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The Complete Guide to Learning Open Chords Properly (…and beyond!)

Updated: Sep 18, 2023

Let’s face it, learning to play the guitar has been on many a New Year’s resolution list. It’s up there with deciding to get fit, learning a new language, becoming a vegetarian or quitting smoking. It looks straightforward enough on TV; a mate of yours who never showed signs of musical talent manages to kick out a few chords. And, of course, you’ve spent a lot more than you intended on your guitar, which surely guarantees that it will do most of the work for you.

The Fingers Conundrum

With destiny written, the big day comes when you sit down with the new member of the family (your gleaming guitar) looking at some strange-looking dots on some lines which turn out to be ‘easy’ open chord diagrams which should springboard you to your first album. Then suddenly, euphoria gives way to reality. The fingers you have relied upon and are quite literally attached to, suddenly become estranged; they seem to have gone deaf and resist all attempts at communication. Welcome to the world of learning how to play the guitar.

The Reality of the Situation

Learning to play the guitar is no cakewalk, but it should be enjoyable as you gradually educate your fingers to perform individual tasks, yet still act as a team. Unfortunately, the online learning videos don’t really explain that there’s a fair amount of quantum mechanics and psychological approach work attached to coordinating your picking/strumming hand. And this, without trying to cajole the fingers on your other hand to produce a seemingly endless list of chord shapes wtth strange sounding names like Cm7b5... and let’s not forget counting and tapping your foot (which in time, will turn out to be your lifelong musical compass).

So, what’s the answer knowall?

Mmm…if I had the complete answer, I would be writing this blog on the deck of my yacht. But, I will give it my best shot to explain how I see it using logic based on experience and seeing the problems that students encounter.

At least look like a guitar player!

To start with, get your posture right so you don’t look like a contortion act. Level shoulders, upright stance, rest guitar on right leg if right-handed - left leg if left-handed, and don’t let it lean backwards. Neck not too far away (30 degrees maybe) from the body and pointing gently upwards. Get all this wrong and you’ll end up physically fighting yourself.

If you have tension in any part of your body, it’s a sure sign that your brain hasn’t worked out how to solve the many problems which will surface throughout your learning journey. You don’t need power or strength to play the guitar, it’s more about tecnique and placement. Don’t let tension take over – it’s a killer of dreams.

Ahh..the answer to all our problems - muscle memory!

You will be aware of the term ‘muscle memory’ which we are led to believe means that our fingers magically perform without you having to think. Wrong - it’s a sign of clear thinking by our brain brought about by repetitious events. Our muscles don’t make conscious decisions, it’s our brain that tells our fingers what to do.

But we’re running before we can walk here as we can just as easily reproduce a series of movements which do not execute accuracy, timing, economy of movement, tone & volume. To me, technique is another name for ‘organisation’ - the right type of events in the right order executed at the right time.

Learning to Visualise

One of the biggest tools we have at our disposal and yet one of the least talked about - is visualisation. The ability to see something unfold before it actually happens, thus taking away the pressure of the moment and being in complete control. We can employ it whilst we are learning and when we are ‘performance’ playing.

It’s not just a question of ‘Do you know how to play a Em chord?’, it’s more a case of how well do you know an Em chord? The better it is ensconced in our subconscious, the more likely it is to be executed easily as ‘muscle-memory’.

Have you tried visualising the fingers, frets & strings of a chord you can’t yet play? If you can’t see it in your mind’s eye, it probably goes a long way to explaining why you can’t easily reproduce it on the guitar. The other psychological approach is to create ‘headroom’ - the ability to see all things around you by having a percentage of your brain free and not tied up in fire-fighting the problem. 10-15% probably sounds good.

Any chance of getting to the point?

Ok. So, where’s this all leading? It’s leading to how we can help shorten the learning curve by committing good quality information to our subconscious which is ultimately executed via muscle-memory triggered by visualisation and the ability to plan ahead. Phew! And so on to chords…

What are chords and open chords in particular?

Quite simply, open chords are called as such because they contain at least one open string. They are triad (3 x different notes) and 7th (4 x different notes) chords played generally on the first three frets. When I say three different notes, I mean that in the case of open shape Em, the notes are E,G,B, but there are actually three E’s in the open shape, B appears twice with one G, making six notes present in total.

If I could sell just one concept of technique, it would be to try and learn by pushing your fretting hand wrist forward to free up the fingers (see a classical guitarist player). This will enable the fingers to curve around naturally and reach all the strings to the extent that the top joint of your fingers can slightly point down to the strings, so they don’t touch any strings below and mute them (ringing any bells?).

