Chords are the fundamental blocks of learning guitar. It doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner, intermediate, or advanced player; there will always be something to learn and practice, and guitar chords are always a part of our never-ending learning journey.
But when you’re just starting, or even when you reach an upper beginner stage, it might be difficult to navigate among the many options that you have. The risk is to use ineffective methods that will ultimately slow down your progress.
Today we’re going to take a look at How To Practice Guitar Chords, and I’ll provide you with some of the most useful exercises to make the transitions between them smooth and quick.
But before that, let’s answer a common question that beginners ask me all the time…
How often should I practice chords?
Regardless of whether you’re teaching yourself or taking in-person lessons, remember that having a structured practice routine is the best way to make the most of your time.
Practicing chords is one of the four areas that should always be present in a beginner routine. The other ones are finger mobility, right-hand technique, and learning songs.
Anytime that you pick up your guitar to practice, you should spend an equal amount of time working on all of these areas.
How long for?
It depends on a couple of factors.
Firstly if it’s your first month of playing, your fingertips will be sore, and this will last until you develop calluses. Don’t try to play through the pain, or it will get worse, and you’ll have to eventually stop playing for a few weeks. At this stage, I recommend splitting your practice into two daily sessions of ten to fifteen minutes each and slowly increase that over time.
When you can play for half an hour without pain, you can then practice only once a day if that fits your daily schedule better. Although two 15-20 minutes sessions will produce better and quicker results.
Secondly, it depends on how much time you have to practice. The secret when it comes to practice is that consistency is key, and this is, in fact, one of the few things that every teacher in the world agrees on.
Learning guitar is a marathon, not a sprint!
Therefore, it’s always better to practice for a short amount of time every day, rather than skipping the whole week and trying to make up for that by playing for five hours on a Saturday.
Regardless of how long your practice session is, spend a quarter of the total time working on chords. If you practice forty minutes, that will be ten minutes, and so on.
It’s now time to learn and practice your first chords!
How To Practice Guitar Chords – Learning the shapes
Hopefully, you already know how to hold your guitar, where to correctly place your hands, and how to read chord charts. In case you don’t, these are the first things your teacher will show you. If you’re learning by yourself, any beginner book will give you the necessary information in the first few pages.
If you’re looking for a solid and comprehensive guitar method, check out The Guitar Handbook by Ralph Denyer. It is one of the best guitar books on the market, and it will guide you through your learning process for years.
The first two chords that you should learn are D and A. Not only are they easier than other chords, but they also are in the same key.
Why is this important?
Because as soon as you are able to transition between them, you’ll be able to start to play songs, and practicing songs is way more beneficial and motivational than doing just exercises; it’s also far, far more fun.
How to practice your first chord
D is the first chord you want to learn and practice. Using a chord chart as a reference, place your fingers on the right string in the correct fret.
A few key points to keep in mind:
- Don’t press too hard. This is a common tendency for beginners, and when not corrected early on, it can become much harder to relax a little. Soft pressure would be enough to get the string to ring.
- The more your hand is relaxed, the easier it will be. Plus, it will take much longer before it gets fatigued.
- Use your fingertips to press on the strings.
- Place your fingers as close as possible to the fret closest to your strumming hand. By doing so, much less pressure is needed.
Once all your fingers are placed, it’s time to strum the chords. At this stage, it doesn’t really matter whether you use a pick or your thumb. I personally prefer the second option because it’s more natural, and you don’t have to focus on the proper way to hold a pick. All your attention should be on the chord at this stage.
Strum the chord from the fourth string and don’t panic if the sound that comes out is not that pleasant. You just need a bit of practice!
Then to play one string at a time and make sure that all of them ring without being muted.
Thunk, thunk, thunk, think…
If that’s basically what you hear, double-check your left-hand fingers. Are they in the correct place? Do they press only the string that they are supposed to, or do they touch other strings? Make the necessary corrections until every string rings when played one at a time. This can take a while, so be patient.
Keep switching between one full chord strum and single strings, paying close attention to the sound that you’re producing. After a few repetitions, stop, relax your hand, gently stretch your fingers, and repeat.
Stop practicing as soon as you feel slight discomfort on your fingertips.
Time to move on…
When you’re confident that your D chord is ringing, and you can remember the shape without looking at the chart, follow the same process to learn the A chord.
Practice both of them in every session for a few minutes each. For now, don’t try to switch between them, but focus on working separately on the two shapes.
How To Practice Guitar Chords – Practice when you’re not practicing
This exercise can be done whenever you don’t have a guitar or if your fingers are painful.
