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How to Improve Chord Changes on Guitar

When first starting out on guitar, simply fingering guitar chords is quite the challenge. Some fingerings are super awkward, making smooth chord changes feel like an insurmountable task. But the good news is your hands and fine motor skills can adapt quickly. With a little guidance and some effective exercises you can improve your chord changes dramatically.

Tips to Help with Chord Changes

Before we get to the exercises themselves, there are a few tips that can help improve the effectiveness of the exercises. While some of these are specific to chord changes, several can be applied to guitar playing in general.

Reduce Tension in Your Hands

Simply put, tension is bad. It works against you in every way, making everything you attempt to do much more difficult.

Smooth chord transitions start with relaxed fingers, hands, forearms, and body in general. This allows the fingers to move freely and unresisted on the fretboard. Always pay attention to how much tension you’re holding in your body. If you find you’re tensing up, remove your hands from the guitar and shake them out, take a deep breath and restart.

Proper Chord Fingering Technique

When playing chords, you need to make sure you’re using proper technique. If not, it’s going to be really difficult to transition between chords fluidly.

Chords should be fingered with the tips of your fingers. Obviously there are cases where you’ll flatten a finger to play multiple notes, such as with barre chords. But for everything else, you’ll want to finger the notes with the tips of your fingers. Each note should ring out cleanly without any dampening from adjacent fingers touching the strings.

Take it Slow

I think everyone needs to be reminded sometimes to just pull back and slow it down. The desire to play songs can cause people to rush and play sloppy just for the sake of playing through the song or progression. Playing slowly allows your body to fine-tune its movements and eliminate mistakes. This plays a crucial role in getting the most benefit out of the next tip.

Repetition = Muscle Memory = Smooth Chord Changes

When it comes to improving your chord transitions, repetition is king. Practicing chord changes over and over will help create the muscle memory you need in order to transition between chords fluidly without thinking about it.

Also, the repetitions should be varied. Rather than play the same progression every time, vary the chords. Your hands will adapt quicker and you’ll see better results.

Pivot Finger

A pivot finger is a finger that plays the same note across multiple chords. Instead of picking up every finger when changing chords, the pivot finger stays in place as an anchor and you use it to pivot between chords. Because you don’t have to reset your hand position, it’s much easier to transition from one chord to the next.

I’ve included some exercises below that help work on pivoting between chords.

Simplify Chord Fingerings

Depending on where you are as a guitar player, certain chord fingerings may be difficult to play due to strength, flexibility, coordination, etc. Barre chords in particular can be quite challenging for the beginner guitar player.

In most cases, there are alternative fingerings you can use in place of full chords. Triads (3-note chords) are especially useful in these situations. Using these chord variations simplify the fingering and enable you to more easily switch between chords.

Note that while this may have an immediate impact on your ability to switch chords, you shouldn’t avoid playing the full chord altogether. Continue to work on switching between full chords as well in order to aid in your overall improvement.

Learn Songs

When starting out, learn as many beginner guitar songs as you can. Learning real songs helps keep you motivated and exposes you to tons of new chords. This will really challenge your coordination and help you get better.

Just keep the tip from above in mind. Take it slow and play the chords properly.

Guitar Chord Transition Exercises

The exercises below will help smoothen out transitions between chords, but the key to getting the most out of the exercises is to practice slowly and use proper technique. You should be able to play each chord cleanly and move between them cleanly. If not, you’re playing too fast and need to slow it down.

Exercise 1: Fine-tune chord fingering

Before we get into chord changes exercises, we’re going to start with a drill to help with learning how to finger new chords. This is particularly useful for beginner guitar players who haven’t established a high level of coordination.

Choose a chord you have trouble fingering. For this example, we’ll use the open D major chord. Recommended fingering is show in the diagram.

D major chord

Finger the chord and once you have it so all notes ring cleanly, hold the position for 3 seconds and 3 seconds only. After 3 seconds, release the chord position and relax your hand. Wait 3 seconds and finger the chord again. Once you have your fingers in place, hold for 3 seconds and release again. Repeat this 10 times.

The purpose of this exercise is to get your hands used to finding the position of the chord. Holding a position for extended periods of time does little to help with this learning process. You need to move in and out of the position. You can apply this exercise to any chord you’re having difficulty fingering.

