A step by step guide on learning chords on the guitar or piano more efficiently

Learning Guitar Chords – Tips and Tricks

Ah chords, the bread and butter of guitar players for decades. Simply put, chords are a collection of individual notes played simultaneously. If you want to play your favourite songs at some point, or even more so if you want to write your own songs, you’ll be coming across chords sooner rather than later. However it can seem quite a daunting task to learn guitar chords, especially in the beginning, when you’re not quite sure how to go about doing so. This is a resource I’ve put together which will guide you on learning guitar chords in an efficient and effective way.

 

Table Of Contents

 

How soon should I learn guitar chords?

A million different people might give you a million different answers on this (although if you had the time to ask a million people, I’d be quite envious indeed!) Some guitar teachers like to start students off with technical exercises, only starting to work with chords after a few weeks or months have passed. Others like to start off with chords immediately and ignore any sort of technical exercise in the beginning. My approach over the years, and one that has yielded consistently great results for my students (to their credit, not mine!) has been to combine the two right from the get go. There are two main reasons why I believe this to be the case, one being technical, and the other musical :

The technical side

It’s undeniable that there’s a technical element to learning the guitar, which involves doing a multitude of finger, stamina and coordination exercises. This is because having a strong technical foundation will allow you to build your learning process on something solid, which will in turn support you in whatever areas you might later want to specialise. And this includes chords. This means that by doing technical exercises, which in most cases involve playing only one note at a time, you will also be receiveing benefits for your chord playing. This is because such exercises will train your coordination and your strength and stamina, all necessary qualities when it comes to learning guitar chords and playing them with confidence and consistency.

However, the opposite is also true. What I mean by this is that learning guitar chords will also be of great benefit to your overall technical abilities. Chords often involve performing challenging stretches. They can also require fair amount of strength that needs to be applied by the forearms, wrist and fingers, in order to get all the notes in the chord to sound right. This sort of training will have a knock-on effect on any other area of your guitar playing, since whatever it is you choose to play, you’ll be using the very same muscles that you’ve been training by playing chords!

The musical side

Let’s face it, technical exercises are not always the most musical or pleasant sounding. They can often involve chromatic or scale based patterns that, while bneing unbelievably useful to one’s technical development, can get a bit boring after a while. This is obviously not always the case, and there are many exercises that are also musical (in fact there are ways to make certain exercises sound more like music while retaining the benefits that such an exercise offers). Also, not everybody dislikes playing these kinds of exercises… I personally used to love practicing repetitive note sequences, finding it to be almost meditative in its own way.

However, you can really start to feel the guitar ‘come to life’ when chords enter the picture. After all, the guitar is quite a special instrument due to its polyphonic nature, which means that you can play more than one note on it at the same time. This is one of the biggest reasons why the guitar is so versatile, and why learning guitar chords is such an important part of the process. Since the guitar can be used as both a rhythm/accompanying as well as a lead instrument, it would be a big shame if we weren’t to take advantage of this!

Many people start learning guitar because they want to play their favourite songs, and this often involves chords. For this reason, I always suggest that people introduce chords as soon as possible into their practice regimen. Not only does learning guitar chords yield technical benefits (as listed above), but it also allows the person to start experiencing the instrument more musically, and to hear him or herself playing songs or parts of songs.All of this usually has a massively positive impact on that person’s motivation to keep practicing and improving, since he orshe can now get a ‘taste’ of just how much potential the instrument has, and can gauge the progress being made in a more quantifiable manner (the song you want to play sounds better this week than it did two weeks ago, for example). As we all know, people very often start playing an instrument only to stop after a few weeks or months. This is rarely due to some external circumstance, but rather, it’s often due to a lack of motivation.

This lack of motivation can often come from feeling like learning the guitar is just one technical exercise after the other, and many can find themselves asking “when do I start being musical?”. Nobody really starts learning an instrument purely for the mechanical aspect of it… we start because we want to make music! So staying as motivated as possible often involved keeping things as ‘fun’ and closely aligned with one’s goals as they can be, while not neglecting the important, more mechanical aspects of learning.

How do I learn chords (and where to I start)?

When it comes to learning guitar chords, the amount of amazing learning resources that are available online is staggering. I’m definitely not one to tell you that you should only use this website as a resource for your learning… in fact, I encourage you to go out there and learn from other people who’s teaching and playing style you enjoy! However, it’s also important that you learn the right way as early as possible, since any bad habits you might pick up early on will have an increasingly negative impact on your playing the more you progress (I learnt this first hand, having picked up some bad techniques from a teacher I used to go to).

I would strongly advise you to not try and learn too many chords at the same time. Start one by one, and only move on to another chord once you’re relatively comfortable with the first one. It’s also very important that while you’re learning new chords, you keep practicing and repeating the ones you’ve already learnt. This will ensure that not only are you learning your new shapes, but also gaining more and more confidence with the chords that you’ve already put into your repertiore.