Educate your Fingers, Thumb and Wrist

Unfortunately, when the fingers are struggling to follow your wishes, they will call to other parts of the anatomy to get involved which involves the thumb rising up to grip the neck more tightly (this is definitely not the answer) and the wrist retreating behind the neck (more bells clanging?).

Get your thumb to stay around halfway up the neck, pointing up, and drop the wrist so your palm isn’t horizontal. Many guitarists play with their thumb raised at some point (so do I), but it always depends what you are going to execute next. Besides, getting your fingers freed up and educated must surely be the priority.

Don’t Forget the Elbow

It’s also worth mentioning that you shouldn’t lean your elbow on your leg or have your elbow too close to your hip. The first point means you will have to transfer your weight when you change position on the fretboard and the second means that you will be shortening your shortest fingers even more as your hand pushes them away from the fretboard.

Don’t Learn Chords with your eyes Alone

If you’re in the habit of staring at your hand trying to make chord shapes and making adjustments based solely on what you see, you are set for a long frustrating journey. Learn to ‘see’ the chords and finger placings in your mind’s eye so that your fingers know where to go before they get into position. Avoid ‘building’ chords with one finger at a time as this proves you are not communicating with all the fingers that are needed to form the chord at the same time.

Wandering Fingers

When you first try to learn how to play chords, you will notice that the temptation is to locate one finger at a time and the rest flee the scene asap. This means that you have stopped communicating with them. Learn to keep those fingers close to the strings even when they are not fretting notes. Learn to keep communicating with all your fingers at the same time; keep them close to each other as a team. Don't let fingers wander off so they're not available as options when you need them.

Other Cunning Little Tricks

When changing chords quickly and accurately, you simply must learn to move your fingers from A - B (in directional terms) i.e. the fingers have to move along the shortest possible path. Train (visualise) your fingers going in a straight line to their destination hugging the fretboard and strings. Look for and utilise ‘pivot’ fingered notes which appear both in the chord you are playing and the next one. Use them as location beacons. Don’t take your fingers off unless you have to.

Even more Cunning Little Tricks…

When practising, another cute little trick to spice up your chord changing is to physically play one chord, but mentally, play the next chord at the same time. This way, you are paving the way for the next chord. When you physically change to it, it’s confirmation of what you have already thought. Don’t ‘sit’ on the fact you can change from one chord to another. Practice changing them to a quicker tempo or use more changes in a bar during the count.

Using Visualisation & Headroom

By employing and perfecting the technique of visualisation, you will be able to form the chord quicker and more accurately without going into panic mode because you’re playing to a tempo. This in turn, will create the headroom you need to stay in charge and take other things into consideration such as the tempo, dynamics, style, volume, playing along with other musicians, acoustics etc.

Complete the Chord – Play all the strings!

One of the most glaring problems that most learners encounter – is the inability to play a continuous stroke. This comes about from ‘giving up on the chord stroke before the stroke is completed. The result? One or several strings are underplayed or missed completely. Train yourself to have a fixed point of destination which lies directly below the top ‘E’ string (the thinnest string, as direction in music relates to the pitch of notes). This way, you will develop a consistent stroke with all the intended strings sounding properly. When you think about it, the last string you play is the one that sounds stands out the most as it is also the highest in pitch, which means it is more open to scrutiny - you need to get it right.

Metronome your way to Musical Happiness

Always, always, always practice to a consistent tempo. Learning to tap your foot will help you unlock the inner rhythm machine, but until that point, your biggest friend needs to be a metronome. So many people are intimidated by a metronome (by setting it too fast in most cases) that they stop using it which ultimately means you have acknowledged that you aren’t playing in time and are not willing to learn how to. Make friends with a metronome and let it brainwash you so you start to ‘think’ like one.

Learning to Count Before you can Walk

Learning to play the guitar is all about juggling many thoughts at once and getting them to sit side by side. Once you have started to form chords quicker and quicker, you will need to be able to change from one to another in exact time.

If you are counting 1+2+3+4+ (foot goes down on the 1,2,3,4 and comes up on the +’s) - change chords precisely on the 1,2,3,4 and not slightly before or after. Your fingers will want to change earlier in the count to make the transition easier, but don’t let them - learn to change exactly on the right part of the beat.

Feel the Rhythm

Start off by counting and tapping your foot first and then learn to form and change chords in time. If it doesn’t have rhythm, it ain’t music. Think of rhythm as a conveyor belt which has a consistent speed and on which you sit with your guitar. Ride it, feel it, be inspired by it. Rhythm is king.