Additional tip. If you’re really struggling to finger a chord, try establishing one finger to use as a guide that your other fingers can then reference. In the case of the D major chord, you may want to use the ring finger as the guide. Put your ring finger on the note first, then finger the other notes.

Eventually, you want to finger all of the notes simultaneously, but this can provide a starting point until you’re able to build up the coordination to finger all of the notes at once.

Exercise 2: Chord transitions with the pivot finger

In this exercise, we’re going to practice using a pivot finger to move between two- and three-chord progressions. I’ve provided two strumming patterns for each progression.

The first is a simple downstroke strum appropriate for beginners just starting out with chord transitions.

The second strumming pattern is for those who are ready to build more fluidity in their chord changes.

Progression 1: D – Cadd9

In the first progression, we’re going to change chords from the open D major chord to the Cadd9 chord.

The ring finger on the 3rd fret of the 2nd string will act as the pivot finger since it shares the D note across both chords. It’s highlighted with the orange note marker in the diagram below.

This finger will stay in place as you move from the D chord to the Cadd9.

It can feel a little strange at first, but you will quickly see how this aids the process. Just remember to release all tension prior to performing the exercise.

D major and Cadd9 chords

Below we have the audio for two different strumming patterns. The first pattern is more simple and consists of only downstrokes. The second pattern mixes in both downstrokes and upstrokes.

If you’re just getting started with chord changes, start with pattern one then progress to pattern two. If you’re comfortable with pattern two, go ahead and start with that one.

For all examples, use a tempo that’s appropriate for you and allows you to practice without mistakes.

D – Cadd9 / Strumming Pattern 1
D – Cadd9 / Strumming Pattern 2

Progression 2: C – Am

In progression two, we’re going to change chords from C major to Am using the index finger as the pivot finger. Remember, the index finger stays in place throughout and never leaves the fretboard.

C major and Am chords

Audio for the two strumming patterns is below:

Am – C / Strumming Pattern 1
Am – C / Strumming Pattern 2

Progression 3: D – Cadd9 – G

In this last progression, we’re going back to the D to Cadd9 chord change and adding G major as well.

D major, Cadd9, and G major chord diagrams

Again, the ring finger will be the pivot finger across all three chords. With these chords, we’ll play two different progressions:

First Progression: D – Cadd9 – G

D – Cadd9 – G / Strumming Pattern 1
D – Cadd9 – G / Strumming Pattern 2

Second Progression: G – Cadd9 – G – D

G – Cadd9 – G – D / Strumming Pattern 1
G – Cadd9 – G – D / Strumming Pattern 2

Exercise 3: Simplify chord fingerings

Many full chords can be simplified by removing notes to avoid barring and/or reducing the chord to its basic structure of a triad. While this will change the voicing of the chord and it make it sound a bit different, it does provide a solution to help transition between chords.

Removing the barre

In this first example we’re going to simplify a barre chord and make it much easier to play. The progression is going to be C – F.

C major, F major chord progression

Typically when playing the F major barre chord, you barre across all six strings with your index finger on the first fret. However, we can simplify this by omitting the F note on the 6th string and using your index finger to only play the notes on strings 1 and 2.

C major, F major progression altered fingering

This allows you to use your index finger as a pivot finger and you only need to roll it back to grab the F note on the 1st string. Also notice that the ring finger acts as a pivot finger in this chord change as well.

You can actually take this a step further and omit the C note on the 5th string.

C major, F major progression altered fingering

Using triads

For the second example, we’re going to take full chords and reduce them to triads to make them easier to finger. We’ll stick with the C – F chord progression using the A form C chord with the root on the 3rd fret of the 5th string and the D form F chord with the root on the 3rd fret of the 4th string.

C major F major chord progression, alternate voicing

Out of these full chords we’ll pull the following triad shapes:

  • For the C major, we can use our index finger to barre across the three notes on strings 2, 3, and 4.
  • For the F major, we can use the traditional D chord fingering on strings 1, 2, and 3.
C major triad and F major triad

The drawback is these chords will sound less full. However, you can always work back to full chord transitions once your overall coordination and technique improves.

Wrap up

Transitioning between chords takes time to master and it can be tough for beginners. Chord fingerings feel awkward and it takes a bit of patience to get them down. But with consistent practice and utilization of the exercises and tips in this lesson, muscle memory will take over and your chord changes will improve exponentially.

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