By: Josh Lucas
We’re not doing chemistry here. By “isolating elements” I simply mean deconstructing every aspect of our guitar playing, and isolating each element that goes into it. This allows you to take something difficult and break it down into a few easy-to-do steps.
Problem: I can’t play along with my favorite song–I keep falling behind!
We’ve all been there! Let’s break this big problem down into smaller problems that are standing in your way.
Fretting the Chords
Changing Chords in Time
Strumming the Rhythm
If you tackle them one at a time, they’re far easier to deal with.
First look at each chord individually.
Let’s say the chord progression is “D one measure, C one measure, G two measures,” (come on, you know the song).
If you’re looking at chord charts there will be a section above the lyrics with diagrams for each chord.
These charts tell you where to put your fingers, but they don’t show you how to hold your hands so that you won’t cut off one of the notes. Take the D chord and place your fingers where they go according to the chart. Is one of the notes muffled? You’ll need to adjust your hand position so that all the notes ring clear. Here’s an example of a poor left-hand position that is rendering me unable to play a D chord.
Here’s an example of my hand in a position where I can easily fret the chord.
It’s 99% likely that this will be the most comfortable and effective position for you, too. Now memorize the shape and position of your hand. Drop your hand to your side, loosen your fingers. Now bring your hand back up to the fretboard and fret the D chord again. Check that each note rings clearly. Do this over and over, until you can’t NOT make the D chord come through. This may take a week, but it will be worth it when you never have to struggle again.
Repeat the process for each chord!
Apply this process of deconstruction to the other problems you’re having. I’ll keep the explanations of the other two problems short, but you should know that each one will require just as much deconstruction and isolation of the individual elements that go into performing each action.
Changing Chords in Time: If you’ve memorized each chord shape as shown above, practice going from D to C. Just two chords at a time. Then from C to G. I could go into more detail about the process, but for the sake of brevity I think it will suffice to say that being able to gradually change more quickly from one chord to the next is our first goal. The next goal is that we are able to cycle through the whole chord progression, one strum on each measure (or each chord), and repeat without fail.
Strumming the Rhythm: This part is tricky. Use your ears to grasp the rhythm the guitarists are using on the recording. It’s best to start out with a favorite song–one you’ve heard a million times. Once you hear the rhythm, try to mimic it by humming a little, “bow wow, chicka chicka, bow wow,” or some other onomatopoeia. It seems silly, but you have to work these things into your head first and your hands second. Next, even trickier, you’ll have to line up your downward strums and upward strums. My trick is to line up the down beat with a downward strum, and an upbeat with an upward strum. This seems to keep my right hand moving and minimizes the amount of thinking I have to do.
Hopefully this process will be as beneficial for you as it has been for me. Although it may seem fundamental, it’s a process that I’ve had to go over with my students (and myself) time and time again.
Just remember, no matter how simple or complex the part, this is an easy method for learning it.