So you’ve learned some guitar chords. And you’ve started to strum them. The next big step is to switch between chords. Once you can do that you can begin to play songs. Lots of em’. That’s right, you’re almost there!
Most people struggle with changing chords on guitar. It’s completely normal. Contrary to popular belief, just playing more won’t help. In fact, I’ve seen many people cement bad habits by trying to “will” their way through songs. So don’t do that. Your rhythm will be off and you’ll sound sloppy, maybe for life. Sounds harsh but getting chord changes right really is that important. It’s so foundational to the rest of your playing. There are key techniques you must practice in order to get better. What are they? How do you practice them? That’s what this post answers once and for all.
Before you go any further, make sure you’ve learned the 8 guitar chords beginners must know. And familiarize yourself with these strumming patterns.
I’m going to explain the concepts that make changing chords possible first. Then I show you some exercises to put these concepts into action and start practicing them. Go through these simple steps for every chord transition that’s giving you trouble. Practice for a few minutes every day. And you’ll be switching chords on guitar lighting fast in no time!
Ready to go? Ok let’s do this!
Step 1 – Isolate and Dominate. (Focus On The Left Hand First!)
Without a doubt, the biggest mistake you can make is to try and do the strumming pattern WHILE working on your chord changes. What happens is you end up playing out of time and ingraining that poor timing. It becomes a bad habit and stays with you for a long time.
Instead, work on forming the chords with your left hand without a metronome or track first. Just form the chord, strum it one time, then switch and form the next chord. Do this 5-10 times to get a feel for the chord transition.
Step 2 – Minimize Movement. (Find pivot fingers. Keep fingers low.)
Next you want to pay attention and look for any fingers that are common between the two chord shapes. These are called “Pivot Fingers”. For example, C Major to A Minor. The index finger stays in the same spot so don’t move it. Not every chord change will have a pivot finger but use them when possible.
You also must focus on keeping your fingers close to the fretboard. The less distance your fingers have to travel, the quicker they can land. Makes sense right? Don’t neglect this, it’s important.
Step 3 – Sync Your Hands. (Strum on beat one, use the other 3 beats to change.)
Ok now it’s time to bring your right and left hands together with a beat. Use a metronome or a 4/4 backing track (a simple rock track works). Ideally you’ll start at 60 BPM. Strum and play the chord on the first beat. The next 3 beats will give you enough time to switch to the next chord. But make sure you strum the chord right on the first beat.
Step 4 – Build Speed. (This builds consistent timing.)
Ok so you’re strumming and play the chord on the first beat. And the next 3 beats are giving you plenty of time to change to the next chord. Pretty easy right? Now, start increasing the tempo by 10 BPM. Do this until you get to about 120 BPM. Congratulations! You’re hands are synced!
Step 5 – Add The Strumming Pattern (Don’t forget to practice it beyond the goal tempo!)
Now it’s time to add in the strumming pattern. There are many strumming patterns so what you choose is up to you. For the must-know strumming patterns go here. Start your metronome or backing track back down to 60 or 70 bpm. And start to play the strumming pattern with the chords. Slowly work your way up to your goal tempo. Then take it beyond the goal tempo by 20-30 BPM. I find that practicing like this helps solidify the muscle memory. And then when you play at the normal tempo it will feel easy!
A Final Note About Chord Transitions:
When looking at tab or chord charts for songs, it’s understandable that you might think that the chord change is executed instantly. And if you listen to a SoundSlice or GuitarPro tab you’ll hear that.
But it’s important to remember that we are human beings. Think of changing chords more like a finessed movement than an instant switch. For some changes, some fingers won’t move as fast as others.
As a guitar player, you learn to adapt over time to this. You will adjust the strumming so that the strum strikes the chord where the fingers are landed first. This gives you time to fully fret the chord.
Other times, you’ll play some open strings in between the chord change. It’s something that you’ll learn as you go through the above process. Think of them as “ghost chords”. Meaning you aren’t intending for them to sound, but they do… as you switch from one chord to another.
This tends to happen with faster strumming. If you were to play the same figure slowed way down, it might sound sloppy. But up to speed it isn’t noticeable. It’s the nature of the instrument. You might hear these “ghost chords” in isolation, but when you play with a singer and band you won’t hear it.
So keep that in mind throughout your chord change learning process. You’re human. There’s some finesse required with many chord changes. It doesn’t have to be instant to sound good.
Here’s a video with some good tips as well:
Ok so now you’re on your way to playing your favorite songs. I hope you can see now that chord changes aren’t Mount Everest. There’s a simple system to methodically break them down and smooth them out. I’d love to hear from you. Leave me a comment below.