Learn to be Musical with Just a Few Chords

Work Those Chord Transitions
by Chris Liepe

In the previous edition of Weekend Warrior, I laid out some “practice values” that have helped me stay engaged while practicing. I also talked about making your practice content count in a musical context. Make everything musical! When I’ve discussed these practice values in person with beginner guitar students, some of them respond with some variant of the following: “I don’t know enough to make music yet, so I can’t really do this. Is there a magical point you get to as a player where you can start being musical in your practicing?”

The answer is… Sort of, but it is a lot sooner along the beginner guitarist’s journey than you might think. Here’s how I get someone who has VERY little experience on the guitar to start practicing musically from the very beginning. First, I ask them to just play ONE note and listen to how it sounds. Pick any note. Play it long, play it short. Shake the guitar while you play it. Try to slide into it. Use a pick. Use your thumb. How does it sound different? Is it better or worse? Even someone with ZERO guitar playing experience can do this. Then I tell them to pick a chord… Any chord. Strum it once. Play each string slowly one after another. Hit all the strings at the same time. Do an up strum… A quiet down strum. Pluck with your fingers… etc…

Anything can be musical! The point I’m driving home with this extremely simple idea is that ANYTHING can be musical. Yes, there are varying degrees and opinions as to what is musical. If you start, even from the very beginning of your guitar journey, tuning your ear to how and why you play things on the guitar during your practice sessions, even the most simple things you do on the guitar will feel and sound musical. After awhile, you won’t have to think so hard either!

Now with this being said, once you reach a point where you can play a few chords, a lot of musical possibilities start reveal themselves. There are so many great songs out there that use 3 or 4 basic chords, have a great melody, and can be played by YOU. What’s usually the first barrier that guitar players run into head first when they try to use the chords they’ve learned in a song? Chord transitions!

Changing chords presents a really awkward practice problem at first. We’ve established that we want to be musical with everything that we practice, but it certainly doesn’t sound so musical the first few times we try to move from that G chord to that D chord for example. Well, let’s simplify things to the point that, even with a chord transition, you can be musical right from the start. As a result, you’ll feel confident in your playing much sooner!

Play a regular old G chord (1st image below). Play it so that your third finger is not being used. Now put your 3rd finger on the 3rd fret, B string (2nd image below).

G Major Chord 1 G Major Chord 2

Strum this G chord a few times. Don’t worry about tempo. Just get lost in the sound of the chord. Hint: Make sure you are in tune :)

Now, WITHOUT lifting up your 3rd finger on your fret hand, transition to playing a standard D chord. D Major Chord Make the fingering work so that you have to do as little finger shuffling as possible while leaving that 3rd finger firmly planted.

Just practice the movement a few times. Don’t strum. You’re moving from a G chord to a D chord while leaving your 3rd finger firmly planted on that 3rd fret, B string. What do the rest of your fingers do? Look at your hand while you’re switching (still not strumming). Now close your eyes while making the transition. Go back and forth while making pictures in your brain of what your hand is doing.

Start to tap your foot. Don’t strum yet. Just make the fret hand change to the groove you feel in your foot tap. Do this for awhile. Try to breath in rhythm with your foot and hand position change.

It’s time to add a slow musical down strum in there for every four foot taps. Change your hand position and strum with every four taps. Do you have slow down? Are you still visualizing what happens with your hands right before your hands have to actually make the move. Clear your head and try again!

D Major Chord Now try going from a D chord to an Em chord. You’ll notice that there are no common notes between the two chords. This is where visualizing what happens to each finger as they move from chord to chord becomes even more important. Choose one finger to focus on and use it as a guide. Say out loud what is happening to your first finger. “It is staying on the same fret and moving from the G string to the A string.” Practice this movement and let the others follow.

As you move from chord to chord in a complete progression, your fingers will start to remind you that they have your back. The movements start to happen with out all this extra thinking. That magic point that was alluded to earlier should be when sound starts coming from the guitar. Use your mind and your hand positioning without sound to practice the movements and then as soon as you start to strum, your focus is on making music. Yes, there will be dead strings and ugly noises initially, but don’t focus on those. Simply make the adjustments in your hand position and keep that foot tapping and that musical ear attentive. You only stall out when you get hung up on what you are not doing right!

Here, we’re working on something very specific and tedious but we are making it very musical from the very beginning. We’re also looking at ways to make the transition as smooth and effortless as possible. After nearly 20 years of playing, I still preform this ritual when I am working on a new chord progression or song. In fact, I use a similar method of practicing when I don’t even have my guitar in hand.

To drive it home for the weekend, we have a fantastic lesson by David Isaacs covering a simple progression that you can use and adapt to many popular songs. You’ll work chord transitions, study how the four chords used in the lesson work together, and then have the opportunity to play the chords over a backing track.

Playing Most Songs

Taught by David Isaacs

You've probably heard it before, but most songs out there can really be played with just 3 or 4 chords. In this lesson, Dave gives you the tools to play most of the songs you know and love!

Work new chords and transitions this weekend using this approach. It doesn’t matter if you’re using the chords in Mr. Isaacs’ lesson or you’re dealing with a bunch of stretchy-fingered jazz voicings. Let me know how it goes in the comments section below! Have a great weekend fellow guitar players!

Weekend Warrior Subscribers save 50%

Get our entire lesson library, live courses, teaching tools and more.

  Apply Your Coupon  

Use Coupon Code "warrior50", or just click the link above.

Thanks for reading.

I hope I've been able to make an impact on your playing.

Thanks again for reading. Regardless of how far along you are with your playing...you should be able to start to sound musical!

Chris Liepe
JamPlay Content Director

Chris Dawson.  JamPlay Co-Founder

Chris Liepe is the content director at JamPlay. He was one of the first JamPlay instructors. His talents were quickly noticed, both on and off camera. Chris and the folks at JamPlay soon realized that he would be a perfect fit for the team. He hopped on board as a full time staff member in 2009 and has since been leading the charge towards realizing JamPlay's mission: providing affordable music education worldwide.


Comment Below

Other Weekend Warrior Episodes