Without a doubt, the greatest technical challenge to newbie guitar players is changing chords cleanly and changing them on time. No contest – this is your winner.
[A close second for six-stringers is jumping off a Marshall stack and landing safely, all the while keeping your rock and roll face intact. Check out the pic to the left for pointers. But I digress.]
Meeting this chord-changing challenge and conquering it can be a brutal, frustratingly slow process at times, since there seems to be a hundred things to keep track of at any given time.
You’ve got to instantly recall and find your left hand shapes, find the sweet spot on each of the fingertips, try not to bump other strings, keep the right hand strum happenin’ – and do it all in rhythm!
Well, I’ve got a technique three-banger for you that will help to get you over the chord changing hurdle once and for all. I call it the Chord Change Trifecta!
Are the Basics Covered?
I’m a “first things first” kind of guy, so let’s get our checklist of basics squared away, shall we?
The following things are prerequisites for using the Trifecta. If you can’t execute these things without twisting yourself into a pretzel, I suggest you not attempt the Trifecta until you can.
1 – Do you truly know the chords?
You must be able to visualize the chord shapes clearly in your mind, enough that you could draw your own chord diagram. If you can’t visualize them, your brain has no way of sending the correct commands to your fingers.
As a bonus, you should be able to tell me, in words, how to execute the chords. I need to know what fingers go on what strings and at what frets, and which open strings are involved. If you can’t tell me how to do it with words, you have zero chance of doing it with fingers. As always, clarity of mind precedes clarity in the fingers.
If there are problems here, the fix is simple: study the chord diagram.
2 – Can you make the chord sound good?
This is a whole ‘nother issue and is the part that likely will take the longest to conquer, since each individual chord has its own specific requirements.
Spend some time on each chord in your song and really nail down the physical part of it: find the “sweet spot” for each finger, make sure you are out of the way of the open strings, and make sure that each note is held firmly enough to make a good sound. This is the “heavy lifting” part of guitar playing, but it must be done.
3 – Can you execute a basic alternating (down/up) strum pattern, counting in 8th notes?
It should sound like, “1-and, 2-and, 3-and, 4-and”, with the downstrokes coming on the numbers (the heavy parts of the beat) and the upstrokes coming on the “ands” (the weaker parts of the beat).
This is the strum we’ll use as an example. Remember, it mimics the movement of your foot tap, so when your foot goes down, the strum goes down, and vice versa.
The down/up strum (sometimes called the pendulum strum) is a fundamental movement, but if you are only able to perform quarter-note downstrokes (“1, 2, 3, 4″) at this point, you can still use the Trifecta. It will be used to its full potential, however, with the 8th-note alternating strum.
The Power of Three
“Keep practicing; you’ll get it.”
That phrase annoys me immensely, and yet I hear it over and over on YouTube “lessons”, from supposedly experienced players as well as from folks who can barely play themselves.
A very small percentage of people will pick up chord changes instinctively; the vast majority of players need someone to give them a clue. Preferably a decent clue. If not, they will spend a very long time trying to make sense of changing chords in rhythm, and many will become so frustrated with their seeming lack of “talent” that they give up altogether. Which makes your pal JB very sad.
[Just to clarify, what the above phrase really means is, "I don't know how to clearly explain what I'm doing, so see if you can figure it out on your own." Great lesson. Thanks, bro.]
After working with hundreds of beginner students, it has become abundantly clear to me that changing chords in rhythm is too complex a set of maneuvers, with too many moving parts, to just say, “Keep practicing; you’ll get it”.
We need to have a clear picture of what’s going on – step by step – in order to wrangle those bad boys. Again, “clarity of mind” is always Step 1. To that end, I’ve fashioned a sweet little guideline to help you in your rhythm guitar journey, and it goes a little somethin’ like this…
THE CHORD CHANGE TRIFECTA
1 – Slow Down (Don’t Stop) into the Chord Change
2 – Let Go at the Switch Point
3 – Stick the Landing
Pretty impressive, I know. Let’s explore each step of the Trifecta.
