The Secret to Changing Chords

Can You Say “Quick, Smooth and Easy”?

In this lesson I am going to give you the secret to changing from one guitar chord to another quickly and smoothly. When I first began playing guitar this seemed like a lofty goal. In fact there were times that I thought some people have it and some don’t (like me). I can still remember the day that I was sitting around a campfire playing my guitar with some friends. I looked down and to my amazement my hands were doing their thing without me thinking about it. It was happening! I was really playing guitar.

I can tell you now with 100% certainty that everyone can do it. Not to spoil the mystery but I’m going to start off by telling you the biggest factor to getting there. Are you ready? Here it is – LOTS OF ACTION. (translation: practice, play, practice, play…).

I know. You’re probably thinking “duh”!  The second thing you’re probably thinking is “what the F#@%”? Well, maybe not quite that dramatic :) No, I’m not going to leave you there. In fact I’m ready to share with you a path I’ve developed to get you there faster by deconstructing how I did it and testing and refining it with many students over years. You’ll still need to apply action (practice) but this will save you a lot of time.  Here we go.

Now, to be perfectly clear here’s the goal:  to jump from one chord to the next moving all fingers together at once in tempo and at the right time without hesitation or fumbling. I will use the word “visualize” to mean seeing in your mind’s eye the chord before you place your fingers down. This practice has been proven in studies with athletes to improve performance considerably. Don’t worry about doing this perfectly. Some people will naturally have clearer pictures in their mind than others. Even an attempt, no matter how successful you think it is, will have the results we’re looking for.

Start with a simple, useful chord progression. As an example I’ll use a common chord pattern I – IV – I – V* in the key of D: D – G – D – A.

Practice the D chord – finger the chord. Look at your hand and fingers for about 10 seconds, then remove all the fingers. Shake your hand out lightly. Visualize the D chord form for a couple of seconds.  Now place all three fingers down on the guitar to form the D chord at one time. Not one finger, then another. Place all at the same time. Repeat this process over and over until you can do it most of the time. I use the guideline of about 80% in my mind, but there’s no hard rule here.

Practice the G chord (same procedure as D chord) – finger the chord. Look at your hand and fingers for about 10 seconds, then remove all the fingers. Shake your hand out. Visualize the G chord form for a couple of seconds.  Now place all three fingers down on the guitar to form the G chord at one time. Repeat this process until you can do it most of the time.

Practice the first movement from D <-> G with no tempo. Finger the D chord. Visualize the G chord. Lift all the fingers off the fretboard. Place all three fingers down at once to form the G chord. Now visualize the D chord. Lift all the fingers off the fretboard. Place all three fingers down at once to form the D chord. Repeat this process until you can do it fairly easily.

Practice the A chord (same procedure as the other chords) – finger the chord. Look at your hand and fingers for about 10 seconds, then remove all the fingers. Shake your hand out. Visualize the A chord form for a couple of seconds.  Now place all three fingers down on the guitar to form the A chord at one time. Repeat this process until you can do it most of the time.

Practice the next movement from D <-> A with no tempo. Finger the D chord. Visualize the A chord. Lift all the fingers off the fretboard. Place all three fingers down at once to form the A chord. Now visualize the D chord. Lift all the fingers off the fretboard. Place all three fingers down at once to form the D chord. Repeat this process until you can do it fairly easily.

Practice the pattern with tempo. Start with a slow tempo and strum straight down. Strum the D chord 4 times, jump to the G chord and strum 4 times, jump to the D chord 4 times, then jump to the A chord and strum 4 times. Start over without stopping and play through the entire pattern 4 times.

Here’s a typical musical chart of what I just described: ||:D///|G///|D///|A///:|| (repeat 4x)

I like to use a metronome to keep the pulse and so I can measure progress, but you can do this without a metronome. Just try to keep a steady, slow pulse without stopping or slowing down when you change chords.

Repeat this process until you can do it fairly easily.

Now add a strum. Start with a simple strum. I’ll suggest a |down down/up down down/up| strum for starters. Repeat the chord pattern with this strum slowly without stopping to change chords and placing all the fingers at one time. Repeat until you can do easily.

Over time increase the tempo of the strum in increments of about 4 bpm (beats per minute). This makes more sense if you use a metronome.

Some additional tips to help you:

   * Relax you hand when forming chords and use just enough pressure to make the chord sound good.
   * When you finger the chord accurately it takes less effort to get a clear sound. This is a case where going slow and getting it right will save time and effort in the long run.
   * When practicing with tempo go as slow as you need to get it accurately without stopping or slowing down.
   * Most people want to go too fast. Resist this temptation. Your mind has a strong tendency to record movements that are repeated over and over. This can work for you or against you. When you practice faster than you can play accurately it can slow down the development of the correct habits from forming. This is a simple version and there are times to push for speed, but it’s a good general concept to go by for now.
   * If you don’t have a metronome I strongly recommend getting one and learning to use it.
   * Try using more complex strums once you can do the pattern with the simple strum. Again, start off slow and practice the strum separately so you can play the strum smoothly before applying to the chord pattern.
   * Try this procedure with more complex chord patterns.
This practice routine takes much longer to explain than to actually do. Don’t get overwhelmed with the words. It’s actually pretty easy once you’ve followed the procedure a few times.

A side note: In my early years of teaching I used the concept of Pivot and Guide Notes. When changing chords a Pivot Note IS when the finger can stay in the same place. A Guide Note is when the finger can slide on the same string. These ideas are useful, but I now prefer to simplify by sticking with the concept of “least distance” and “smallest movement”. I find these ideas equally effective, more universal and easier to remember.

HAPPY GUITAR PLAYING!

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Leave A Reply (6 comments so far)


  1. Jose M Lopez
    2 years ago

    Thanks,Tomas you make it so easy for us beginners.By the way how come your first name is spanish. Do your back grounds are spanish.


  2. guitar picks
    2 years ago

    This post is really so helpful. Changing chords is really my hardest undertaking when it comes to playing the guitar. I am obviously not yet a pro so this post just makes me more determined to have that “quick, smooth and easy” changing of chord technique. Thank you so much.


  3. Baldwin
    1 year ago

    Hello, I did find your page interesting, my problem is I have ben playing the Guitar for over 20 years and have always looked at the chord and words as I have a good voice, but now I started a band and they want me to play the E guitar with bar chords without notes.
    How can I break a bad habit of looking for the chord and words and just do it without looking


    • admin
      1 year ago

      Hi Baldwin! I admire your courage to “go for it” and start a band. I’m not exactly sure what you are asking but I’m pretty sure that here’s no simple answer. It sounds like you need to work on a song until you memorize it. If that’s what you are talking about there are some tips that can help, but mainly it involves lots of repetition. It might be helpful to find a competent instructor if you want to get up and running with the band sooner.


  4. Shelagh
    2 months ago

    Thank you! This is exactly what my Dutch instructor told me during my half hour weekly lesson (which is way too short but all I can afford!) It is so nice to be able to check it when I’m practicing at home to make sure I remembered his advice correctly. I’m fascinated by how the brain works too, easily remembering the mistakes before the later added corrections! And thank you for your very encouraging words. This enthusiastic but not gifted elderly beginner occasionally needs to hear that I will get there eventually, if I live long enough! It won’t be for lack of trying. I never miss a day of practice! Thank you again.