QUICK HIT: A detailed guide about how to optimize chord changes in a functional way to increase speed, accuracy and clean up subtle inconsistencies.
I’ve found that on the guitar, even the simplest movements can be improved over long periods of time. By this I mean that certain things, which may feel second nature after a while, can still be improved. As we get familiar with certain chords, patterns, progressions and shapes, we stop noticing the nuanced and hidden mistakes that we’re making. We’ve done it so much that we simply gloss over chords and chord changes because, for the most part, they sound fine.
Partly, this is because many guitar and bass players tend to move on too quickly from introductory topics. Difficult chords, tricky changes or even particular runs of single-note patterns can get glossed over and left unrefined over years of playing.
In this article we’ll look at some examples of that, and go through some methods and exercises that will help you fix it. For a more thorough, structured approach, you can checkout our how to play guitar starter page.
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The F and C Chord Change
Let’s start with something fairly easy. I’ll speak from experience with a chord change that I learned early on, but then never really perfected.
The change is simply moving from C to F and F to C.
What I found was that my tendency (perhaps unknowingly) was to play through the change like this:
Now, this isn’t necessarily wrong. However, it did create a lot of trouble when playing it this way. Primarily, I had a hard time getting clean chords, especially when I was trying to play through the barred F chord shape. Inevitably, I would fumble through those last two strings (the high E and B) without being really sure if I should attempt the full barre or just mute them.
Also, as indicated in the tab, I had a sloppy habit of dropping out of the C chord and playing an open E note before moving to the F chord.
This made the change messier.
It wasn’t fast, smooth or intentional. It just happened when it had to. My C to F and F to C transitions were unsophisticated. But, what could I do to change that? First, it took some intentionality on my part, and recognizing that this particular change was a problem area.
Let’s break it down even further.
MATCHING CHORD VOICINGS
You might have noticed that I paired a rather strange version of the C major chord with a barred version of the F chord. This was my first mistake because these two voicings don’t work particularly well together. A much better, more functional combination of C and F voicings would be the following:
These two voicings of the C and F major chords pair together much better for a few reasons. First, they allow me to keep my fingers curled and positioned in the same way with my ring finger anchoring the same note for both chords.
This is a practical and helpful first step to take when you’re having trouble with a particular chord change. We’re simply asking: Are we using the most functional and optimal voicings of each chord involved? As you might be able to tell from the tab, my fingers are curled and positioned similarly for each chord, allowing me to minimize the movement during the change.
The C and G Chord Change
Our second example takes a closer look at the most functional way to change from a G chord to a C chord, and vice versa. Before we start optimizing our chord change, let’s look at one of the ways I often see these chords played together:
You’ll notice, I’ve used the same C major voicing here that we used to correct the C to F chord change. However, in this example, it’s not the most functional choice.
What’s wrong with these two chords, as they’re paired? While the answer to that question is somewhat subjective, and the chords are not technically wrong, there are a few issues I would have with playing the change as written:
- The two voicings require different fingers to play the bass note of each chord
- Both chords incorporate a number of non-critical intervals into the pattern
- Voicings don’t accommodate a fluid or smooth chord change
WHAT ARE NON-CRITICAL INTERVALS?
Every chord is made up of multiple notes where you have certain notes that must exist in order for a particular chord to exist. In most cases, the notes that must exist are a root note (the tonic), major or minor third and a perfect fifth. In order to have a triadic chord, you only need those three components. Particularly in the G chord voicing, we have multiple notes that are not roots, thirds or fifths, thus are unnecessary to play.
MINIMIZING MOVEMENT AND INTERVALS BETWEEN THE CHORD CHANGE
This amounts to a bloated chord and overly-complex chord change. Our task is to minimize the chords and the change first, then build up complexity — adding less important intervals — as we’re more comfortable with the core shape and the chord change.
Here’s how I would advise playing it:
We’ve gone from using nearly all our fingers for each chord to using only two, one of which stays anchored on the same note throughout. This means you can now make the change by simply moving your middle finger from the root G to the root C and back. Not only have we made the physical change between the chords simpler, but the voicings have less intervals and sound cleaner and more open.
