Chord Changing – 12 tips to end chord changing problems pt.1

One of the biggest obstacles and sources of frustration that the aspiring guitarist faces is changing chords. No matter what the goal (pro guitarist to hobbyist), at some point the player will have to be able to use chords and change them efficiently. In this article, I will give you some tips to help you end the frustration and get onto being able to play what you want to play without the frustration of chord changing problems.

There are basically two types of chords on the guitar. 1.) “Open chords, that is, chords played in the first position and involving, in most cases, open strings. And 2.)  “movable” barre chords. Although the basic skills needed to change these chords are essentially the same (or very similar), the methods and mechanics for changing these chords and interchanging between the two) are actually quite different. This article will focus on open chords. In parts two and three of this article, we will discuss barre chords and also moving between open and barre chords.

Here are some tips to overcoming core changing problems and getting your rhythm guitar playing up to speed.

Tip #1: Learn all of the proper fingerings for the cord you need to change. This is key, and is a good start point when you’re given chord changes. First, examine each chord and the proper fingering. You’ll need to commit that fingering to memory and associate it with the name of the chord. For this example, we will use the open “C” chord. The most common and proper fingering for C is the first finger on the first fret of the B string, the second finger on the second fret of the D string, in the third finger on the third fret of the A string (see diagram below):

A third example of this would be changing from the G chord to the D chord. Now in this example, a good fingering to use for the G chord would be the four finger version that we gave above where we play the first finger on the second fret of the A string, the second finger on the third fret of the low E string, the second finger on the third fret of the B string, and the fourth finger on the third fret of the high E string. The reason for this is that from this position of the G chord when moving to the D chord the third finger does not have to lift or move. It can act as a sort of a “pivot.” Just send the first and second fingers down To the second fret to play the D chord. This provides a very efficient move between G and D. (see example below).

This is about the only fingering that most guitarists will use for this chord. But what about other chords?

Let’s take for example the open “G” chord. The open G chord has many possible fingerings and many different uses for these fingerings. An example of this would be you could play the open G chord with the second finger on the second fret of the A string, the third finger on the third fret of the low E string and the fourth finger on the third fret of the high E string. You could also play the same chord with the first finger on the second fret of the A string, the second finger on the third fret of the low E string,  the third finger on the third fret of the high E string. A third way to play this chord would be to play the first finger on the second fret of the A string, the second finger on the third fret of the low E string, and the fourth finger on the third fret of the high E string. And another common way to play this chord would be a four finger version with the first finger on the second fret of the A string the second finger on the third fret of the low E string, the third finger on the third fret of the B string, and the fourth finger on the third fret of the high E string (see diagrams below)

This gives you for fingerings for the open G chord. And yes, you need to learn them all, as some fingerings will lend themselves better to certain movements than others and will be more useful in certain applications, More on that in just a minute.

Tip #2: Avoid the “top-down” approach. Many guitarists and even guitar teachers wrongly refer to the “top” and “bottom” strings - they actually get them backwards. The bottom string, low E, is actually the one physically on the top (closest to you) and vice versa for the high E string (the skinny string).  it is physically at the bottom (furthest away from you).

The same holds true for the top and bottom notes in a chord. Many methods and teachers will teach you to first learn the top for the first three strings of the chord (mini chords), then gradually set down the lower fingers. Although this is very useful and logical for beginning guitar players just setting out to learn simple chords, it is not logical for people who already know or are learning to change the full versions of the chords. In most cases it is bad practice to learn the chord from the top down or from the the high note to the low note because it gives the player of the bad habit of first planting the fingers on the high strings and then placing each finger in a cascading fashion to the bottom. This causes the fingers of the left hand to fly away from the from the fretboard, making accurate and quick chord changes much more difficult. You need to learn the entire chord from the bottom and place the fingers simultaneously.

Tip #3: Learn to plant the fingers simultaneously using the “pressure and release” technique. This technique is easily done by placing all of the fingers in the proper position of the chord. Then, proceed to apply pressure on with all fingers on the chord. After applying pressure, release this pressure but keep the fingers on the strings in the proper position. Then continue to apply pressure and release pressure over and over to begin to develop the muscle memory needed to play the chord. This will also help you to remember the shape of the chord (say the name of the chord each time to re0inforce the name of the chord with it’s fingering). As you move through this exercise, once you are able to successfully apply pressure and release pressure with the fingers remaining on the strings then begin to apply pressure and release pressure, but now lifting the fingers slightly off of the strings no more than a quarter to half of an inch and then setting them right back down on the chord and applying pressure. Strum the chord when you apply the pressure and say the name of the chord when you play it. Again, this will help you to memorize the chord, the chord name, and the fingering of the chord all at the same time.

Tip #4: Do not “squeeze” with the thumb. Many guitar players will grasp back of the guitar and apply way too much pressure with the inside muscles of the hand (meaning the thumb and the muscles of the inside of the hand and forearm). This is far different from the “pressure” that we talk about in tip # 3 above. It actually takes much less pressure then one would think to actually sound a note on the guitar. When you involve pressure and force from the thumb, you actually restrict your ability to lift the fingers and to set the fingers properly into the proper position for the chord that you want to play.

