About Me

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Atlanta, GA, United States
When I suffered a lip injury that ended my career as a classical trombonist, I thought my life as a musician was finished, but I fell in love with music all over again when Santa gave me a guitar for Christmas in 2003. Even as I was struggling with my first chords, I was planning a new performance career. As a trombonist, I performed with the Heritage of America Band at Langley Air Force Base, the Ohio Light Opera, and in pick-up bands for touring acts that included Rosemary Clooney, George Burns, and the Manhattan Transfer. Reborn as a jazz guitarist, I sing and play my own solo arrangements of jazz classics, am half of the Godfrey and Guy duo, and hold the guitar chair in the Sentimental Journey Orchestra. I have been a freelance music copyist since 1995, served as Director of Music at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation from 2011 to 2017, and currently serve as Contemporary Band Director at the same congregation.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Smoothing Out Your Guitar Chords

Perhaps the biggest frustration my beginning guitar students experience is not being able to move from chord to chord as quickly as they would like. All guitarists go through this phase. If I had an easy way to get over this rough patch, I could sell my secret and be rich. The truth is that it takes practice – lots and lots of practice.

When you practice guitar chords, you are training your motor skills. Your goal is to think about a chord and have your fingers form it automatically. This takes time to develop, and it involves a lot of repetition. The only way to develop your chord-forming skill is to – wait for it – practice forming chords. Let's use a sports analogy to illustrate the point. If you are a basketball player and you want to improve your free throws, you're going to have to shoot a lot of free throws. If you miss your first four attempts and then make your free throw on the fifth try, you don't stop. You keep shooting free throws so you can teach your body how a successful free throw attempt feels. The same goes with chords. You don't just play a few chords and stop. You play them over and over until you can practically play them in your sleep.

Here's one exercise you can use for practicing chords. Let's say you are learning a song in D, and it has the chords D, G, and A7. First, pick two chords, and practice switching back and forth between them over and over. Then pick another pair. Try all the possible two-chord combinations.  So:

  • Alternate between D and A7 for a while.
  • Alternate between D and G for a while.
  • Alternate between G and A7 for a while.
  • Try a longer combination. Cycle through D – G – A7 – D.
Some general tips as you practice switching from chord to chord:
  • Don't worry about trying to play a fancy strumming pattern. You are working on your fretting hand, not your strumming hand. Simply strum each chord once. You can add strumming patterns another time.
  • Start slowly so that your fretting hand is relaxed. As you get more comfortable with the chords, see if you can gradually pick up the pace, but never play so fast that your fretting hand becomes tense.
  • Keep your fingers as close to the strings as possible as you switch chords. The closer you keep your fingers to the strings, the faster you'll eventually be able to play.
  • Study the fingering for each chord. Do the chords have any common fingers or similar shapes? For example, when moving back and forth between D and A7, if you play the A7 with fingers 1 and 2, you'll find that you can easily keep those two fingers in the same formation, move them to strings 1 and 3, and you're in perfect position to play the D chord.
Finally, while I don't generally recommend practicing in front of the TV, this is what I call a "TV" exercise. With the sheer repetition, this type of chord practice can be mind numbing. When I practiced chords in this way, I would plant myself in front of a TV, picked a handful of chords to practice, and watch a show while I played the chords over and over and over.

If you practice your chords like this, you won't sound better instantly, but if you do this consistently, you'll experience noticeable improvement in just a few weeks.