Playing chords is one of the first things you learn as a guitar or piano player. While forming basic chords isn’t too hard, switching between them is challenging. And once you introduce complex chords with tricky shapes and finger placements, difficult becomes an understatement.
How can you change chords faster and easier on guitar or piano? Patience with yourself will make advancing your abilities fulfilling instead of frustrating. Secondly, prioritizing accuracy over speed is more effective in the long term. Finally, diligence and discipline will yield good results.
With these keystones of intelligent practicing in mind, there are several tips to explore to make changing chords intuitive. Once it becomes easier, then it will become faster.
These truths apply equally to guitar and piano. Read on to learn more.
Changing Chords Quickly and Smoothly: A Guitarist’s Guide
If you play piano, feel free to skip ahead.
Guitarists, stay right here. We’ll tackle everything you need to know about smooth and speedy chord changes. Once you’re done reading, you can devote the rest of your practice time to actually playing the instrument.
Tip One: Spend Lots of Time With Your Guitar
Reading about how to form chords and alternate between them is vital to improving. You wouldn’t be reading this if we didn’t think it was useful.
But just because reading articles and watching videos are helpful doesn’t mean they’re the only things you should be doing. At some point, you need to pick up your guitar and play.
Furthermore, the time you spend playing should exceed the time you spend researching. Besides, as you research, you’ll come into the same kind of advice over and over:
“Practice, practice, and practice some more.”
It’s a broken record of advice, yes. But there’s a reason guitarists always end up agreeing (which doesn’t always happen, so that alone should say something). It takes hours to train your fingers to cooperate in changing chords. They aren’t used to it because, believe it or not, you weren’t born to play guitar.
Nor were Andrés Segovia and Jimi Hendrix. Humans don’t have an innate evolutionary understanding of placing our fingers across guitar strings.
Instead, you’ll need to commit a lot of time to retraining your muscles. But eventually, changing chords will feel almost as natural as blinking.
Tip Two: Perfect the Basic Chord Shapes
A neat thing about the guitar is that you can take a single chord shape and move it along the neck. For example, moving an F major barre chord down two frets turns it into G major. All it takes is moving your forearm a few inches.
Once you nail down basic chord shapes, you don’t need to switch between dozens of chords along twelve keys. Instead, you can rely on two or three chord shapes to play songs to completion. As you can probably guess, this significantly speeds up how quickly you can play.
So with only a major barre chord, a minor barre chord, and a diminished chord, you have a capable toolbox.
We’re not saying to pump your fists in victory yet for having mastered the guitar. There are many more chords to learn as you play more advanced pieces. Nevertheless, you’ll be surprised by how many melodies you can nail down with the same three patterns.
Furthermore, many songs don’t even bother with diminished chords, leaving you with two patterns
that are truly essential.
Tip Three: Move as Little As Needed
It is easier to shift down a string or up a fret than to jump from one end of the fretboard to the other. If you find yourself moving your wrist a lot, there’s probably an easier way.
You can play most guitar chords in the same section of your fretboard. The open strings span two octaves, giving you plenty of tonal range to play the chord progressions of many popular songs.
Needless to say, you’ll change chords much quicker with less distance. But how do you translate chords to different spots on the fretboard?
You can shift chords that use three or fewer strings down one string by moving up seven frets. For example, a power chord that starts on the 9th fret of the E string can be moved to the 2nd fret of the A string — or vice versa.
While it may take a few minutes to find each chord’s ideal position, the payoff saves you time in the long run. The goal is to get each chord as close to each other. You will soon discover that going up-and-down six strings is way more efficient than side-to-side along twenty-two frets.
Tip Four: Start With The Root
Every chord depends on a root note. A chord’s root represents the note it’s named after. For example, an E major chord starts on the open E string.
Many guitarists also describe the root as the note that sounds “most like home.” If you play only the root in place of a chord, it’ll still fit the song — although there might be some “fullness” missing.
If you’re struggling with a track, try playing only the roots. Keep an ear out for the timing of each chord change.
