When you first start playing guitar your initial problems are breaking through the agonizing finger pain. But after enough practice you start to get more comfortable with making chords. The next problem becomes making a chord transition at the appropriate speed!
If you cannot move chord to chord in a fluid and quick manner your playing will be unrecognizable. As soon as you can comfortably form a few chords you should be working on the changes so they will sound good.
1) Practice Properly: Relax and Take it Slow
This is the number one piece of advice for smooth guitar chord transitions. Relax and take it slow when you practice and do it properly.
When you first start playing a chord change can seem like it takes a lot of time. But after a few months of practice people will say "wow your hands move so fast!" And that's from simply solidifying the movement in your muscle memory.
Technique is important from an early stage. One of the downsides of learning online is that you will never be sure if you are holding your hands right.
Poor grip and improper fingerings can lead to slower chord transitions and quicker fatigue. Keep an eye out for mistakes and don't rush your practice.
2) Use a Metronome (Boring but Incredibly Effective)
Speaking of proper practice it is essential to use a metronome. And given the fact they are everywhere, there is no excuse not to have one.
The metronome apps and software are so easy to use, people just procrastinate.
You start at a very low speed and play a measure or two of the same chord before switching to the next. It's boring and repetitive, but it simply improves your playing in the long run.
It's good to have free practice time without timed structure, but the metronome is an important tool for a good reason!
3) Build Chords from the Bottom Up
When you begin playing chords it is best to do one finger at a time starting from the bottom. As in form the bass strings before the rest as you will likely be strumming those first.
The only hard part about this is learning to not always lead with the index finger.
This is a great way to start to make sure you are hitting the correct strings and nothing is being muted. However this one finger at a time method gets to be a hindrance over time.
It is up to you to work on getting those fingers in sync.
4) Air Changes: Press All Fingers Down At Once
And that is the next step to better chord transitions. Visualize where your fingers are going and make the proper shape in the air before you get there (that's why we call this "air changes"). Have your hand in position and ready.
Then press your fingers down all at once giving it a good grip. A little overkill at first is good to build hand strength, press hard.
Make your air changes slow and be sure to have the shape correct before applying all your fingers. If you are doing it slow enough it will allow you to see where you are bending your fingers wrong.
And one quick note: even hand sizes on the further ends of the average spectrum will have no problem playing guitar chords as long as they practice.
Fat fingers and hand shape complaints are usually early stage hills you need to overcome.
Keep your fingers placed properly during each chord change and soon it will stick.
5) Minimize Fingers Movement
Playing any instrument you want to keep your hand and finger movement to a minimum to get the most out of your playing. Keep the left hand close to the fretboard and use as little movement as possible. If one finger has a huge jump then start with that first.
Pretend your fingers desperately need to conserve energy!
You won't always have such an easy pivot but keep an eye out.
6) Minimize Chord Movement
Not only are we minimizing movement and distance of our fingers, we want to do the same with our chords. This is where a chord dictionary comes in handy!
One way to minimize chord movement is by using inversions. We can look at the different voicings of our chord to find the best spot to move to.
Barre chords are great to know as they are helpful when changing. It may be easier to play a barred B major than a partial, depending on where you are at on the fretboard.
And learning all your chord positions is great to know for more than just chord transitions.
7) Isolate Difficult Passages
Once you have a specific chord change down and memorized, you want to work on the harder parts. There's a good chance that that difficult chord transition probably sounds great and that's why the songwriter put it there. Don't get lazy and try to pass over the tough ones.
Just keep playing it over and over until It comes along. If you get frustrated print the song out and highlight the part you had trouble with for future reference.
And if you keep having trouble, maybe try different chord voicings (but this is cheating, please be aware of this).
8) Practice One Minute Chord Change
One basic exercise that helps with this phase is the one minute chord change challenge. Start with two chords like G and C, set a timer for one minute and count how many CLEAN changes you make.
Take it slow at first and use your air changes.
They say that you can improve only what you measure, then be sure to track your score with the one minute chord change challenge, and see how you improve over time
9) Practice Chord Progressions in Different Keys
As your one minute chord change score increases, try adding the D chord in for a 1-4-5 progression like G-C-D.
The best guitar chord transition exercises are playing various chord progressions in all keys. After some time of practicing chords and playing, it should be getting easier to learn new ones.
Once you have a healthy memory of basic chords it is time to pick random keys and progressions and just play!
Of course keep practicing songs you like and new tunes. This goes hand in hand with practicing your progressions. One of the best ways to get fast at chord changes is to know how to play a lot of music.
Once you can play along with some of your favorite hits it is a sign you are mastering your changes.
10) Keep You Right Hand Moving
While learning your chord progressions, make sure to keep an eye out on the right hand strumming. You may be able to smoothly and perfectly slide that left hand into the correct chord position, but if your right hand isn't on time it will sound terrible.
Everything needs to be in sync while playing. If you are having trouble strumming use your metronome on simple and slow (down up down up) quarter note strums. Do one whole chord for a measure or two and then switch to the next chord.
By changing our simple strum at the exact time as our chord we force the muscle memory of both hands to work together.
11) Rhythm Practice and Study
Again your problem with fast chord changes may not always be the left hand. Some folks have trouble getting a solid strum going.
If you find you need to still read specific down and up strums to get any movement going, it may be time to focus on rhythm studies.
The best way to practice rhythm is to play along with songs you like and can sing by heart. If you have software to slow the song down that will be helpful.
You can also follow along on instructional videos, try other instruments like drums, and really any musical activity to help you find the groove.
12) Find a Cheap Bad Action Guitar
This seems like a joke, but it works. An old beater acoustic with high strings does wonders for building muscle. Especially if you play electric it will be a world of difference.
Find a super cheap one on Marketplace and leave it sitting out for regular use.
After you practice acoustic chord transitions on that, your better guitar will feel like a breeze. This is the equivalent of Rocky training in the meat locker or Siberian wilderness; but it works!
13) Take a Break
There is such a thing as too much practice. If you keep going to the gym every day your muscles will just keep getting torn and stretched.
There will never be a chance to heal and grow. Muscle memory and even the brain need rest. Put the guitar down and give your hands a break. Play a bit the Fretboard Notes Game. When you come back it will be better!
So there you have some great ideas on how to transition guitar chords. The good news is that it gets easier, but the bad news is you will always have to practice with new songs.
Even once you are comfortable with many tunes and progressions it is still normal for most players to take time to learn a new song.
The best players are the best because they are always practicing! Take your time on those chord transitions and in time they will sound great.
Share with your fellow guitar players!