This link will take you to a page you can find multiple charts for the chords you’re going to be starting out with, as well as more advanced chords, and which will form a large percentage of the repertoire that you’re going to use in real life.

Open vs barre chords

I (and just about everybody else who teaches guitar) would always recommend that you start out by learning open chords.

Simply put, open chords are chords that are played across the first three frets of the guitar, often involve open strings, and do not require your index finger to act as a barre (or capo). Open chords are by far physically easier to play, and they also form the basis of many popular songs from across the ages. Once open chords feel comfortable, you can move on to barre chords.

PS : By first three frets I’m referring to the frets in relation to whatever capo’s being used (or not). If no capo is used, then it’s literally frets 1-3, but if a capo is used say on the second fret, then the first three frets become frets 3-5, and this is where the open chords are then played

Learning Guitar Chords in isolation vs linking them

Some people think that a way to make learning guitar chords easier is to look at a chord as a variation of another chord (that’s already been learnt). In some cases, this is definitely useful, especially when it comes to the major and minor chords of the same key (ex: turning A major into A minor by changing one note and moving the order of the fingers around). In theory, there is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, and it can be useful especially towards the beginning when somebody has a few chords memorised and wants to expand his or her vocabulary.

However, I believe that overall, the best way to ultimately learn guitar chords is to treat each chord as its own individual, standalone unit. Remember, we’re not talking about the theoretical basis for a chord here (for example how a D minor is a D major with a flattened third, etc), since that kind of detail usually comes at a later stage in somebody’s guitar journey. This is purely a matter of physical and mechanical learning that is associated with mastering a new chord shape. I will explain why I believe this to be the case.

In real life, whether you’re playing your favourite songs by yourself in your bedroom, or rocking out on stage in front of tens, hundreds or thousands of people, the chord sequences you’re going to have to play will rarely be as convenient as the ‘associative chord’ approach makes them out to be. Sure an A minor is an E major shifted down by a string, but if you need to play an F Major before that and then immediately switch over, do you really want to be spending time making these calculations in your head? As somebody who’s played hundreds of gigs so far in his lifetime, I can tell you that most of the time, you certainly won’t have this luxury!

I see the associative method as a potentially useful crutch in the beginning stages of learning chords, during those first few weeks and maybe months when everything is new and super challenging. However, I personally encourage everybody (teachers and students alike) to move on to the ‘standalone system’ as soon as possible. Personally, I’ve always encouraged my students to learn chords as individual units.. it might make their life a little bit more difficult at first, since they’re not building it on top of something they already know. However once they have it down, the ease and confidence with which they master that chord is usually superior to that of somebody who has to make all sorts of calculations in their head befoer playign a particular chord.

Now in due time, as someone progresses and becomes more proficient at playing the instrument, this won’t matter as much, since the more you play a chord (whether by thinking of another chord first or not) the more confident you’ll be with it. Eventually your fingers will just know where to go by themselves (and this usually doesn’t take as long as may think). But I also believe that starting out with the right habits as soon as possible will have an impact on how well a player can develop later on in their playing career. With all that said, I’d like to share with you a trick that I was shown years ago when I was just starting out learning guitar chords, and which helped me learn chords quickly and efficiently without needing to think of any other chords first.

The “Chord For Life” hack (learn guitar chords more easily and permanently!!)

I have made an entire YouTube video showing you exactly how to do this exercise!!

So you’ve just spent the last forty five minutes twisting your fingers (and possibly your brain) into a pretzel, trying to get that new chord you’ve learnt to sound right. You’re quite happy about this, and so you should be! So you play it, and then you play it again… and then you get a bit bored of hearing that one chord over and over, like a musical nightmare equivalent of groundhog day, so you move on. Maybe you start playing something else, or maybe you get hungry and decide to go make yourself a nice salad. Then you come back, and you sit down to play that chord again and… its gone!

Fear not, this is very common and to be expected when you’re first starting out. Remember, you’re literally creating new neural pathways in your brain that will be used when you need to recall a certain chord, then instruct your fingers on where to go and in which configuration they should be in order to get that chord to sound good. As with any new skill, this takes a certain amount of repetition and patience. However, there is one trick that I’ve used for myself as well as with countless students over the years, and which I call the ‘chord for life’ hack.

Before we continue, I should say that I didn’t come up with this idea, nor do I think that I’m the only one talking about it. A friend of mine back in our school days actually told me about it (he mentioned where he’d learnt it from but I’ve since forgotten). However, I quickly took it on board, and will not share with you how it’s done. It’s actually very simple, and the point of this whole exercise is to allow you to really get comfortable with chords shapes and patterns. As mentioned earlier, by doing this exercise you won’t need to continuously associate one shape with another. This avoids creating a sort of mental dependency between different chords. Let’s do it :

Step 1)

Play the chord as cleanly as possible, making sure that you’re using the best combination/order of fingers, and that each individual note in the chord sounds as clear and distinct as possible. You don’t have to play anything fancy, just a couple of gentle strums will do (at this point we’re just checking to make sure that you’re building the exercise on a good foundation). If there are any strings to be avoided while playing this chord, make sure you’re avoiding them while strumming. Say the name of the chord out loud or have it looping in your head while you’re playing it.