Visualize the shape of the chord in your mind and try to replicate it with your fingers as quickly as possible. When you’re practicing with the guitar, you are now placing one finger at a time on the fretboard, but the ultimate goal is to create the full shape in one movement. Therefore, when you’re doing this exercise, this should be your focus.
The ability to quickly form any chord is just a matter of muscle memory. The more you train your fingers, the faster you will get there. Imagine how many times you can make a D shape with your fingers while you’re watching an episode of your favorite series.
Repetition is the key!
Your first chord change
As soon as you can remember the two shapes without looking at the charts and you’re able to get all the strings to ring, it’s time to try the transition between D and A.
Get your fingers in the D position and strum it once. Then move them to form the A chord and strum again. The first few times, it will look almost impossible, but don’t worry too much about getting everything perfect.
Focus on keeping your hand as relaxed as possible, and don’t press too hard. You might even spend a few minutes practicing without pressing the strings by just placing your fingers in the correct place without strumming.
Keep practicing switching between D and A for a few days while you still work on the exercises you were doing before. Also, use the practice without guitar method to improve your chord change.
Improve your transition between chords
It’s now time to polish your transitioning between A and D and to increase the speed with two fundamental exercises that you will have to repeat for every chord that you’ll work on.
Keep it slow and clean
The goal of this first exercise is to improve your ability to produce a clean sound. The key is to go as slow as you need to, making all the strings ring as they are supposed to.
What you need to do is apply the strum – single string – strum technique that we have seen before.
Here’s how you do it…
- Start by placing your fingers for a D chord.
- Strum the chord starting from the correct string (in this case, the fourth).
- Play the single strings individually, making sure none of them are muted. If necessary, reposition your fingers.
- Strum again.
- Make the transition to the A chord.
- Repeat the whole process for the A chord.
- Continue switching between the two chords. Remember that accuracy is the main goal now, and take all the time that you need to make the chords sound clean.
Build up some speed
With this second exercise, we’ll focus on teaching our fingers to change shape as quickly and as smoothly as possible.
In the beginning, your chords will probably sound horrible when compared to the previous exercise. Don’t worry about it; the goal here is to improve your muscle memory through repetition, and the sound will become cleaner over time.
How does it work?
The idea is to track your progress by counting how many changes you can make in a set amount of time. Thirty seconds is the ideal place, to begin with.
- Start your timer and put your fingers in position for a D chord.
- Strum it and move as quickly as possible to an A chord.
- Give one strum and move back to the D.
- Count how many times you can switch between the two in 30 seconds.
- Repeat the exercise two or three times per practice session with a short interval in between.
Even if you’re trying to move fast, do your best to keep both your hands relaxed. Any tension will make the transition way harder.
Once you can make at least 15/20 transitions in 30 seconds with a decent outcome, you’re ready to step up your game.
Slide into it!
Placing three different fingers in different places on the fretboard at the same time is difficult when you first start doing it – if only there was a simpler way? Well, there is! By sliding into chords.
Let’s take the change from a D chord to an A chord, for example. First of all, play a D chord. You will notice that your third finger is on the second string (B) on the third fret. Now, lift your first and second fingers off the fretboard, but leave the third finger where it is.
Then slide the third finger back to the second fret, then put your second finger on the third string (G) on the second fret and add your first finger on the fourth string (D) on the second fret. And you’ve got an A chord! So give it a strum and give yourself a pat on the back. But, this is quite difficult, especially with a guitar on your lap, so probably best to not bother with that.
Now, lift the first and second fingers, leaving the third finger in place, then slide the third finger back up to the third fret and put the other two fingers down to make a D chord again. Repeat this change until it becomes easy.
The note that slides between the chords acts as an anchor, so your other fingers know what they have to do and where they have to go. This is one of the biggest secrets to playing your chords smoothly in the beginning stages, but you can also use the technique through all your years of playing whenever you are faced with a difficult chord change.
Another useful exercise
If you are really struggling to get all your fingers to work together and land on the chord simultaneously, here is another little trick.
First, put your fingers on the chord, for example, D, and strum it. Now relax your fingers ever so slightly, and then as you strum, put pressure on them to play the chord. Next, relax your fingers even more and strum again, applying pressure as you strum, then relax. Practice this for a minute until it becomes more natural.
Now try lifting your fingers ever so slightly off the strings so that they are barely touching. Now, as you strum, press down with your fingers to make the chord. Practice this a few times and when your comfortable, move your fingers further and further away from the strings, but again as you strum, place the three fingers TOGETHER in the correct position on the neck to make the chord.
