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Effective Chord Changes on Guitar—Part 1

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I’ll begin this tutorial with some good news—everyone struggles with chord changes when they start learning the guitar. The chances are that whatever's holding you back isn't a problem unique to you. 

This is the first of a two-part tutorial will identify some points for you to consider, as well as offering solutions to common problems.

Visualisation

Consider which is more accurate—a description of an object, or a picture of it. Obviously, it's the picture; description is subjective and open to interpretation.

The same is true when it comes to chord changes. If you've a vague sense of the chord shape, and how you're going to achieve it, your chances of being correct are lowered.

What you need to do is picture what you want to do before you do it. Try this:

  • Visualise the chord shape; see it in its place on the fretboard
  • Consider the fingers needed to fret the shape
  • Consider the order
  • Consider how they'll travel from where they are now to where you want them to be

Anticipation

Beginners often get caught out because they consider a chord change only when it’s due to occur. As it’s a sudden demand, mistakes, or even complete stoppages can happen. The simplest way to avoid this is to think ahead—if you know what's coming, you won’t be surprised by it.

If you’ve time, learn the piece you're playing, and by that, I mean commit it to memory. I'm a firm believer in the adage “Don’t play it until you get it right, play it until you can’t get it wrong”. If you're not thinking about what you're playing, you can therefore focus on how you're playing.

If you don't have time to learn a piece, chances are that you’ll be reading it in some form, whether it's a manuscript, a chord chart, or perhaps on a website. If so, learn to read ahead of where you are in the song. 

You'll therefore know what's coming up, and thus can plan your changes accordingly. Like any new skill it takes a bit of practice, but persevere as it's incredibly useful.

Eyeing Up Things

Most people have heard the term hand-eye co-ordination, but not everyone necessarily understands what it means. It refers to the fact that your hands go to where your eyes are looking. 

For example, if someone throws you a ball, you don’t merely stare at your hands and hope the ball lands in them. No, you look at the ball, anticipate where and when it’s likely to be within your reach and then send your hands to that time and place in order to catch the ball.

The same is true when playing guitar. If you wait until the change should occur, and you’re staring at where your hands are now then you've almost no time to react. Furthermore your hands are where your brain thinks they should be because you're looking at them.

Whilst it's perfectly natural to look at your hands when they're engaged in a task, you have to train yourself out of it. 

Just as with reading a chord progression, instead of looking at where you are you need to look at where you want to be next. If you look at the next place you want to be, your hands will go there when the time comes. 

Give it Time

For all it’s popularity, the guitar is a fantastically counterintuitive instrument. It’s my experience that whatever you're struggling with, you may find the solution lies in doing the exact opposite to what your instincts are telling you to do. There’s hardly a stronger argument for this when it comes to speed.

Beginners tend to rush. 

It can be for a number of reasons, such as nerves, or a desire to play at the required performance speed as soon as possible. It also seems to make sense—play fast, get it done quickly.

But this is the world of guitar playing, where everything is back to front. If you want to finish faster, you should be going slower.

Sounds odd, perhaps.

Here's the thinking. If you rush, you'll tend to make more mistakes, so you'll find yourself starting over again and again. This procedure will therefore lengthen the time it takes you to get it right. 

Worse still, your brain learns by repetition; the problem here is that it’ll learn anything if you do it enough ...and that includes mistakes. You could therefore be reinforcing poor playing simply by rushing for the finishing line.

By contrast, if you play more slowly, you give yourself time to learn the mechanics of what you're trying to achieve. You'll identify errors sooner, and thus can fix them more quickly, which means you won't reinforce them through repetition. 

Ironing out these issues earlier on means it'll actually take you less time to learn, and your playing will be of a higher quality.

So, bizarrely, if you want to learn faster try playing slower.

It’s the Journey, Not the Destination

Chord changes often mark out a more experienced player from a beginner. The former can make chord changes appear seamless, whereas the latter introduces gaps in their playing where none should exist.

This is because beginners tend to move to the site of a new chord, and then start constructing the required shape. This takes time, hence the appearance of gaps.

By contrast, a more experienced player recognises that construction of a new chord begins on the journey between the shape you are leaving and the shape you want to play. Some shapes become so familiar to a player that they arrive fully formed.

Conclusion

In this tutorial I've shown you the following:

  • Picture what you want to play before you play it
  • Anticipation - think ahead
  • Hand-eye coordination - look ahead
  • Learning slowly brings faster results
  • Chords are constructed en route to your next destination

In the next tutorial I’ll have some more concepts and suggestions for improving your chord changes.

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