ADDING THE OPEN D MAJOR TO THE PROGRESSION
You might have noticed that it would be incredibly easy to add the open D major chord to this change and still keep our chord changes limited to moving only one finger. In fact, let’s switch things up and start with the D major, then drop to the C before finishing on the G. This gives us the V, IV and I intervals in the key of G, per the following chart:
Here’s what the tab would look like in whole note chords:
Notice that the D note at the third fret on the second string holds throughout the progression, allowing you to simply change the root note of the chord with one finger.
Arpeggiated G to C Chord Change for More Clarity
To further improve or “clean up” a chord change, you can use an arpeggiated version of that change to target one note at a time. This can also help you understand the movement between the two chords as it slows the process down and gives you a more focused view of what your fingers are doing.
We’ll look at this in the context of the G to C chord change, but keep in mind it’s a broad tactic that could apply to any progression.
I’ve slowed the audio down in Guitar Pro to about 85 bpm.
For beginners, or those who are new to these chords and voicings, you might notice that this method will draw out problem areas in your chords in the form of buzzing notes or halfway palm-muted notes that don’t come out clearly. It’s a common practice tactic for targeting and improving those notes, which will help your chords ring more clearly without unwanted noise or interference.
Repeat the process with the D major chord shape incorporated into the progression:
For a little more context, here’s the audio, again at 85 bpm:
The E, A and B Chord Progression and Changes
In the key of E major, the I, VI and V progression is E, A and B. Like D, C and G, it’s quite common. Yet again, I’ve found that a lot of guitarists — regardless of skill level — have a hard time getting these changes optimized.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common methods of playing this progression:
Here’s the audio:
Remember: In previous examples we’ve looked at ways to optimize the chord changes and clean them up, primarily by making them easier to play. Here are some of the methods we’ve used so far:
- Matched chords with voicings that are more functional and easier to change between
- Reduced the amount of movement necessary between chords
- Limited our use of non-critical intervals in our chord voicings
While the E, A and B chord progression is a bit more straightforward than the others we’ve looked at, we can still apply these same tactics. Let’s start by using voicings that omit the higher fretted notes for each chord, which will give the progression a more open and sustained feel.
One again, we can highlight the “anchor” notes of our chord changes:
And the audio:
Let’s see if we can streamline our movement a little more by arpeggiating our chords. With this particular progression, it’ll work better if we slide up from the interval on the first fret to the second, then to the fourth. Here’s how I would play it:
Here’s the audio at about 90 bpm:
To isolate what we’re doing even further, we can omit the roots of each chord, focusing instead on the open E and B string coupled with the higher intervals. This approach makes sense if we assume there’s a bass player in the background.
Let’s try it with just the guitar part first:
Let’s add a simple bass line:
I love the audio for this one. The bass line fills things out much better than the root notes on the guitar.
If you wanted to abandon the complex arpeggio and go with straight chords, you could play through the progression similarly, without the root notes, like this:
Once more, the audio:
ABOUT SLIDING AND CHORD CHANGES
Any time you have an opportunity to slide into a chord, you should take advantage of it, since it gives you a much better chance of hitting the correct notes and coming out with a smooth change. You can find these by looking at opportunities for lateral fretboard movement between your origin chord and destination chord.
- Origin Chord: First chord in a change
- Destination Chord: Second chord in a change
This works particularly well in the E, A and B progression because we’re moving up the fretboard. It allows us to change chords while leaving at least one of our fingers on the strings.
Dealing with More Chord Complexity: F Sharp Minor Example
The F sharp minor chord is another great example of something that I sorta learned, but never really cleaned up or perfected for a long time. Looking back, I should have spent a lot more time with it than I initially did. Even today, I still have trouble with changes involving this shape, if I don’t apply good technique.
First, let’s look at a few different ways to play this chord shape.
To have a theoretically correct F sharp minor chord, you need to have three notes: The root, fifth and a minor third interval.
