How to improve your chord playing

by Sam Russell

I know that something a lot of beginners struggle with is their chord playing. This can be especially frustrating for beginners, because often, this is the one area of guitar that they really want to get the hang of, so that they can play all their favourite songs.

But the same problems almost always come up:

·      The chords make a weird buzzing sound

·      The chords have a weird thonk noise to them

·      They can’t get the chords on their guitar to be in time

·      The chords sound “thin”

·      There are extra strings ringing out

And being unable to solve these problems leads most beginner guitar players to one of two situations:

·      They quit playing guitar, thinking that it isn’t for them

·      They put up with it, and accept being a mediocre guitar player

Neither situation is ideal. Fortunately, there are solutions and this article is going to walk you through some of those solutions.

These solutions do not relate to just one problem. Each solution can fix one problem, or a few problems. Equally, each problem does not have a single solution. Do not think about solving your chord problems in the following way:

Problem X requires Solution Y

Instead, think of it in the following way:

Problem X requires running through a checklist of solutions A, B, C and D to discover which one is causing the problem

That being said, let’s start looking at some solutions so you can fix up your guitar playing:

Pre-Solution – Problem Finding

There is a step we need to take before we start finding solutions and that is, problem isolation. We have to find out where the problem is. Hold your chord down and pick through the strings one at a time, SLOWLY. We are not looking at ‘playing guitar’, here we are trying to work out which strings need attention and which don’t. If the string rings out fine we can ignore it. If it makes a weird sound, then we start running through the following solutions looking for a fix.

Solution 1 – Finger Position

The ideal place to have your fingers positioned on the strings is close to the fret, but not quite touching. So keep your fingers 1mm-2mm from the fret. If your fingers are too far from the frets, you will find that you get a weird buzzing noise come out of the guitar. The buzzing noise is caused by the string ‘bouncing’ against the fret. If your fingers touch the frets, you will find the strings sound very muted.  This is caused by the skin on your fingers going over the fret and muting the string, causing that part of the chord to not ring out clearly.

Another common problem with finger position is students have their fingers at a jaunty angle to the strings. You want your fingers to be perpendicular to the strings, at 90 degrees. Pretend your fretboard is a piano… that is how you want your fingers positioned.

Position your fingers 1mm-2mm behind the fret, keep them perpendicular to the neck, and the notes will ring out beautifully every single time.

Solution 2 – Finger Pressure

When playing guitar, we want to use just enough pressure to hold down the strings, and no more. If you have checked Solution 1, corrected your finger position and the notes still don’t sound clear, try holding the strings down a little bit harder. I know that for beginners this can be a little painful in your finger tips, but you have to get used to it sooner or later! If you are already applying a large amount of pressure, then try relaxing your fingers until the note loses its clarity. Use a tiny amount more pressure than this.

Just enough pressure – that’s all we need.

Solution 3 – Quit Using the Pick Like a Shovel

If you are getting all sorts of additional and unwanted open strings ringing out, this is probably the cause. Strum your chord and watch you pick hand. Is it moving in a nice and controlled manner, or are you waving it around like a shovel? If it is the latter… then we need to fix that. Practice just moving the pick hand in a more controlled manner and you will clean up your chord playing in no time.

Solution 4 – Leaving the Strumming Hand in the Wrong Place

This is very common with beginners and intermediate players. This is often the cause of why your chord changes are not in time. Most people, when they strum and there is a pause in the music, or a longer note ringing out, or between a chord change; will “leave” their strumming hand at the bottom of the strings (the ‘floor side’ of the guitar). They then change chord. And THEN they have to bring their hand back up to strum the chord.

Often, a beginner guitar player gets the hang of the chord change with the fret hand, but they can’t work out why it is still out of time when they strum. They change chord in time with the left hand, goto play the chord, and then have to bring the strumming hand back up. This process of bringing the strumming hand back up takes additional time which has not been accounted for, throwing the whole process out of time.

To fix this, pretend your strumming hand is on a big rubber band connected to your neck. Every time you finish a strum, even if it is not necessary, bring the strumming hand back above the strings. This will mean that it is ready to go the split second you need it. This one change can help you get your chords changes wonderfully in time.

This article was written by Sam Russell who teaches beginner guitar students in Ickenham how to rapidly improve their guitar playing