Don’t make the mistake of learning a passage of notes/chords without rhythm just because it’s easier to push it to one side. You have just created more work than you realise. Create your rhythm by counting and tapping your foot. All good players have good rhythm. End of.

Strum up and down with a Continuous Action

Try not to stop the even strumming motion when you struggle to change chords. Lay down a marker with the strumming stroke so you brain starts to work out that it needs to change chords faster. It’s amazing how much quicker you learn to change chords by keeping a constant strumming rhythm – especially working with a metronome.

The Cycle of Influence

Here’s how I see a cycle of influence and its direction:

Learn to count out rhythm>count to help educate your foot>your foot tells your strumming/picking hand where to play>your fretting hand plays according to rules as laid down by your other hand (working in tandem with your foot) which has become the conductor.

Unfortunately, many students will let the fretting hand dictate, so the circle goes back the other way. Result? Everything breaks down.

Be Positive with Everything you Play

Be accurate with the pads of your fingertips on string placement, as showing a little too much flesh in either direction can stop the note sounding and ‘kill’ other strings by touching them. Be positive; don’t hold back and be indecisive. Don’t underplay as if you’re afraid to break something, throw away the safety net, and if it is wrong - play it loud and wrong so you develop a positive approach to everything you are learning.

In the grip of the grip Strengtheners Myth?

Argh! Finger grip strengtheners. Will not sit on the fence here. Your fingers will learn to play chords by accurate visualisation, finger placement and repitition. If finger-strengtheners were the secret to learning chords, then would it be true, that if I didn’t pick up a guitar for a whole year, I wouldn’t be able to play the chords I knew so well? No, this is not true in any way. Forget about them. Learn chords properly through structured practice and repetition.

Practising without a Guitar

Is it possible to have a practice session without touching a guitar? Not only is it possible, it’s a great way of stimulating the visualisation process and getting the thought processing generally right without the physical distractions of coordinating parts of your body.

Multi-tasking has proved to be a myth, the brain can only concentrate on one thing at a time, but it doesn’t mean you can’t gradually learn several things that are linked side by side for a common aim or outcome. Think learning to drive a car with gear-changing or learning to play golf.

Changing our Approach

For all my efforts, I don’t pretend to have the outright answer, but, what I do hope, is that it opens your eyes to how you could effectively change the way you look at learning chords and playing the guitar in general. Don’t play with your eyes to make adjustments that you won’t remember because you really didn’t stem those changes from engaging your brain early enough. We learn and play the guitar with our brain and the more we employ and further train it, the faster we will progress.

More than one way to skin a Cat

Please don’t confuse my attempt to try to help other people and make sense of this topic to be a statement of infallible knowledge. It’s an honest attempt to break down into pieces what most beginner guitar players may not obviously see. Many of these observations are never discussed openly which is baffling, but I guess you need to spend some time analising it all. I don’t think all good guitar players will look to break down learning chords as I have attempted - but they’re still great players!

Many skilled guitarists may not be overtly aware that they are employing some of these techniques. We’re all different and we use different maps on our learning journeys, but the skill-sets are the same for everyone.

Catalyst for Thought

Please feel free to pick the bones out of this blog to see if you can challenge yourself and help save months or years of frustration. Throwing time at practising is not the answer - quality of regular practice through clear aims and objectives is. Get organised so you can enjoy the fruits of your labour and get to the point where you can share the joy of playing the guitar with others. It won’t make the learning journey easier, but it sure as hell will make it a lot shorter and get you to where you want to go a lot faster.

To sum Up

I’m not a student of the human body, but I’m going to stick my neck out and say that muscles don’t make decisions, your brain does. Shout at, and blame your fingers all you like, the fact is that your brain hasn’t yet figured out what the deal is. The shape of a chord should be tucked away in your subconscious so you can call upon in a milli-sec. If you can’t? Learn it better.

Don’t sit on playing a chord when you could be already thinking of the next chord. Keep thinking ahead by using visualisation. Cut down problematic areas into manageable chunks, place into loops and repeat, repeat, repeat slowly until you can play it without mistakes. Then turn up the tempo over whatever time it takes (hours, days, weeks, months if need be).

Learn how to navigate around the fretboard by knowing the musical alphabet, understanding octave shapes, using the fret markers, knowing the string names and how they relate to each other. You are laying the ground for future development, and it doesn’t take a great deal of time.

Get playing chords in song progressions as quickly as possible; give them musical meaning/context and have fun with them. Don’t make your chord-learning journey, a long frustrating one; it really doesn’t have to be that way.

Good luck and remember - it’s all achievable!

Image Credit - Diana. grytsku:

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