Being able to change chords quickly is one of the easiest marks of an intermediate guitarist. Nothing screams beginner like fumbling between simple, open chords. Are you ready to master your chord changes? Then the following guitar chord transition exercises will become your new best friend.
Let’s dive in!
Why Guitar Chord Transition Exercises Are Important
Not being able to smoothly transition between your guitar chords will make any sort of rhythm guitar playing or strumming very difficult. Strumming is all about building coordination between your fretting hand, strumming hand and the tempo.
If your fretting hand is falling behind, your rhythm will sound like a hot mess.
Additionally, this fumbling between chords is going to make it really difficult for you to keep time. Being able to keep time is absolutely critical if you plan to play with other musicians, especially drummers!
Being able to change chords quickly will help you feel the rhythm of the music much easier because you won’t be focusing on what finger goes where for the C chord.
Lastly, by developing your chord transitions you will reduce (and eventually eliminate) dead notes in your chords.
Some of what we are about to cover has already been addressed in my lesson on Easy Ways to Learn Guitar Chords. I suggest reading that lesson first for some context, though not necessary.
Building Muscle Memory
Over time, you will naturally develop muscle memory while playing guitar. This happens any time we do something over and over and over again. It starts off difficult and over time becomes second nature.
Being able to change guitar chords quickly relies heavily on this muscle memory.
Don’t worry if you aren’t anywhere near there yet. It takes time. However, there are some methods to speeding up father time and the muscle memory development process.
Focus on slow, smooth transitions
One of the first techniques for speeding up the development of your muscle memory is to slow down.
Many of us when learning guitar want to get results as fast as possible (hell, that’s our mission statement here at BGL- to bring you the best results in as little time as possible). However, sometimes, to achieve the fastest results you need to force yourself to slow down.
When practicing your chords and your guitar chord transition exercises you want to start very slow. Make every motion a slow, fluid movement.
Focus on staying relaxed and where your fingers are going.
Start slowly transitioning between the 2 chords without any strumming. Just switch back and forth over and over.
By doing this exercise slowly you not only ensure you will develop muscle memory for proper form but also allows you to actually observe your playing easier.
This observation factor can help you identify potential shortcuts to your chord transitions (more on finding shortcuts later in the lesson).
Start with open chords
There is a reason the CAGED system is so popular and the first most guitarists' learn. The C, A, G, E, and D guitar chords are all easy-to-play, open chords.
Open chords mean there are no barres necessary to play the chords. Chord shapes get complicated fast once barres are introduced so it is best to start by learning your open chords.
Master a Chord Before Trying to Transition From or To It
When learning a new chord, don’t be quick to throw it into your chord progressions. This ties in with the tip of slowing down. By taking the time to perfect your form on a chord you reduce the risk of developing bad habits and poor muscle memory.
Try playing that new chord right now without any other chords before or after it. Don’t look at your guitar for more than a split-second before fingering the chord.
Did you need more than a second to get your fingers all aligned? Then you’re not quite ready to add this chord to your transitions.
I’ve covered visualization in many prior lessons so apologies if you’ve heard this before but it is important. All professional athletes, musicians, performers, etc use visualization. It is critical for developing a “flow” state.
“Flow” state is typically used to describe athletes when they are “in the zone” and their movements all seem fluid and easy for them. However, this state can be applied to just about any practice and produce excellent results.
Visualization is simple. Without your guitar or anything else close your eyes and envision yourself playing what you are trying to learn. Hear the sound the chord will make when played correctly. Feel the strings pressing against your fingertips. Smell the air around you.
The more senses you can tie in to your visualization the more powerful it becomes.
The more often you practice visualization the more effective it becomes.
Our body’s natural response to having to do something we aren't ready to do is tense up. This applies to learning guitar chords and chord transitions. If you try to move faster than you are ready to move, your body will naturally want to tense up.
Pay close attention to your body when you play. Keep your muscles relaxed. Take note of how you're feeling every few minutes.
If you are starting to get frustrated trying to learn a new guitar part or chord, stop and notice how your body is feeling. Often, slowing down, taking a deep breath and relaxing can work wonders for your progression.
This also applies to chord transitions. If your fingers are tensed up they won't be able to move fluidly from string to string, fret to fret.
Just chill, will ya?
