If you watch the hands of guitarists who play with enviable speed and fluidity, you may notice how little effort they seem to exert. Their finger movements are relaxed and minimal, considering the amount of music they are generating. What they’re playing is surely not easy, but it looks that way. So how does a guitarist achieve that state of grace?
Part of the answer is, naturally, hard work. To develop speed, you need to practice new maneuvers over and over until they become second nature. Equally important, though, is being efficient with your technique—learning to achieve the sounds you want with the least amount of movement and effort. The faster you play, the more important efficiency becomes—a small stumble in a chord change will become a big bump at higher speed. But even at slow, manageable tempos, efficiency pays off. It helps you play more musically, because if you reduce setup and transition time, the notes can connect and ring more.
This workout focuses on efficiency in the fretting hand when you’re playing chord sequences. Finding smart ways to finger chords and transition between them makes a huge difference in the sound of accompaniment. These exercises use progressions—drawn from fiddle tunes, bluegrass, and rock—that make speedy changes primarily with open chords. This is a bit of a rhythm workout, but the ultimate goal is to work less.
To kick off the workout, play an accompaniment part for the fiddle tune “Bill Cheatham”—specifically the B section, which barrels through the I, IV, and V chords, changing mostly every two beats. I’ve arranged it in G, the default for bluegrass guitarists. Fiddlers typically play “Bill Cheatham” in A, so capo at the second fret if you want to match that key.
For comparison’s sake, first try Example 1 with the exact chord fingerings shown, and bring it up to a fairly fast tempo. Notice anything? Those fingerings have you scrambling all over the fretboard. Your third finger, for instance, has to race from the first string on the G chord over to the fifth string for the C, and then double back to the second string for the D; your second has to zip from the first string on the D over to the sixth for G. With all that moving around, it’s tough to stay in time, let alone play cleanly.
So now check out Example 2, the eight-bar B section of “Bill Cheatham.” Instead of a regular G major chord, use a G5: take out the thirds, the Bs, by fretting the second string and muting the fifth string (by leaning your second finger against it). A power-chord voicing like this works great for this style. Hold down the top two strings with your third and fourth fingers at the third fret, and leave the fingers there for the rest of the example; having those G and D notes on top turns the C chord into Csus2 and the D into Dsus4. Not only do these treble notes sound good throughout, especially if you play them with a percussive chop like a mandolin, but they keep you anchored. You move only your index and middle fingers—very efficient compared with Ex. 1.
As with the G5, mute the string above the bass note for the Csus2. You can play the second fret on the fourth string if you want, but I like leaving it out for a tighter sound and more separation between the bass and the chord chop. Start at a moderate tempo—say 100 bpm—and ratchet it up. With these fingerings, you should be able to roll through the progression even at a good clip without working too hard. For extra credit, see Take It to the Next Level on p. 50.
Beginners’ Tip #1
Look for opportunities to keep a finger anchored on the same string/fret during a chord change.
Staying in the bluegrass realm, this week’s workout is inspired by the classic “Rocky Top,” often played at a brisk tempo. In Example 3, play a four-bar progression with the fingerings shown. (As with all the other examples in this lesson, you can loop it for practice.) Again you’re in the key of G, but the G fingering is not the same one used in Ex. 2; this time, fret with your third and fourth fingers and leave the second string open. The main reason for this fingering is the quick change to C in measure 2. This G fingering allows you to leave your fourth finger in place and move your third finger over just one string at the same fret—a smooth and easy change.
In measure 3, I’ve used chord voicings on the low strings only for Em and for D/F# (in place of a standard D). The logic behind these fingerings is that, again, your fingers make only a small move (the first and second fingers each shift over one string at the same fret); plus the low F# bass note under the D sounds good as a connector between the sixth-string E and G. Sure, you could play more strings/notes with these chords, but keeping them simpler and more contained works better in this context. It gets the job done, harmonically speaking, without extra effort that will slow you down.
Example 4 is based on the chorus of “Rocky Top.” In measures 3 and 4, note how little your fingers move between F/C and C—much less than if you were playing a full F barre chord. The same is true in measures 7 and 9, where you use an F/C (this time on only the four middle strings) for the quick bounce between G and F.
Beginners’ Tip #2
Instead of using a full barre chord, try simplifying the shape to three or four strings.
This week’s examples venture toward rock ’n’ roll. Example 5 is inspired by the Outlaws’ 1970s southern rock jam “Green Grass and High Tides.” In this four-bar progression, you’ve got to be nimble to get through the changes at a fast tempo. So make life easier by simplifying fingerings: use only one fretting finger for the G, D5, and A5 chords. The Em and C fingerings are chosen for efficiency, too: you can keep your third finger anchored on the second fret for both chords. Playing A5 with a one-finger barre is crucial to nailing the rhythm riff in measures 3 and 4. Keep your index in place and reach up to the fifth and fourth frets with your fourth and third fingers, respectively.
Example 6 tips its hat to the Everly Brothers (and to Felice and Boudleaux Bryant who, as it happens, also wrote “Rocky Top”) and the song “Wake Up Little Susie.” The example is in D, with quick, syncopated strums on the F and G in measures 2 and 4. Use an F/C and slide up two frets for a G/D, and then back down for another F/C on the way to D. (If you like, strum percussive scratches over the rests between these chords.) The F/C and G/D inversions sound full while making the changes easier to navigate than if you’d used six-string barre chord shapes.
Beginners’ Tip #3
Often the bass note and just one or two other notes is all you need to establish a chord.
Several of the earlier examples included power chords, which make sense when you’re stripping chords down to the essentials—each power chord includes only the root and the fifth. This week, you’ll employ a bunch more power chords in a couple of rhythm patterns inspired by the Who’s “Pinball Wizard.”
In Example 7, use a third-finger barre for the B5 and a first-finger barre for A5. From there, it’s a small move to the D5, and then your first finger stays on the third string for the E—it just slides down a fret. Your first is serving as a guide finger and helping all your fingers change shapes more quickly.
Notice how Example 8 starts with an atypical E fingering—the first finger isn’t fretting anything. Why play an E like this? The answer is in the next beat. If you fret the E with your second, third, and fourth fingers, you can slide the same shape up two frets and just add the bass note with the index to get the F# chord. I like the smoothness of that change compared with reshuffling the fingers from a standard E fingering.
As you work on other songs, if you find that a particular change is tripping you up, think about alternative ways to finger or perhaps reduce the chords. Often the solution is not to push yourself over the obstacle but to remove it—by playing smarter, not harder.
Beginners’ Tip #4
When possible, use a guide finger, which stays on the same string from chord to chord.
Take It To The Next Level
For extra practice with quick chord changes, try playing the “Bill Cheatham” progression from Ex. 2 in other open keys: A, C, D, and E. In each key, find the I, IV, and V fingerings that provide the most efficient path through the progression. Here’s a sample in the key of A to get you started. As you can see, the first finger stays on the third string throughout and serves as a guide finger.
Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers is author of the new Acoustic Guitar book/video Beyond Strumming.
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