On the Other Hand… – Mastering your chord changes

As a guitar instructor, I’ve witnessed many of my students having a difficult time learning how to switch between chords. This is a particular problem with beginners. An E major to D major transition can seem to take hours, and by the time they’ve correctly fingered the chord, the rhythm of their playing is lost, along with their patience.

Sound familiar? Read on…

Enter the split personality of your hands. Your left hand, who we’ll call Sam, is your classic musician, easy going, no sweat, “I’ll get there when I get there” personality. But he’s also a perfectionist, and he won’t go on until he’s got it right.

Joe, on the other hand (pun intended), is your uptight right hand. Joe believes that you’ve got to beat the crowds, or they’ll beat you. He needs stuff now, and forget about those pills for hypertension, because he hears that drowsiness is a side effect. And the key to remember about Joe is this: He doesn’t care if things are done right, just as long as they’re done.

A curious contrast: Sam, the left hand, relaxed, but a perfectionist, and Joe, the right, blustering full speed ahead, and who cares about those torpedoes?

As a lot of you play guitar for a hobby, you might try to avoid this “Joe syndrome.” Hey, music should be relaxing, right? But check this out: When we’re trying to learn a piece involving chords, if we let Sam (the left hand from the sixties) have his way, we’ll end up fretting the chord when Saturn is in conjunction with Pluto, and when the tides of the moon cycle are in harmony with the wolves. And due to his perfectionist nature, we won’t strum the chord until every finger is in place. And most of the time, this will be too late. The song will have moved on by the time everything’s right.

We’ll let Joe, our over achieving right hand, take over for a minute. We’ll set out strumming the strings with our right hand to the beat of the song (or whatever is keeping time at the moment.) For example, if we set a metronome at 120 beats per minute, we will strum strict quarter notes to this tempo. We’ll then add the left hand, and hence, the chords.

We’ll do our best to finger the correct chord at the correct time, but we’ll hit the strings no matter what. Even if we don’t have all of our fingers in the proper position for the chord. Hit those strings when the metronome dictates, even if your left hand isn’t even in the same room.

At first, some cacophonous noises may result. Missed notes, dead strings, and perhaps a few nasty looks from the other members of your household. But at least you’ll be in beat.

Keep this up, and pretty soon Sam, the left hand that’s stuck in the 60’s, will be on board, too. I’ve found that your left hand will develop faster this way, forced into moving outside its comfort zone.

I’ve shown this method to many of my students, and noticed an almost instantaneous improvement in their ability to fret, and play, chords in beat, and to keep up with the song.

A brief recap:

  • Your left hand is a hippie.
  • Your right hand is a stock broker.
  • Strum the strings to the beat of the song, and force the hippie to meet the “deadline” of the rhythm. Don’t worry if the chord is incomplete. Strum it anyway.
  • Even if it doesn’t sound to snazzy, it’ll be in beat.
  • You’ll get better after a few times of doing this.
  • Far out, bro.

Enjoy learning about the duality of your hands. This is just the beginning.