How to learn and practice chords effectively.
So many beginner students struggle to switch between chords when they first pick up guitar, especially when you start throwing the dreaded F chord into the mix. Even intermediate and advanced students have this problem when they start playing more complicated chords. I’m here to tell you the problem isn’t the difficulty of the chord itself (assuming you’ve spent some time getting to know the shape). The problem is in the way you’ve been practicing. Let’s use learning that F chord as an example (but you can substitute whatever chord you’re stuck on at the moment):
You’re strumming along to the song playing your C, G, and A minor chords perfectly at full speed. Everything sounds great until it’s time to play that new F chord. Then there’s a short pause while you get this complicated shape under your fingers. Once you’ve got it down you continue playing the song just fine until the next time that F comes up. Rinse and repeat. After a while of this cycle, the frustration sets in. The problem isn’t even playing the chord itself; it’s just getting all of your fingers in position fast enough. Finally, after a couple weeks, you’ll tell your teacher what the issue is. “It’s not the shape; I just can’t make the switch in time”.
It’s at this point where you’ve just identified your own problem; the key word is “in time”. Switching a chord is all about doing it in a certain amount of time. The issue lies in the way you have been practicing.
Contrary to what everyone says, practice does not make perfect. Practice makes permanent. In the situation above, the student is literally practicing the act of pausing every time before they play the F chord. After weeks of this, that habit has set in. The student has made the habit of pausing before the F chord permanent.
Relax, there’s an easy fix. We’ve been focusing on the problem chord, but what about the others? Your goal has been to play the F chord at the speed of the other chords (C, G and A-) but you’ve never once brought the other chords down to a speed to where you can make that switch to the F in time.
By doing things this way, you are finally practicing switching to that problem chord in time. It doesn’t matter if you can play the other chords ten times faster. It doesn’t even matter if the problem chord doesn’t sound good at first. It will sound good in time (pun intended). What matters at this point is physically getting your fingers in the right place.
This is why people play along with metronomes and slowed-down recordings of songs. These don’t give you the opportunity to pause and get the chord right. They force you into the habit of “making the switch in time” regardless of what tempo you’re playing at. Once you’ve got that down, it won’t take long to speed that up to full tempo.
So the bottom line is yes, I made you read a whole article just to tell you to slow down and practice with a metronome.
-Michael Hilbun is a New Orleans based guitarist and educator. In addition to performing and recording with numerous acts, he maintains an active online Skype lesson studio and teaches students around the world. He has a Bachelor of Music from the University of Louisiana. You can find out more about him at his website www.michaelhilbun.com.