Step 1 – Slow Down Into the Chord Change
The operative words here are “slow down”. Notice I didn’t say “stop”.
Assuming that the above basics are covered, stopping your strum to change chords might just be the single biggest obstacle in your quest for rhythm guitar glory.
About 2% of all students try to keep the right hand going. A full 98% stop everything…until the left hand finds the chord. Then they start up again. (These numbers are completely unscientific, but I’m going with it.)
Almost every guitar student I’ve seen instinctively stops the rhythm until the left hand is fully in place before continuing with the strum. However, the left hand just has to get mostly in place; and we slow down to accommodate that. Stopping is the kiss of death, because music occurs in time; the band (or your iPod) will not stop and wait for you to figure out how to get to the dreaded B7 chord.
To be clear, slowing down is still not good enough to play along with a recording, but it’s a lot better than stopping – which gives you no chance at all of maintaining the rhythm and timing – and it at least gives you the sense that you’re making the changes in rhythm, just not very quickly. Give yourself enough quality repetitions and – bazinga! – you’re playing along with the song at tempo. (High fives all around, baby!)
Basic method: Play through the first couple of beats, counting out loud, and slow down markedly on the “4-and” to give your brain a chance to make some sense out of all the moves.
At this point, you’ll want to follow JB’s Golden Rule of Strumming and try to keep your right hand going, while you allow your left hand to catch up, if necessary. This is infinitely better, in the long run, than stopping the whole process to let your left hand find the grip. At least this way you’re giving yourself a chance to stay in rhythm.
This may be extremely counter-intuitive at first; I suggest you focus hard and resist your natural tendencies here. Power through the strum and let the left hand play catch up.
Step 2 – Let Go at the Switch Point
The switch point is a term I coined to indicate the specific point at which you let go of a chord in order to change to a new one.
You won’t find this term in any book – and sadly, it is rarely, if ever, addressed in method books – but it dawned on me years ago that knowing when to let go is the crucial technique sticking point with chord changes. Most folks just don’t know when to let go!
The switch point is always the final rhythmic subdivision – in this case, 8th note – before the chord change. Assuming that your new chord falls on beat 1 of a measure, the switch point would then occur on the “and” of 4, which is an upstroke.
Basic method: Think “4-and-CHORD!” Strum down on 4, let go of the chord on the upstroke at “and”, and land your new chord on “CHORD”. Be sure to let go exactly on the “and” of 4, as holding on even a hair too long will thwart your plans to land the next chord in time. Precise timing is key!
Bonus visual reinforcement: If I took a snapshot of you at the switch point, you would be playing open strings…with an upstroke… fingers moving to the new chord.
Unfortunately, it’s been my experience that no one ever really tells you this! Apparently, they think you should automatically understand it. So I’m telling you now…
Step 3 – Stick the Landing
The final step is the toughest, because ultimately it involves getting all the fingers in place for the new chord at the same time. This is daunting, but that’s why we first slow down, then let go of the last chord, and visualize the new one.
Then you stick the landing like a champ on that new chord – think of a gymnast coming off the vault in the Olympics, twisting through the air and hitting the floor strong. (That was another bonus visual.)
I understand that getting all fingers in place can be rough going for rookie players, so why not start with one finger? For example, when going from a G to a D, start by landing only finger 1 for the D chord. You can probably do that pretty easily. When that’s good, land fingers 1 and 2; visualize that partial shape and practice that. When you’re cooking, add finger 3 – and you’ve got the whole thing.
So many folks think “all or nothing”; either land the whole chord or I just can’t do it. I’ve become a master at breaking complex moves into manageable pieces for my students – like the above D chord – and so should you. Use your imagination! Believe me, it doesn’t take genius; just some creativity and the ability to see the individual elements that make up the whole. In the meantime, you can call me the Chord Whisperer…
If there’s any particular tip I’d like you to take from this or any of my lessons, it’s this: look for smaller, more manageable elements within the larger whole and conquer them first. Then piece things back together. Works like a charm!
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