For most of us, the first thing we learn to play on guitar are chords. Someone teaches us the major chords and some of the minor chords but that’s usually where it ends unless you get a chord book. The problem is, many of these books don’t explain the technique behind chords. Practicing chords properly not only makes you sound better and play faster but keeps you in good health!
Getting to the root of the problem…
I have had many students who have come to me asking, “Is it supposed to hurt like this when I’m playing a chord?” The answer is no, absolutely not. When you are playing guitar, you should feel no discomfort. Physical stress to muscles while playing guitar is quite common amongst beginners and professionals alike. This problem is evident when playing chords because it uses so many muscles in your hands, arms and shoulders.
When holding a chord, I have found that many people rap their fingers around the neck of the guitar much like it’s a walking stick. This is fine if you need the leverage to bend a chord or if you are near the headstock where room is small. However, the way to get maximum results is to put your thumb behind the neck of the guitar. To insure accuracy, put your fretting hand in the shape of a C and then place your hand around the neck of the guitar. You will find that you will have much faster chord changes when playing around the middle of the fretboard. You may find that holding the chord with your thumb rapped around the fretboard may cause discomfort, almost like a spasm.
The reason for this spasm is simply due to the fact that you are holding onto the guitar like it’s a parachute. To relieve this stress, examine your posture and start looking at the problem areas from the shoulder down. Relax your shoulders and let them hang loose, as if you were walking. Then look at your wrist and make sure that they aren’t curved too much as this is a stress point that can cause carpal tunnel syndrome. If you develop carpal tunnel syndrome, it could mean the end of your playing career. Then, take a look at what your fingers are doing while holding the chord.
If you’re not sure how much pressure you should be pressing down on the string with, I have a helpful trick that works like a charm. Press down on any note with the tip of your finger, barely placing any pressure on the string (just enough to mute it when you pick). The reason you only use the tip of your finger is due to dexterity and accuracy.
Then start to pick the note you want to sound while slowly increasing the pressure you’re placing on the string. Stop as soon as you hear a clear tone. What do you automatically notice? That’s right, you’re hardly holding down the string! This sensation is great for quick chord changes.
This will make playing barre chords a breeze. Far too often, I see people placing enough pressure on their strings to have an aneurism… don’t let this be you! After taking these steps, you should be more relaxed and ready to rock.
Keep in mind that you will need to adjust pressures on a regular basis depending on what you are playing. Try to keep things as light as possible while keeping the firmness needed to play. For example, you will need to adjust the pressure you place on your strings for playing barre chords as opposed to an open G chord.
Explore the world of chords!
Learning different chords are essential to becoming a well balanced musician. I have personally found myself in a playing “rut” that was extremely hard to get out of. It was as if I couldn’t play anything new and my imagination was gone when it came to writing songs. Then I discovered chords. When my professor first suggested chords I laughed because I considered myself a lead guitarist and I couldn’t make the connection between the two. Then I actually started to play around with new chords that were foreign to me and something magical happened, I started to write good music.
You will discover a new world of options with chords. Eric Clapton is a perfect example of integrating chords into every day playing. He shows us that there is much more to playing chords than just strumming. He applies a number of different techniques and concepts that have been associated with playing lead guitar. My suggestion and challenge to you is to learn one new chord everyday. It will only take a few minutes and the end result will be well worth the time that you invest. If you currently don’t have the money to spend on a new chord book, check out this link for hundreds of chords to practice.
Putting it into practice
Now it’s time to put some of the things we have been discussing over the last two articles into play. We have been talking about the link between arpeggios and chords and how they rely on one another. So here is a riff that uses both of these skills quite nicely. Lets walk through it.
Pictured below are five chords. They are called G, Aadd11, Bm, D, Cadd9 (in order of appearance). They sound like they are complicated to play but it’s actually quite the opposite!
Hold the bass note, located on the low E string, with your index finger. Use your index finger to lightly mute the A string. This isn’t hard to do because your index finger is at a slight angle to begin with and will stay away from the open D string, which you want to ring out. Then, hold the note located on the G string with your third finger. Now just move it up and down the fretboard!
Notice how the notes that you’re fretting are actually a part of a movable arpeggio? Check this example out to see what I mean:
…compare that arpeggio to the G chord from above and you will find that the chord is in the arpeggio. Everything in music can be linked up at some point.
Now mix it up and try some variations of those chords. Don’t be afraid to make it your own by adding some new strumming patterns and giving it it’s own personality. That’s why we left our examples pretty simple, we want you to add in your own style. Check out some variations of the chords below and have fun!