This gives us the following chord shapes:
I want to focus on that first diagram, which has our F sharp root positioned at the second fret, since it’s the one most frequently used position in chord progressions. Because the minor third interval is also positioned at the second fret, most people try to barre the full F sharp minor chord, like this:
While this voicing can be helpful in certain scenarios, it shouldn’t be your only option and can be extremely difficult to use when you need to change chords quickly. A much better way to play this chord would be a simple triad, where we used the note at the fourth fret on the fourth string as the root.
You could also call this an inverted F sharp minor chord, which simply means the bass note of the chord is no longer the chord’s root. Since the perfect fifth is now the root, we’d say this is the “second inversion” of the F sharp minor chord. All you really need to know is that it’s much easier to play.
Let’s try a couple progressions using this chord shape.
E, F SHARP MINOR AND B
If you want to practice the pattern further, arpeggiate each chord into quarter notes and pick through to clean things up:
Let’s look at one more chord progression example that utilizes F sharp minor.
A, F SHARP MINOR, D AND A
Again, we can arpeggiate the pattern and apply some of the sliding technique we covered earlier.
We can slide into the F sharp minor chord at the fourth fret, then pull off of the same notes to begin our D chord in the third measure. The progression resolves by going back to the open A chord.
Common Mistakes and Easy Fixes
While I often find it easier to deal with chord progressions in some kind of context (E, A and B, or G, C and D, etc.) it can also be helpful to identify common problems that crop up as a result of poor form, or flawed fretboard movement that can impact all progressions. Again, these tend to be habits that form over time and aren’t overtly obvious.
They might not cause you to play the wrong chord or completely miss notes, but they do cause impurities in your chord changes; small mistakes and inconsistencies that aren’t major enough to make you stop what you’re doing and fix the problem.
If this goes on long enough, you get used to the mistake and — subliminally — assume it’s without flaw.
This is why guitar teachers will often tell you to slow down your movements and arpeggiate each chord to weed out problem areas, as we’ve done in the above examples. We can also identify these problems and deal with them more specifically, by making note of what we might might hear in a chord change that is telling us there’s a mechanical problem.
- Buzzing Notes
- “Dead” space between chords (silence)
- Dead notes that aren’t being played
- Unwanted scraping or pick noise
- Unwanted muted or un-muted strings
These are all problems that stem from a lack of efficiency when moving from one chord to another. However, having identified the problem, we can use isolated exercises that will help us target these issues and get them out of all our chord changes, regardless of fretboard position.
Improving Lateral Fretboard Movement
There are a number of common positions that the fretboard dictates we use — and become familiar with — when moving laterally (fret to fret). In these exercises we want to get used to forming those positions and moving them between frets while staying on the same string. Let’s look at the positions first. We’ll work with four of the most common.
These four dyads (two-note chords) all represent an extremely common note pairing on the fretboard. In this case, their fretboard location isn’t tremendously important, since we’ll be moving laterally. For the sake of simplicity, I’ve started them all on the third fret. Let’s start with the shape in the first bar.
Since we’re working on lateral fretboard movement, let’s start with a few different changes that vary in fret length:
Here’s what to focus on while making each chord change:
- Make sure your fingers don’t leave the strings
- Slide upward into second chord
- Build up speed as long as you’re able to maintain accuracy
Here’s roughly what it should sound like at 85 bpm:
If you want to increase the difficulty, simply increase the speed. This audio sample bumps it to 115 bpm.
Let’s try a similar exercise that moves things around a little more, like an actual power chord progression. To do this, we’ll break our tab into eighth notes and really slow down the tempo.
I’ve made them eighth notes just to get everything into one bar, which means I’ve slowed down the tempo quite a bit in the audio sample.
This isn’t complex but neither are the problems we’re trying to solve. Apply the same focus to this progression as before to see where your transitions need cleaned up. If you’re keeping fingers close to the fretboard, sliding into chords and keeping down time in between chord changes, it should sound pretty close to the recording.
Now, let’s do the same thing for the other shapes I showed you earlier:
Keep in mind that there are a number of variables you can inject into these exercises, namely the following:
- Starting fret
- Ending fret
- Interval spacing
Even if you just stick to the script I’ve outlined, you’ve got plenty of opportunities to improve your accuracy and quickness while changing common chord shapes. While the movements aren’t directly applicable to a particular progression, getting better at these lateral movements should result in a noticeable improvement during actual “real world” chord changes.