Over time and with practice, you will be able to do it with your fingers completely outstretched and still perfectly play the chord. In the same way as the last trick, this will work for all the chords you ever learn, so if a difficult jazz chord is stumping you in a few year’s time, remember this exercise and master the new chord in no time at all.
Play in time
So far, you’ve been practicing chords without worrying about sounding musical. To do that, you need to include rhythm in your playing.
From now on, a metronome will be your best friend. If you still don’t have one, check out the Donner Digital Metronome, which comes with an integrated tuner. And while on the subject of tuning, remember to tune your guitar before every practice session!
Set your metronome at 60 bpm (beats per minute) and count out loud 1, 2, 3, 4, matching every number with one click of the metronome. Strum a D chord on beat 1, and while you keep counting out loud, use the other three beats to make the transition to an A chord. Keep switching between chords strumming only on beat 1.
Congratulations! You’ve just been playing in a 4/4 tempo
For now, you don’t need to know what it means, but it’s worth remembering that this is by far the most common tempo in modern music.
Once you’re comfortable with the exercise, include a second strum on beat 3, and eventually a third one on beat 2. Take your time before you start strumming on beat 4 because when you do that, you’ll have much less time to get your fingers ready for the new chord.
When you’re able to strum on every beat, and you comfortably switch between the two chords, it’s time to finally play an actual song.
How To Practice Guitar Chords – Practice with songs
When somebody asks me what’s the best first song to learn on a guitar, I always reply “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen. You might think that it’s not very easy, and that’s correct. But we don’t have to play it exactly like on the recording!
Why do I suggest this song?
Because it’s a great song, everybody knows it, it uses only two chords (D and A), and it can be simplified to a complete beginner level.
This is how you can start playing “Born in the USA”…
Listen to the song a few times and try to get the rhythm of it. We’re all instinctively able to feel the rhythm of the music.
When we listen to music, we naturally tend to keep the tempo by moving our heads, tapping your foot, or clapping your hands. Do what works best for you, and once you feel the rhythm, start counting out loud. The song is in 4/4, the same tempo you’ve been practicing with the metronome.
Where do the chords change?
While counting 1, 2, 3, 4, try to guess where the chord changes occur. This is trickier than it sounds, and for some people, it’s a real struggle at the beginning. If this is the case, you can find on the internet the lyrics with chords so you can see at what point it switches from D to A.
Pick up your guitar and start by strumming the chords only on beat 1. Keep counting and possibly tapping your foot. Once you’re familiar with the changes, add a strum on beat 3 and eventually on beat 2 and 4.
How does it feel to play an entire song after just a few days of practice? Surely, it will not sound like the original version, but it’s a major accomplishment that you should be proud of!
Expand your knowledge
Being able to play a song will boost your motivation through the roof.
Where to go from now?
The first thing you want to do is expand your chord library. The next chord you need to learn is E. This will unlock hundreds of beginner-friendly songs because A, D, and E are the three most common chords that you can find in the key of A.
What does that mean?
It means that they work great together, and they are often used in conjunction. If you’re a blues fan, you’ll soon realize that about half of traditional blues songs are written in this key using just those three chords. Pretty awesome, isn’t it?
Next, you’ll want to learn some minor chords. Start with Am and Em, which you will find extremely easy and quick to learn. Your fingers at that point will be a lot more flexible and fast to respond to what you want them to do. However, follow this guide step by step for any new chord, and don’t be tempted to skip the basic exercises.
Be consistent, and you’ll be amazed by the results that you will get!
Looking for a great first guitar?
Well, check out our comprehensive reviews of the Best Acoustic Guitars Under $500, the Best Cheap Acoustic Guitars Under $200, the Best Classical Guitars, the Best Hollow And Semi-Hollow Guitars, or if you want to spend a little more the Best Acoustic Guitars Under $600 you can buy in 2021.
How To Practice Guitar Chords – Final Thoughts
Learning your first chord will seem impossible, and you’ll find yourself wondering if you’re ever going to be able to play a song.
But as we have seen, consistency, patience, and a structured practice routine will get you there much faster than you think.
Knowing the best way to Practice Guitar Chords is a fundamental skill for beginners and beyond. If you follow the tips that I gave you in this article and include all the exercises in your practice, the whole process will become easier and easier for any new chord that you learn.
At least until you try to play your first barre chord… But that will be discussed in a different article.