How To Play Guitar Chords - Playing Through Difficult Guitar Chord Changes

by Mike Philippov


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It’s frustrating when you can’t change between chords on guitar reliably and your favorite songs seem impossible to play.

Good news: Learning to play guitar chords smoothly is not hard (even if you struggled with this for years).

These steps make challenging chord progressions easy to play:

Step 1: Isolate

Start by isolating the pair of chords that is hard for you to play. If some chord progression contains more than one challenging chord change, focus on one pair at a time. Be clear on the fingering of each chord and make sure you can play each chord without excess tension in your body.

This video shows how to play difficult chords without excess tension:

 

Step 2: Master Each Chord In Isolation

Practice fretting each chord individually many times. Here is how:

  • Put your fingers on the correct notes of the first chord in the chord change
  • Relax the fingers off the strings. “Relaxing your fingers off the strings” is different from lifting them off. The former keeps your body relaxed…the latter tenses you up.
  • Put the fingers back on the strings to fret the chord again.

Do this many times in a row while keeping the rest of your arm as relaxed as possible (only your fingers should move). Perform 30-50 repetitions for the first chord. Then do 30-50 repetitions for the second chord.

This exercise builds your muscle memory to fret each chord correctly and efficiently. Your fingers learn to move fast and together (more on this below).

Don't worry about making the transition between the chords yet.

Keep your fretting hand shoulder relaxed during this step. Put your other hand on your fretting hand’s shoulder to confirm its relaxation. Watch the video to see this step illustrated.

 

Step 3: Practice The Transition Moment Of The Chord Change

Fret the first chord, then release the fingers slowly from the strings and begin to form the shape of the second chord in mid-air.

Focus on:

  1. Keeping the fingers close to the strings. The less your fingers need to move, the faster they arrive to the second chord.
  2. Identifying common fingers. Common fingers play the same fret on the same string in both chords (or stay on the same string in both chords). Keep those fingers down on the string (whenever possible) to minimize unnecessary motion.
  3. Keeping the fretting hand shoulder relaxed. Your shoulder must not rise or become tense during the transition between chords. This is especially important if the chords are located in different areas of the fretboard.

Important: move the fingers as slowly as necessary to complete the chord change smoothly and correctly. Watch the fretting hand every moment of the transition. Make sure that the hand lands into the right position for the new chord.

After playing the second chord, slowly move back to the first chord (reversing the chord change). Continue practicing the transition from one chord to the next for several minutes.

This approach puts the chord change under a mental microscope. Slowing down is the equivalent to zooming in with a microscope. You are able to correct inefficiencies in your playing, so that your technique becomes smooth and effortless.

Tip: Your fingers need to fret the notes of each chord at the same time (NOT one after the other!). Visualize your fingers like paws of a cat after a fall. A cat falls on all 4 of its feet at the same time…your fingers must move the same way.

This guitar practice video shows how to practice this step of the chord change.

 

Step 4: Put The Puzzle Pieces Into Place

After you perfect the chord change in isolation, insert it into a larger musical context.

Isolate a musical excerpt that starts about 2 seconds before the first chord in the chord change and ends about 2 seconds after the second chord. This helps you integrate the chord change into the music while still focusing on the transition between the challenging chords.

Repeat these steps with all remaining chord progressions you struggle with to make them easy to play.

This free guitar practice video shows an in-depth demonstration of this process for mastering difficult chord changes.

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