Tying Chord Changes And Strumming Rhythms Together

By Ryan Mueller

I want you to imagine that you are in a boat, and are heading towards a tropical island. The sun is shining, the water is calm and you’re rowing along comfortably.

Then, all of a sudden, the wind picks up, clouds block out the sun and you’re now in the middle of a big storm. Not only that, but you managed to get the last boat at the dock before you left, and it’s not in good shape – its rickety, falling apart, and has seen better days. You can row along a gentle stream with no trouble, but these big waves are going to be trouble.

The first wave comes, and you make it through alright with your boat in one piece. The next wave comes around though, and it tosses you around – you’re alive, but your boat now has sprung a leak. It’s not a big one, and you can still row for a little bit, but if you don’t plug this leak up you’ll eventually sink. You plug it up and are back to normal again, but the third wave is massive – it throws you really hard, and leaves you with a massive hole in your boat – and you’d better fix this hole quickly and dump out the water, or else you won’t make it to the island.

With this scenario in mind, let’s take a look at our guitar playing and imagine we’re playing a simple song with open chords – in this case, our rowing is the strumming rhythm, and the waves are the chord changes within the song.

One of the biggest hurdles that prevent most people from ever having fun with their guitar playing is the challenge of strumming and changing chords at the same time. Generally, you shouldn’t try mixing the two until you can change between the chords you’re playing with decent speed and relative ease, and can comfortably do the strumming rhythm on its own. If you try combining the two too early, you’ll create a massive headache for yourself. Why?

The reason why this is a struggle for beginning guitarists is because in order for this to happen, your brain needs to multitask – keeping the strumming rhythm going comfortably as you focus most of your mental energy on the chord change. The way that we train our brain to do this is by strumming consistently, and slowly increasing the frequency of the chord changes at a rate that is comfortable for us.

Step 1: Choose 2-4 chords you will switch between. 

I suggest mixing up the chord changes so that some involve moving only a couple fingers, and others involve moving every finger. A good chord progression for this is E minor, to C Major, to D Major, to G Major, back to E minor, and repeat.

Step 2: Decide on a strumming rhythm for you to play.

Don’t make this too complicated; remember, we want to easily combine strumming and changing chords. Complicated strumming patterns can come later – walk before you run.

Step 3: Strum the rhythm on one of the chords until it’s easy (“rowing comfortably”)

Choose one of the chords and play the strumming rhythm continuously until you can easily do it without having to think about it. If you have to consciously think about how your strumming arm needs to move, then you aren’t yet ready to add the chord changes. On the flip side, if you find you’re day-dreaming as you play it, then you’re ready for the next step.

Step 4: Change the chord while maintaining the strumming rhythm (the “wave”)

While maintaining your strumming, focus your mind on the chord change. Before you change chords, visualize assure yourself of what needs to happen. Where does each finger need to move? What fingers can stay in place? When you’re ready, change chords so that the new chord is played at the beginning of a repetition of the strumming rhythm.

Step 5: Relax your mind, and prepare for the next chord change.

Doing this for the first time can take a lot of mental energy, so it’s good to relax your mind and then re-engage it when you’re ready for the next chord change. Your mind will become more used to this process as you keep doing it, and then you can then start changing chords more frequently until it’s smooth enough for you to play a whole boat-load of easy songs!

Some final notes:

  1. If you are able to think about the chord change coming up while you are maintaining your strumming arm, that is proof that your brain is getting better at multitasking the way it needs to, and that the strumming rhythm is being burned into your muscle memory.
  1. Do NOT stop strumming in order to get the chord change perfect and clean. Many beginners fall into this habit when trying to do this for the first time, and it sabotages them because it stops the flow of their strumming and prevents their brain from being able to multitask (since it’s literally going from one thing to the other).
  1. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. It’s normal that some of the chord changes won’t sound too pretty right away, or that you’ll have to fix the strumming pattern after the chord change – this is simply a hole in your boat that you need to fix. What’s most important is that you put yourself in the situation of having to deal with the 2 in real time. Once you can deal with the “pressure,” are used to it and are comfortable with it, fixing any imperfections will become dramatically easier, since you won’t be worrying about it sounding perfect. While you do learn to walk before you run, you’ll never win the 100 meter dash if you don’t actually know what it feels like to run.

About The Author: Ryan Mueller is a guitarist playing in Toronto-based metal band Sovereign. He also teaches guitar lessons in Etobicoke –  www.guitarlessonsetobicoke.com

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