No matter what style you play, you must be able to switch smoothly between chords while keeping steady time and staying in the groove.
Whether you’re strumming basic open-position chords at a relaxed tempo or attempting to nail complex barre chords at breakneck tempos, it’s important for your chord-to-chord movement to be fluid.
In this lesson, we’ll give you six fundamental chord-switching techniques that are applicable to all styles of music and all situations. As you’re playing these figures, it will be helpful to think ahead at all times—that is, to visualize the forthcoming chord before fretting it.
Now, bust out your guitar, get it in tune and get ready to switch things up.
1. OPEN-STRING STRUMMING
Let’s start out with some cowboy chords. In FIGURE 1, there’s an open-string strum on each upbeat preceding a chord change. This might seem weird, but since the open strings are mostly consonant with the key signature, there’s no clash in harmony. Plus, strumming the open strings will buy you some time between chords during which you can form the fingerings “in the air,” as it were. Note that similar shapes, such as the open E and Am chords—which are played with the same fingering but on different string sets—tend to facilitate smooth switching.
2. DISSONANT TRANSITIONS
In FIGURE 2, the open-string technique is applied to six- and five-note barre chords. In this case, the open strings are not consonant with the key signature, Eb major. They do, however, create an interesting dissonance throughout the figure. When switching between chords that have the same fingering—like the Bb and Ab chords in bar 2,—keep your fret-hand fingers locked in the shape. Also, as you play through the progression, be sure to maintain a steady 16th-note strumming motion with your pick hand.
3. PIVOT NOTES
Effective chord switching also benefits from an economy of motion. FIGURE 3 uses a single common tone, or pivot note, for three different chords: C, Am and F/C. Keep your 1st finger depressed on the 2nd string’s 1st-fret C throughout. In bar 4, for the Am–C move, there are two pivot notes: the C and the 4th string’s 2nd-fret E. Try to find other chords that could share pivot notes,even if they require nonstandard-fingerings.
4. BARRING TECHNIQUES
In FIGURE 4, the 1st finger is used to barre all six strings at the 8th fret for the C and F chords in bar 1, and at the 10th fret for the D and G chords in bar 2. This approach allows you to change smoothly from a 6th-string-rooted barre chord to a 5th-string-rooted one: with your 1st finger in place, simply roll over your 3rd finger to barre strings 4–2. (If necessary, omit the 1st-string note.) This is a more efficient method for changing between barre chords than, say, going between two 6th-string-rooted voicing, such as an 8th-fret C chord and a 1st-fret F chord.
5. ARPEGGIATED APPROACHES
Efficient switching techniques are useful for playing arpeggiated chords, too. In FIGURE 5, since there’s no strumming involved, you can use the open strings for even more time to switch between chords. Though it’s best too have each chord shape depressed throughout its duration so that it can ring out fully, you have the option here to lay down each chord one note at a time. When playing the G/D chord in bar 4, use your 4th finger for the 3rd-fret G, leaving your 3rd finger free to grab the root of the C chord on the repeat.
6. STOPS AND MUTES
FIGURES 6A–C have some power chords, which means “Turn on the distortion!” In FIGURE 6A, the quarter-note rests make for a cool rhythmic effect while giving you extra time to move down the neck from the E5 chord to the C5 chord. To nail the percussive mutes in FIGURE 6B, hold the chord shape lightly over the intended frets and strike the strings before pressing down on the chord. FIGURE 6C has some metal-approved muted open-E gallops. To keep everything tight, be sure to completely release each chord as soon as you start playing the open low E string.
7. ALL TOGETHER NOW
FIGURE 7 neatly sums up the concepts covered in this lesson. In bar 1, barre the 1st finger at the 10th fret and keep it down when switching to the Dm and Gm chords. In bars 3 and 4, the same progression is colored with some power-punk palm mutes, which create a cool textural effect and give you extra time to change chords. For a full workout, modulate the progression to all keys. To do it in E major, for example, simply move each chord down by one fret.