For guitarists in the early stages of playing, one of the problematic things that’ll hold them back is changing from one chord to another chord in a song. I’ll find that my student has gone away and learned where to put their fingers for the chords they need, but then tend to stall because the changes are not as fluent as they need to be. Something I find often in these cases is that the guitarist will do a thing I call “chord building”; slowly putting fingers on one at a time in a slow motion change.
When you’re first learning a chord, this might be acceptable, but when you’re moving onto playing songs, this will definitely hold you back. More than likely you’ll find yourself losing your place in the song and getting behind. When I ask why people do it in this way, the reasons i’m given for this slow motion change will usually be that they’re trying to avoid the chord sounding bad, or that they can’t move their fingers fast enough all at once for the change.
Don’t try making it perfect
So, my advice is not to aim for a perfect sound. Changing in slow motion (slowly putting fingers down one at a time) will not make your chord shapes any better or make your changes quicker. You’ll simply get better at putting your fingers down one at a time. This is the wrong thing you want to be getting better at when you’re playing chords, and will more than likely become a bad habit for you it’s not corrected. Songs change chords frequently, and you might have several chord changes in just a few seconds of music, so this slow motion change won’t be effective at all, because you’ll get behind in a very short time.
Instead, a better thing to do from as early as possible, is to get used to moving all the fingers at once and get the general shape of the chord. Then strum and go with it. This might not give you the best sound to start with, but the only way for you to improve speed on your changes is to practise the changes at a faster rate. You can practise your chord changes doing this without strumming the guitar too.
Use a metronome
Once you’ve got into the habit of changing the shape of the chord and not playing in slow motion, we need to make sure we’re playing them in time. The next piece of advice i’d like to give is to use a metronome regularly. You can find plenty of metronome apps for your smartphone or tablet for free, or there are plenty of physical digital and analog metronomes you can buy fairly cheaply.
The first exercise i’ll suggest is to play a sequence of chords, strumming only on beat one of each bar. Set a metronome at 50bpm. Make sure you’re counting the beats in between if you need to, and remember that it’s the general shape of the chord that’s important. Try to hold the chord on as long as possible before you change to the next, and move all your fingers at the same time.
After a while of doing this, the best step forward will be to increase the frequency of the chord strum. Now we’ll strum on beat one and three of a bar. By increasing the frequency of the strum, this is going to cut down the available time you have to change. So, if by any chance you slipped into a bad habit during the previous exercise, by taking too long on the change, this will highlight it for you.
Then we can increase the number of strums we do in a bar again. Now lets strum on every beat of the bar. This step will again cut down your available time to change chords, so forcing you to play faster changes, which to start with might not sound perfect.
These are the steps I advise you to take right from the start; right from when you’re getting your fingers around your first chords. When you’re learning a chord, you’re not only learning where to put your fingers to be able to play it, you also need to learn how you can use it in a song or a piece of music. To do that, you’ll need to practise changing quicker, and this is where focusing on the general shape will be helpful.
To begin with, you might not get the best sounding chords, but this isn’t a problem. It’s part of the process. You’ll get used to quicker shape changes, and over time this will improve. The most important thing to do is to get into good habits of changing shape, rather than “building a shape” slowly. If you work through these exercises for a while and find you’ve outgrown them, you could increase your metronome speed and repeat them at a faster tempo, or you could work on the same chords and change your strumming pattern. However you practise them, remember to do these exercises regularly to get the benefit from doing them.