Afterward, once you are confident in playing through those notes, start adding the missing notes. Fortunately, all chords follow a predictable mathematical formula when it comes to their notes.
Don’t let the term “mathematical formula” intimidate you. If you know how to count, you can identify the notes in any chord you play. For example, minor chords include a note of three semitones (a semitone being the pitch difference of one fret) higher than the root.
So when you’re trying to play A minor, you will put another finger on a C as you fill out the remaining notes.
Still confused? You might be overthinking things. We hope these illustrations will clear things up.
Tip Five: Play with a Metronome
A physical or digital metronome is an immensely helpful tool for improving your rhythm. Smooth chord changes happen on a beat, meaning you can’t waste time figuring out where each finger should go.
Also, apologies for the stressful wording of the last sentence. Switching chords on a beat isn’t as hard as it sounds thanks to the magical science of muscle memory. But it doesn’t happen instantly.
Metronomes allow you to set your preferred beats per minute as you get better at alternating chords. They also reduce the temptation to play in-sustainably fast so that a small trip-up stops you in your tracks.
Think of a metronome as an ego check. Set the tempo beneath what you think is necessary. Once you can play through the main verses three times without failing, increase the speed slightly. This method ensures that accuracy stays up to speed with your speed.
Slow and steady beats quick and sloppy!
Tip Six: Don’t Overwhelm Yourself With Memorizing All Chords
As we’ve discussed, you can cover quite a bit of music with just a few chord shapes. Thus, it’s wise to master these first.
But once you’ve gotten the hang of the basic chord shapes, you’ll probably want to expand. How can we accomplish this without becoming overwhelmed?
Indeed, there are many guitar chords of varying complexity. Knowing how to play major and minor chords is the basic vocabulary you need to get through life. You don’t need to know words like “tenacious” and “illustrious” — but they can add some extra color to your writing.
The same applies to chords. Complex chords are worth learning, but you don’t need to know them all now.
If you play punk guitar, you can get by with only power chords. Plus, you’ll play much faster than a jazz guitarist switching between chords like C-sharp augmented and E ninth sharp fifth.
Memorize the basic shapes and start playing. Chances are you’ll have much more fun learning guitar by playing than by reading about playing. Then, to make things spicy, feel free to add a seventh or a suspended chord (as examples). Go slowly and master them one at a time for the best results.
Once you memorize the most important chords, you can memorize entire songs.
Tip Seven: Anticipate Future Chords
To change chords quickly, you need to think ahead.
As a guitarist, being in the moment and enjoying music as it comes is a fundamental part of the experience. However, you don’t want to ignore the future.
You will perform your best if you live just a few seconds ahead of the now. What does this mean? It means you’ll always want to think about the next chord — even if it’s a few seconds away. Otherwise, you’re more likely to frantically fumble as you figure out where your fingers should go.
There’s a reason this article focuses so heavily on changing chords rather than playing them. Once you’re where you need to be, strumming is usually straightforward (once you learn the basic techniques). Mistakes are more common when you need to pick up and move.
For example, consider the following chord progression:
As soon as you switch to C, start envisioning barring your index finger to form the F chord. Then, immediately imagine shifting your index finger down a fret to form G. By priming yourself for the next chord, switching will feel as smooth and speedy as flipping a light switch.
Now it’s time to try and tackle a different beast: the piano. While guitars and pianos use the same twelve notes, the methods are notably unique.
In some ways, the piano makes changing chords a more intuitive process. In other ways, the complete opposite is true.
Is mastering chord changes on the piano intimidating? Yes. Is it difficult? Not nearly as much so as it is intimidating. Read on — we hope we can alleviate some stress.
Tip One: Start With The Root
If you read the guitar guide, this should sound familiar. And no, it’s not a typo.
Starting with the root note of a chord is rarely bad advice for any instrument. Furthermore, if you ever had the (mis)fortune of taking piano lessons as a kid, you’ve heard the term “Middle C.” Not only is “Middle C” the central piano note, but it’s also the root for the most popular chord — C major.
