Beginners always have to get past the first big hurdle of playing the guitar: fast chord changes. A steady beat from the beginning to the end of a piece of music is essential – and gratifying for both the player and the listener. While there are some “tricks” that players discover along the way (with the help of a good teacher, hopefully ;~) ), things like keeping fingers close to the neck between chords and avoiding moving fingers unnecessarily, the single biggest essential skill to master is thinking ahead. This is easier in some songs than others of course. Tunes that stay on one chord for a number of measures allow the player to relax a bit and be ready for the next change. But some songs move rapidly through a series of changes. In those cases a player MUST think ahead constantly and be ready. Which brings up the next essential.
I call this my “basketball theory.” The first time you pick up a basketball and throw it toward the hoop you most likely miss. And miss and miss and miss some more. Then finally a shot goes in. Hmmm, you think, not bad! So you continue to shoot and gradually your success rate increases. You’re not sure exactly why, but you know you’re doing something different.
Well, this is exactly the WRONG way to practice a piece of music! Sure, pure repetition may yield results but by being analytical about your playing you can solve problems much faster than just depending on repetitious practice to make things better. Which finger is almost always the last one you put down? Well, that is the “problem finger.” Focus on that one the next time the chord shows up and assuming your have the overall chord placement memorized, the other fingers will miraculously fall into place almost from the very beginning.
But getting back to the basketball theory, what you should do (versus repetitious and mindless physical activity) is break the song down. Instead of practicing the song from beginning to end over and over, and most likely make the same mistakes over and over, work on individual lines of the song, i.e., limited sequences of measures. When you can play one sequence of say, four or eight measures without stopping, attack the next limited sequence of measures. Then, go back and put the two sequences together. Move on to the next section and repeat.
The take-away point here is that you can’t solve a problem until you know what it is! Stopping, finding the difficult chord, then continuing is not going to make things better and in fact may make them worse: you may end up stopping automatically and essentially practicing (reinforcing) your mistakes. Then – and I speak from the experience of watching hundreds of students struggle with this – it is actually more difficult to break the habit of making the mistake, than locating the problem and dealing with it in the first place!
If you’ve read this far you may be thinking – yeah, right, Gene. Easy for you to say! But please believe me when I say that I still deal with the issue of difficult chords as I’m sure all guitars do regardless of their level of experience. Some songs will always challenge me and there are a couple I force myself to use in performance and when I jump into them I honestly have no idea what’s going to happen.
It would be much easier to just play tunes that I know I won’t screw up. But I know I won’t improve by taking that road. Yes, there have been some mini musical disasters. I just hope I remember to break the song down when I get home, focus just on the difficult passages and then – and only then – try again to put the whole thing together.
Peace & good music,