Finding Shortcuts/Chord Fingerings
This is where things get a little harder but a lot more helpful. Once you can comfortably play a chord one way, learn to play that same chord with different fingerings.
This will feel incredibly awkward at first but is very important for being able to choose a chord fingering based on context.
For example, look at an E minor chord (Note: E Minor can be played without the G#):
E Minor Guitar Chord
G Major Guitar Chord
Typically, most of us are taught to play E minor with you 2nd and 3rd fingers. However, trying transitioning to a G chord from that E minor fingering.
Now try fingering the E minor with your first and second fingers instead. It’s going to feel awkward at first. Just play it a few times over and over like it’s a whole new chord.
Now try to transition to a G.
Notice how much less movement was necessary?
This is the essence of being able to change chords quickly and choosing fingerings based on context.
You can make transitions much easier and smoother by setting yourself up with more efficient fingerings based on the chord progressions.
This also segue nicely into our next topic.
Find Pivot Fingers
The reason that the chord change from E minor to G was so much easier wasn’t just because you had different fingers on the strings. If you look closer (again, slow and smooth transitions) you will notice your first finger never has to leave it’s string.
This is what is known as a pivot finger. A pivot finger is a finger that does not need to move at all from one chord to another.
Here’s another pivot finger example:
G Major Guitar Chord
D Major Guitar Chord
Notice how both of these chords need the third fret of the B string to be fretted? Make that your pivot finger and your transition between these chords will suddenly become much smoother.
Stay Close to the Fretboard
The next trick is one many guitarists' struggle with, even advanced guitarists'. This is also something to look out for in all of your guitar playing, not just when working on chords and chord transitions.
Keep your fingers as close to the fretboard as possible without touching the strings.
By always keeping your fingers hovered over the fretboard even when you aren't actively using them to fret will make your playing much easier because your fingers won't need to travel as far.
I know this sounds so simple, but it works. You’ll find it's harder than it seems.
Most guitarists' downfall? The pinky.
Many guitarists' form a habit of curling their pinky when they play (I know I did my first couple years learning). Fight this habit with every fiber of your being. Try your best to keep the pinky along for the ride with the rest of your fingers. You’ll thank me later.
Work on Timing with a Metronome
Using a metronome while you practice your guitar chord transitions is a great way to help develop your ability to keep time and will speed up the learning process.
It is very rare for someone to naturally be good at keeping time. Therefore, when you are practicing slowly you probably aren’t going at a specific tempo. Using a metronome is always recommended, even if it is set to 30 BPM. The idea is to start very slow and gradually increase the tempo in increments of 5-10 BPM.
Learn Basic Strumming Patterns
Take the time to learn some simple strumming patterns. Clean chord transitions also rely heavily on your strumming being synchronized with your fretting. If you know some strum patterns by heart you won't need to focus on what your strumming hand is doing while you work on your transition exercises.
Not sure where to begin? Check out my lesson on How to Strum on Guitar, which includes multiple strumming patterns for you to practice your guitar chord transition exercises with.
Guitar Chord Transition Exercises
G to D
G Major Guitar Chord
D Major Guitar Chord
This transition was briefly covered earlier in the lesson. By adding your ring finger to the B string of the 3rd fret on your G chords you can use that 3rd finger as a pivot finger from the G to D chords.
G to C
G Major Guitar Chord
C Major Guitar Chord
Playing your G chord without the 3rd finger on the B string as well as a slightly different fingering will make this transition much easier.
Play the G string with your 3rd finger on the low E, 2nd finger on the A and 4th finger on the high E.
This position will feel very awkward at first, but remember what we learned about these chord fingerings? Practice them until all variations feel natural.
Now from that position all you need to do is move your 3rd and 2nd fingers down 1 string and fret the first finger down to complete the C chord.
Try it out for yourself. Isn’t that easier?
G to E
This one is pretty easy since E minor only requires 2 fingers.
Fret the G chord.
G Major Guitar Chord
E Major Guitar Chord
Now, without moving your index finger, fret the E minor chord. That’s your pivot finger for this transition. Try switching to and from G to E minor
Wrapping It Up
Continue to work on these guitar chord transition exercises throughout your journey learning guitar. Over time, you will find yourself able to change chords quickly and with ease.
Have a technique you use that I missed? Confused with any of the material? Struggling within a specific chord change/transition? Leave all your questions and comments below in the comments section and I’ll get back to you usually within 24 hours.