth beat so that you strum on time for beat one. By holding the second strum for three counts you are challenging yourself to change chords faster.
Exercise three. Half note.
Strum on beats 1,2 and 3 hold for beat 4 then swap chords. As you can see this progressive approach will get more challenging slowly over time.
Exercise four. Quarter Notes
The final step for this short set of exercises is to strum for each beat of the metronome and change chords so that you strum the new chord on beat one.
Exercise five. Up the tempo.
Now that you can hold a steady rhythm, up the tempo on your metronome gradually. There are other ways to improve your speed that you should also investigate further but this is certainly a good start to playing in time and increasing your speed.
So, there you have it. 5 methods to help you feel confident about your rhythm guitar playing. Using any one of these ideas will help you progress but you will notice as you go through the 5 methods that each method helps the next making it easier and easier for you to switch chords. Remember to be patient with yourself as you overcome your challenges and track your progress so that you celebrate your achievements.
Daniel Bainbridge is a professional guitar teacher from Kelmscott, Australia. He has helped dozens of kids and adults alike overcome challenges to play their favorite music and enjoys listening to Iron Maiden. Click the link if you are interested in taking guitar lessons in Kelmscott, WA, with Daniel!