Place your thumb on the root. Then put your middle finger on the 3rd – the second white key to the right. Skip another white key and place your pinky on the final note. It should look something like this:
This is the C major chord. You can change the root note and play all the notes in the C major scale with the same one-off one-on pattern. Alternatively, you can choose A as your root note — now you’re playing in A minor!
Simplicity is the key to changing chords quickly. There’s nothing simpler than keeping your fingers in place as you move your forearms.
Tip Two: Start With One Hand at a Time
Piano players frequently play bass chords and treble chords together. Being able to do so smoothly is a tricky task. Specifically, you’ll need to overcome your hands’ default programming to mirror what the other is doing.
Because it’s tricky, it’s a wise idea to nail down chord changes one hand at a time. Start with your left or right hand — whichever you’re feeling — and repeat the corresponding chord progression until your fingers are numb (or close to it).
Soon muscle memory will take over and you can play through the verse in your sleep. Switch to the other hand when you reach this point and repeat the process.
Once you are confident switching between chords, start acclimating yourself to playing them together. It’ll still be awkward at first, but you’ll be much smoother much sooner than if you jumped right in.
Tip Three: Tap Your Foot or Use A Metronome
Just like with the guitar, drums, bass, or any instrument, good rhythm is crucial. As you focus on changing chords more quickly, you’ll also want to practice changing chords consistently.
Metronomes help you keep the beat, among other benefits. You can change chords on each tick, every fourth tick, and so on. Speed doesn’t matter as you’re getting the hang of things. What matters is that you’re ready to pounce on each chord on queue.
For example, you can set your metronome on 60 beats per minute (or one beat per second). Then, you could play once per second before switching chords on every eighth tick. Of course, this is just one possibility.
As you achieve something close to 100% accuracy, increase the tempo.
But if you don’t have a metronome or do not wish to use one, tapping your foot is another method that’ll help solidify your piano skills. It’s the same idea as with a metronome, except your tempo won’t be as flawless.
Tap your foot with each beat. Start each measure — usually four beats — with a little more strength. Change chords as your softly slam your foot.
Tip Four: Use Correct Hand Placement
To change piano chords more effortlessly, you need good form. Obvious? Perhaps. Worth mentioning anyway? Yes.
Proper hand placement is more comfortable and protects you from wrist strain. Naturally, it’ll help you be speedier.
What is proper hand placement?
Imagine cupping a small animal between your palm and the keys. It could be a mouse (because it’s a keyboard, you see), a gerbil, a chick, or something similar. The goal is not to squish the creature by lowering your palm too much. However, you also don’t want it to escape by arching your wrist too high.
Ultimately, you don’t bend your wrists at all with proper hand placement. Your knuckles and forearms should follow a straight path.
Now, allow gravity to pull your hand into position with each chord. In other words, just let your fingers sit down.
Tip Five: Don’t Stop Learning
There are dozens of ways to improve your playing. Switching chords faster allows you to play more complex pieces (and show off, of course).
But you’ll never learn everything about playing piano. If you’d like to keep getting better at chord transitions, do not stop looking for new information. The internet, including YouTube, is an excellent place to discover talented pianists sharing their knowledge.
We’ve covered several tips that’ll help you fly through chord progressions. But don’t stop here.
Almost every guitar and piano player hopes to become a faster player. The inconvenient truth is that the best techniques involve a lot of practice and repetition. But don’t worry — it’s a fun kind of monotony.
The keystone of each strategy is simplicity. Simpler chords make for quicker transitions. Changing where on the fretboard you play a guitar chord to reduce distance can save you hundreds of milliseconds. Also, sticking to the same basic shapes minimizes the need to reposition your fingers.
Finally, piano players can use many of the same methods as guitar players and vice versa. While there are unique instrument-specific considerations, the principles of chord changes are universal. Simplicity and consistency beat reckless speed, even when speed is the ultimate goal.