How to Practice Chords: Hit the Bullseye

BullseyePracticing guitar chords is very much like practicing darts. When playing through songs, you often need to strum a chord the instant your fingers land on the strings. There’s no extra time to make adjustments and get the chord re-fingered just right before you play the notes. It’s as if you’re throwing three or four darts at once (each of your fingers), and each needs to hit its own bullseye. Ideally, each finger will land in the perfect position to fret that note, no adjustments necessary.

How on Earth do you practice that?

1. Slow Down!

If you want your fingers to move with great precision, you absolutely must work on their movements slowly. Play as if your fingers are moving through molasses. Put your mind on a tropical beach where no one’s in a rush. You’re just happy to be there with a guitar in your lap, and you’re really fascinated by the way your muscles are moving your fingers around on the fretboard.

When I ask one of my students to slow down, I always have to say, “More, more, more,” until we’re at about half of the tempo they thought would be slow enough. This is not a phase you’ll surpass once you’re an intermediate or advanced player. Everyone’s playing can benefit from subjection to a temporal microscope. That’s what it takes to make your fingers’ movements more efficient.

2. Don’t Make Adjustments

When you first learn a new chord, it’s important to work your fingers into the correct position enough times so that you memorize the chord shape and where all your fingers need to go. If there’s a problem when you strum the chord, adjust your fingers until all the notes ring out clearly.

However, once you know the chord, stop doing this. Now, your objective is to land all your fingers in their perfect positions with no adjustments. If your fingers land the same wrong way every time, requiring you to shift them around before strumming, you’re training them to land in that wrong way. If you were practicing darts, this would be like walking up to the board after every throw and moving your dart to the bullseye. It doesn’t do you much good. What you really need to do is move closer to the board (the equivalent of slowing down!) and keep throwing. Get it to land in the bullseye, and then start backing up again.

Try this exercise. Choose one chord to work on. Play it once. Now make a fist with your fretting hand. Visualize how your fingers need to move to get back to that chord again. Now, slowly, bring your fingers back to the fretboard, each in a direct line to the exact spot where it needs to fret in order to play that chord perfectly. Once your fingers hit the strings, fret the notes, but do not move them. Take note of any problem areas in your fingering. Make a fist and repeat the process, focusing on fixing any weak spots. Take two minutes per day to do this over and over on a single chord, and your fingers will soon be landing more confidently all over the fretboard.

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