Step 2)

When you’re happy with the way the chord sounds, lift your fingers off the fretboard and your whole hand hang loosely a few inches behind the guitar neck. You can even drop your hand completely to the side, the important thing is that you remove contact from the neck. Don’t be tempted to simply lift your fingers off the guitar just enough so that they’re not touching the string… really remove them from the fret area in general. This will ensure that you’re getting the maximum benefits out of this exercise.

Step 3)

Wait for a few seconds, and while you’re waiting, feel free to shake or wiggle your hands and fingers around, in order to remove any tension that might have built up from playing the chord. This will make the next step easier and will also get you used to habitually removing excess tension.

Step 4)

After a bit of time has passed, we’re simply going to go back to step 1. This time however, we’re going to try and get the shape of the chord a bit quicker than we did before. You want to try and get all your fingers into their correct positions as quickly as you can, and to try and avoid constructing the chord by only pressing one finger down at a time. In the beginning this might be very difficult, and that’s ok, start going finger by finger if this is easier. Remember to say that chord name, whether out loud or in your head, so that you really build that association between the chord and the fingers.

GOAL :

Eventually, you want to repeat the process above over and over again, until you can basically form a chord with all fingers hitting the fretboard in the right location at the same time. You want it all to sound right, then take your hand off the neck, put it back and play the chord again pretty much immediately. The less of a gap there is between you bringing your hand back towards the neck and playing the chord correctly, the more you’re training yourself to be extremely familiar with that particular chord. The results is that you’ll be learning guitar chords more quickly then ever before and before you know it, you’ll be playing them with ease and confidence!

This exercise not only trains your hands and fingers to go where they need to, but it also removes the need to learn a chord by having to link it to some other chord shape. For reasons stated earlier, learning each chord as its own separate unit will ensure that you’ll be able to navigate any chord progression you come across with ease, efficiency and confidence!

PS : The cool thing is that this exercise applies to any sort of chord you’re learning, whether it’s an open chord, barre chord, jazz chord, etc… so go ahead and make use of it as much as you like/need!

Chord Practice Checklist

When it comes to learning guitar chords, the manner in which you go about learning and practicing will have a massive impact on how well and how quickly you progress. One of the questions I often get from students is “How do I know I’m playing a chord correctly?”, which is a good question to ask. If you’re working with a teacher, than he or she will be able to guide you and make any modifications necessary in real time. However, if you’re teaching yourself, or are practicing alone at home (or at the park, or the library… I don’t discriminate), here’s a good checklist to keep handy while learning guitar chords. You can reference this list to make sure you’re getting the most out of your practice time :

  1. Does it sound right? This might seem obvious, but use your ears and your instinct… does the chord sound clear, clean and resonant, or is it more choked and/or sounding a bit out of tune? In the case of the latter, play each individual note string by string, making sure the fingers are pressing down where they need to press down and aren’t on the wrong fret, wrong string, or pressing down on the metal of the fret rather than in the space in between frets. If need be, take your hands off the neck and start building the chord back up again, taking particular care to tackle the problem note or area this time round. Also check that you’re not playing any strings that you shouldn’t be including in that particular chord, since that’s quite often the source of any dissonance that might be occuring
  1. Am I using the best finger combination and positioning? When it comes to which fingers to use for which chords, I like to avoid having a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Depending on the size of your hands and fingers the flexibility of your wrist, tendons etc, you might find it easier to play a chord using a certain finger combination than somebody else. For example, some people like to play an A major by barring all three notes on the D, G and B strings together, since they have larger hands and stacking three fingers on top of each other can get a bit awkward (this is how I personally do it). Others prefer to go with one finger per note. There is no right or wrong way as long as the chord itself sounds good and you’re not exerting yourself unnecessarily to play it. If you find yourself really struggling with the physicality of a certain chord, as yourself whether you could be using a more efficient finger combination and order to play that same chord. Sometimes there will be no easier way, and it’s just a matter of practicing until it’s not physically demanding anymore. But at other times, you may find that simply switching a couple of fingers around will make life much easier for you. Learning guitar chords does involve a certain level of predefined rules and patterns, but this doesn’t mean that there is absolutely no space for individual preferences and approaches.
  1. Do I know this chord well? Do you know the name of the chord, and can you play it by itself before or after any other chord that you already know? If not, it’s good to focus on sharpening your skill in this area (revise the “Chord For Life” exercise above which will help you greatly with this). Learning guitar chords, especially in the beginning, is a memory exercise as much as it is anything else, and anything you can do to train and sharpen this sense of memory can only help you in the long run.

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