Improving Vertical (String-to-String) Movement
While lateral fretboard movement is fairly easy to practice, vertical string-to-string movement can be a more nuanced discipline and is more difficult to troubleshoot.
It’s also an area that’s more prone to mistakes and inaccuracies, simply because you’re required to move your finger off the fretboard and the string, then back down again. It’s a seemingly small difference, but most people have more trouble with chord changes involving this type of movement.
That’s why you often see guitar players gravitate towards uniform barre and power chords, as it minimize the need for changing between strings.
However, it’s poor practice to rely on those chord shapes all the time. You need to tackle string-to-string movement and make sure that you’re able to handle those chord changes as well as the lateral ones. Both methods should be accessible and usable.
ANALYZING STRING-TO-STRING CHORD CHANGES
What are some of the properties of a vertical chord change?
First, I should point out that with a lot of string-to-string changes, we’re incorporating short lateral shifts as well, usually between one and three frets of space. For example, you might have two open chords with different root positions.
This chord also occur when shifting between two power or barre chords with roots on different strings.
These types of chord changes can also mean we’re making a change in the “lead finger” which is the finger playing to bass-most note of the chord. One of the simplest examples of this is changing from a traditional open C to G major, where the open C major has our ring finger in the bass of chord and the G major has our middle finger in the bass of the chord.
Our task is to figure out how to practice this, similar to how we were practicing the lateral movements.
To start, lets take an exercise from the C to G chord change we just looked at, which allows us to focus on a change that is based on a common progression. We’ll start on the third fret, but apply the same movement at other fretboard positions as well.
Here’s what the guitar tab looks like:
Now, I’ve removed the high intervals from the C chord shape, which means you could easily use your middle finger to lead that chord, then jump to your pointer finger for the G chord power shape. Here’s how I would recommend fretting each note with the tab as-is:
If you want to make the chord change somewhat more difficult, we could return to the original C major chord shape, moving it up the fretboard which would require three fingers to play the chord. This would put our ring finger back into the bass of the chord.
This is allowing us to practice a specific chord change mechanism without restricting ourselves to a particular progression. Again, we can change tempo or the starting fret to develop some variety with this particular exercise since we’ve come up with a movable shape that doesn’t rely on any open chords.
We can add to this progression by putting a triadic major chord at the beginning of each bar, giving us three different chords with two string-to-string changes to work through.
In the same manner, we can add a fourth triadic chord to give us some extended complexity.
As we did in the first couple of exercises, you’ll need to take some time to strategically place your fingers where it makes the most sense for the chord change. As I mentioned earlier in this article, you should still be looking for opportunities to minimize movement and keep your fingers as close to the strings as possible.
Let’s build a similar pattern, but with only power/barre chord shapes, where your pointer finger is leading each chord.
To this point we’ve been staying within the same fret, going from the high register to the lower register. Let’s do two more exercises that start at the lower register and move up the fretboard to incorporate a little more movement.
As with all exercises that are not depending on open chords, these chord changes can be modded and moved to different frets, giving you plenty of variety to work with. They’re mimicking the movement between multiple power and barre chords, which will help strengthen your response to those chord progressions when you go to play them.
Once you’ve had the opportunity to practice and understand basic chords, it’s important to continue that process by intentionally practicing chord changes. This gives your chords a real-world context and allows you to clean up problem areas that you won’t notice from an isolated chord or arpeggio.
Get creative with the exercises I’ve outlined here and use them to build other patterns that can help you produce cleaner chord progressions.
Even using an actual chord progression as an exercise — similar to what we did in the beginning of this lesson — can be extremely helpful when it comes to making more efficient, cleaner chord changes.
If you need additional help, we have plenty of other chord-related resources.
Here are couple you might find particularly helpful:
If you have questions about the content, I’d encourage you to leave them in the comments section below. I have a much easier time answering those directly, as opposed to email, which also allows us to expand and improve pages like this one.