If you’ve been playing guitar for a while (which, if you’re reading, you probably have), you have undoubtedly come across chords and practiced them in order to play some of your favourite songs. You may even already be at a level where you can actually play some specific chords, but have issues with others never sounding exactly how you’d like or not being able to switch between chords in a way that allows you to play songs effortlessly.

I’d like to start by telling you that I’ve been there and know totally how you feel. Every guitarist has struggled with chords on one occasion or another (more often than we’d like) and, although it may feel like a difficult topic to master, I’m here to tell you that it’s way easier than you think.

How does then one master chords in guitar playing?

Mastery of this topic is all about understanding and applying the following fundamental principles:

  1. Knowing how to press a chord correctly (all strings ring out, no fret buzz, etc.)
  2. Learning how to switch (effortlessly) from one chord to the next
  3. Knowing WHEN to transition from one chord to the other (this principle is very often overlooked)
  4. Being able to change chords while playing the strings with your right hand (either strumming or picking)

What should you do in order to master these principles?

There are 7 majorly important steps that you need to take in order to be able to play any chord and switch between them while playing. Here they are:

1. Know which chords are hard for you

a. Before you even begin practicing, you need to know which chords are actually making your life hard. Otherwise, how are you going to know where to focus your efforts on? If you just keep playing the same things over and over again, hoping that eventually you’ll get it right, I have bad news for you – it won’t. That’s because you are not aware of the things that are actually slowing you down, so you won’t be able to practice in a way that will allow you to eventually play any chord in a fluid way.

Start out by writing out all the chords you know, then identify which are the ones that are not sounding how you want them to yet (strings are not ringing, there’s frets/string buzz, you can’t change to the chord in time when playing, etc.) Only then will you be able to apply the next steps to actually master those chords.

2. Know how to play the chords that are hard (in isolation)

Now that you know which chords are holding you back, ask yourself: “Can play just the chord in complete isolation, without playing anything else?” In other words, if you were to play just the chord, by itself, would you be able to have it ring out cleanly, with all strings sounding clear, no fret buzz and with a totally relaxed left hand? If the answer is no, then the chord you’re trying to master is still in development. Since you have to learn to walk before you can run, you need to first practice just pressing the chord in isolation and correct the way you’re pressing it until it sounds consistently clean and easy to play.

3. Learn how to transition to the chord that is hard

If you already practiced the chord and can make it sound good every time, start shifting from one chord to the challenging chord and see what happens. If you can’t do this well yet, then you need to keep practicing it until it sticks. If you can already perform the chord change in question, congrats! Now, try another one! Mastering a chord and its changes is all about being able to switch from ANY chord you can think of to the one that’s giving you a hard time. Keep doing this and performing different combinations – this will speed up the learning process immensely.

(This article is continued on part II of this series here.)

Based in Zurich Switzerland, Gonçalo Crespo is a professional guitar teacher and musician. He has taught guitar for over 8 years covering a variety of styles but focuses mainly on getting his students to guitar playing success in the most efficient way possible. Founder of Music&Co. guitar music school, Gonçalo also offers tuition for acoustic and electric guitar.