Tip #5: Place the thumb properly. the thumb should be placed ideally on the back of the neck about halfway down right about opposite the middle finger. Now this placement will change slightly depending on where the chord is on the neck, what strings the chord is being played on, and the chord itself. But in general, the rule is to use the pad of the thumb placed gently on the back of the neck. Many guitar players wrongly allow the thumb to grasp it over the top of the neck therefore limiting the ability of the fingers to change positions. While in some cases this maybe desirable, such as to mute the low E string while playing a chord (such as open “D”), which does not involve that string. In this case, the muting would help you to avoid accidentally hitting it and causing dissonance. But in genera,l it is best to keep the thumb placed on the back of the neck.

Tip #6: Examine the chord change for commons tones and or common movements. Examples of these would be the open “C” chord moving to the open “A minor” chord. You will notice that the first and second fingers in the open C are common to the placement of those same fingers in the open A minor chord. This means that you do not have to lift those fingers and replace them when changing between these two chords. The only finger that needs to move in this case would be the third finger moving from the third fret of the A string in the C chord down to the second fret of the G string in the  A minor chord. This provides for a very very smooth change. (See example below).

Tip #7: Practice the change without strumming. This is sometimes not referred to as “rapid fire” changing. Pick two or more chords that are in your progression and change those chords with the left hand only, without worrying or being concerned with the strumming or the strumming pattern. This will train your hands to lift and move the fingers simultaneously to the proper chord progressions and shapes.

Tip #8: Before adding a strumming or rhythmic pattern, get to change on the proper “down beat.” Using quarter notes, for example, in a 4/4 progression with chords changing on each measure, you would change the chord on the “1” beat of each measure where the new chord is found. This will allow you to get the essential movement of the chords and to begin to train the right hand and the left hand to move together within the change.

Tip #9: Change chords on the upbeat even if there is no upstroke. Sometimes this is referred to as a ghost stroke or a ghost move. While your hand is strumming if only using down strokes you will switch the chord at the time that the strumming hand is raising or lifting up to set for the next down stroke. If playing eighth notes or other rhythms where there is an actual upstroke of the pick; During that upstroke you may lightly play the upstroke while lifting the fingers and moving to the next chord. This is sometimes referred to as a “ghost move” and is always acceptable providing that the pick just grazes the strings and preferably only the top three strings.

Tip #10:  Learn the rhythm pattern or strumming pattern without the chords. This can be done by using your fret hand to mute the strings and simply playing the rhythm of the piece. You can do this with the use of the metronome and ideally tapping your foot in time with the metronome or to the timing of the song. In general, your foot will tap on the downbeat or down stroke and lift on the upbeat or upstroke this is a very useful technique in developing the strumming patterns, using the right-hand and to develop your overall rhythm.

Tip #11: Play only the essential move. Rather than trying to tackle the entire chord progression, isolate the chord change that you need to perfect, that you need the most help with, or that gives you the most difficulty and practice only that change using the rapid fire technique, the pressure and release technique, and changing the chord with the proper rhythm pattern of the right-hand. But only that chord change. Once the difficult chord change is mastered, then place it in back into the music or into a bigger part of the song where you can move directly through that change without

Tip #12: Play the change without stopping the rhythm. This means that as you are playing the chord progression, continue to play the rhythm of the chord change even if the left-hand does not make the change in time. This will, over time, force the left hand to catch the rhythm of the right-hand. This is a very important technique because if you wait for the left hand to perform a move that has not been perfected yet, the right hand will stop strumming and you will lose the rhythm of the piece that you are working on.

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Remember that a Great Teacher can be an invaluable asset when learning to change chords, or for any other facet of mastering the guitar. Your teacher can also provide instant feedback and help you to over come problems in your playing that you may not even know exist. Or if you do know they exist, can help you with the best possible solution. 
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A second example of this would be the example of changing between the C chord and the G chord. Now in the example in Tip #1 above, we gave many different fingerings for the open G chord. In this case, the the best fingering would be the second finger on the on the second fret of the A string, the third finger on the third fret of the low E string, and the fourth finger on the third fret of the high E string. The reason for this is that in this fingering, the second and third fingers remain in the same relative position as they are in the open C chord. All you need to do is to lift those two fingers together as a unit and place them each one string down while simultaneously lifting the fourth finger from the G chord and placing the index finger for the C chord and vice versa. Try this for yourself and see how much easier it is to make that change. (see example below).

Now when switching between C, D and G, the fingering of the G chord using fingers 2,3 and 4 is more efficient because those two fingers fingers two and three remain in the same relative position for all three chords. in the G chord those two fingers remain on the second and third frets of the A and the E string. in the C chord, they remain on the second and third frets of the D and A strings and in the D chord they remain in the same relative position on the first and second strings. This allows you to move these two fingers simultaneously and together into each of these cords making your chord changes very smooth. (see diagram below).