Although it’s been about five decades since I first picked up a guitar (gulp!) I still well remember those early days of discovery and more often, frustration. Keeping a steady beat with one hand while changing chords quickly and accurately with the other is the first really big hurdle I had to cross, along with dealing with the pain of pressing down on the strings, of course. So I can certainly sympathize with students who are at that place in their guitar studies. Here are a few things I see on a regular basis and a few possible solutions.
Let’s say you’ve been playing for a few weeks or months and you’re still confounded by fast and accurate movement of your fretting hand. This totally normal and to be expected. Said it before, and I’ll say it again: playing the guitar looks too damn easy! What the beginner soon realizes is that there quite a few mental processes going on at the same time when we play and dealing with them all at the same time is a challenge – for anyone! What I encourage my students to do is be analytical about their playing. That is, WHY can’t I move from one place to another quickly? To just practice a movement of the fingers over and over without some thought may work to a certain degree but the danger is that muscle memory comes into play and before long you begin doing little more than practicing your mistakes!
Not every finger is graced with an equal amount of strength or the ability to control. The obvious example is of course our “little finger” or in guitar parlance, the 4th finger. Fortunately, in the beginning at least there are plenty of first position chords that don’t use that finger but some do. What I see more often with beginners is trouble with the 3rd (ring) finger. For example, one of the most common chords a beginner must learn is C Major. It’s natural to place fingers down numerically, i.e., 1-2-3. That means the 3rd finger goes down last. This is a really easy habit to slip in to, and a bad one. All fingers must be placed simultaneously, especially if you’re going to use finger patterns with the picking hand that begin with the root of the chord (the lowest note in the chord that is “first name” of the chord you’re playing – in the case of C Major, the C on the third fret of the 5th string).
What I encourage my students to do in any first position chord that involves the 3rd finger is force that finger down FIRST, and then deal with the rest of the chord. This is not a perfect solution – the beginner is still “setting up” the chord – but getting to the point that the chord can be placed in its entirety will come much sooner than if you practice your C Major with 1-2-3 placement, which can quickly become a bad habit. And that habit is very hard to break!
We’re assuming of course that the correct positions of fingers for each chord have been memorized. Avoid keeping a chord sheet next to your music. Memorize those fingerings as soon as possible or that chord sheet becomes a crutch!
Another overlooked aspect of concise movement is control of the fretting hand when you’re NOT pressing down. Beginners rightfully focus on pressing down on the strings, but what about what happens when that force is released? Our fingers naturally want to move back together, i.e., away from the area directly over the fretboard. But a player absolutely must get into the habit of keeping fingers OVER the fretboard between chords. All great guitar players have a few things in common and one of them is minimizing their movement. By moving fingers off the fingerboard and then having to return takes way too much time and encourages inaccuracy.
Finally, and I’ve written about this many times before but I’ll continue to do so (!) – anticipate your chord changes. Look at the fretting hand and IMAGINE where your fingers will be on the next chord. Do not wait until it’s time to change to look up at your fretting hand because for most of us, by that time it’s too late to make the change without stopping. I absolutely guarantee that all great guitarists do this. The next time you see a good player doing something more complex than basic chording you will notice that he or she spends lots of time looking at the fretting hand but I promise you they are NOT looking at what they’re playing at that moment; they are imagining where their fingers will go next.
So – keep on keepin’ on, as we used to say back in the day! Those changes will get easier, I promise. But think about your technique. Don’t assume that repetition alone will solve problems. Good luck, and enjoy!
Peace & good music,