Do you know how to practice? We all want to improve our skills, but it can be hard to know where to start or how to go about it. A good percentage of people who come to my studio have played for years but feel like they stopped improving a long time ago, and need guidance on what to do. So a lot of my work is focused exactly in this area: how to figure out what exactly to work on so you can get the most out of the effort you put in.
This is the first piece in a series on this topic: how to know what to practice and the most effective way to do it. The key in almost every situation is to identify the specific challenges in each new thing you learn, and we do this by breaking down the music into individual elements. For today’s example, let’s look at smoothing out chord transitions.
When you’re learning a new chord or chord change, don’t just memorize the shape: look at the movement of each individual finger. Remember that the goal is simply to direct your fingers to land in a particular place. The clearer and more specific you can be about how those fingers need to move, the more quickly you’ll master the motion. All mechanical things have a logic…there’s a way they work. Recognizing this is important and it’s good news, because it means there’s always a solution to any technical challenge.
As an example, let’s take a series of chords and look at how you might practice changing from one to another. Let’s take this common chord progression, in the key of D:
The following video walks through this process as well, so click below, read on, or both:
We’re starting with the B minor chord, since it’s what we call a bar (sometimes written “barre”) chord: one finger covers multiple strings. Since these chords are often a challenge for beginners, let’s walk through the process.
First of all, consider the fingering. You might notice that if we ignore finger 1, the remaining three notes have the same shape as an open position A minor chord. This is a helpful visual to keep in mind. If we break down the fingering into its component parts, you’ll also notice that fingers 3 and 4 are side by side on two adjacent strings but on the same fret. Finger 2 falls very naturally alongside and below the paired 3rd and 4th fingers…hold your hand away from the guitar, palm up, and extend your ring finger and pinky together. Notice that they move easily as a unit, and that the middle finger falls very naturally in almost the position the chord requires. You can also easily extend the index finger away from the other three. This is more or less the way your fingers will sit on the strings.
To build the chord, start with the ring finger on the fourth string, fourth fret, and allow the pinky to slip in naturally alongside it on the same fret of the third string. The middle finger can then fall into place pretty naturally. Before you add the index finger bar, though, make sure all three of these notes sound clearly. Your fingers should be slightly curled, fingertips touching the string securely but without gripping too hard. Now extend your index finger straight out away from the others and drop your wrist slightly towards the floor as you bring the finger in and lay it across the second fret. Keep in mind that of the five strings you’re covering, three of them are already covered by the other fingers. So the bar needs to reach the 5th string bass note while the SIDE of your index finger lays against the 1st string. Don’t try to hold the index finger straight on to the neck…allow it to curl a little and lean slightly to the left to apply a little pressure to that 1st string note.
This chord presents a challenge in itself, and if you find it difficult you should walk through this process repeatedly until it begins to feel natural. This can take a while, but breaking the chord down finger by finger like this will absolutely help you (a) remember the form and (b) be able to sound it clearly sooner. If all you get out of this article is the B minor chord, that’s still great…but let’s continue.
Take a look at this G chord fingering:
This may be familiar to you and it may not; there are several common ways to play a G. Many people use this form with fingers 1, 2, and 3, and that’s not wrong, but I prefer this fingering for several reasons. One is that it leaves the index finger free to play additional notes and create variations on the chord. But the other is directly related to the purpose of this article: this fingering really helps with the mechanics of the chord transitions. In this fingering, let the pinky curl so that the finger contacts the string at the fingertip, but extend the ring ringer across the neck so that pad of the finger rests on the 6th string. This should keep you from having to drop the wrist too far.
Now go back to B minor. Even if you can’t get the chord to ring out cleanly just yet, you can still practice the transition. Remember, we’re looking at how to get from point A to point B. Notice that in the B minor chord, fingers 3 and 4 are side by side, while in the G chord they’re on opposite sides of the next. So the move is simply to move those two fingers apart, from the center pair of strings to the two outermost strings. If your hand is relaxed, your middle finger should move naturally along with the ring, and the index finger bar simply releases. Practice this series of movements slowly and deliberately…your goal is not to move quickly but to land accurately.
Try working through the rest of this process yourself. The exercise we’ve just done is a good illustration of the the main point: the way to practice this set of chords is to view each transition as a set of individual finger movements. Leading with a particular finger or movement makes it easier for the other fingers to follow. Identifying these specifics clarifies the specific details of what you’re trying to accomplish, and practicing slowly develops accuracy and control. This is an example of focused, conscious practicing, and you can apply this kind of deliberate approach to anything you’re working on. Think of it as a 3-step process:
1. Identify the problem (in this case, making smooth chord transitions)
2. Break down the problem into its component parts or movements.
3. Work through the mechanics slowly until you can execute the movements confidently, then gradually increase speed.
There’s lots more to look at here, and we’ll apply this approach to other musical situations in subsequent pieces.