1. Arch Your Fingers
2. Crowd Next to the Highwire
3. Fingers in Backseat Need to Press Harder
4. Be Aware of Your Thumb
5. Feel and Listen for Problems
6. Use Anchor and Lead Fingers When Changing Chords

Some of these tips sound like they’re straight out of our lesson on fretting notes, but there are some new things to consider when fretting chords.

Arch Your Fingers

If you’re having trouble getting the first string to ring when you’re playing the A or D chord, arching more will probably help.

Bend those puppies at each joint, and contact the strings with the tips of your fingers. This will help you avoid inadvertently touching neighboring strings.

Crowd Next to the Highwire

You already know the importance of getting close to the highwire from the lesson on fretting single notes. Back then, it was easy to snug right up to metal. But fretting chords is more complicated, because often there's not enough room to get each finger next to the wire. Even if you have slender fingers, things will feel crowded.

The solution: Get at least one finger in shotgun. Other fingers may have to sit in the back seat. Still, cozy them up as close to the highwire as you can.

Fingers in Backseat Need to Press Harder

[show three closeups of finger fretting positions with arrows and text showing different degrees of force]

It's all about leverage. When your finger is forced into the middle of the fret--or, Zeus forbid, the back--it must press harder to fret the string without buzzing or muting problems. So when you fret Em, your 1st finger will need to press somewhat harder than your 2nd.

Here’s a diagram of an A chord, with the dots in a more true-to-life position. Notice that your first finger is crowded out by the other two chords. Angle it as close as you can to the highwire, but you’ll also need to press harder with that finger than the other two.

Be Aware of Your Thumb

Choose your thumb placement based on the chord you’re playing and the size of your hand. You’ll need to experiment with different thumb positions to find which ones work for you.

[Zoom me out and display thumb hook vs. classical graphic above my head w/photos of each and list of benefits of each.]

Thumb Hook
More Relaxing
Can mute or fret 6th string with thumb
Easier to arch
Often better for small hands

Your two options are the thumb hook position, where you’ve got your thumb hooked over the top of the neck and this part of your hand is touching the back of the neck, and classical guitar position, where your thumb tip is braced against the back of the neck, and only the thumb tip and your fingertips are touching the guitar.

If you can, I recommend using the thumb hook. It’s generally a more relaxing position, and keeps your wrist in an ergonomic unbent position, and if your hand’s big enough, you can nudge your thumb up against the side of the 6th string when you’re playing chords like the A and D chord--not enough to fret the string, just enough to damp or mute the string. This is a huge benefit. If you can do this, you can strum the chord with abandon, hitting all six strings. Also, later on, you’ll come across chords where you actually fret notes on the 6th string with your thumb. But if your hand’s not big enough, reaching that far with your thumb will mean you lose the arch in your fingers, and you’ll be muting more than just your 6th strings, so it won’t be worth it.

The classical position, on the other hand, makes it easier to arch your fingers. If your first string’s getting muted when you play the D or A chord, and you can’t arch your fingers enough using the thumb hook grip, try switching to classical. This’ll be especially useful for people with short fingers.

Feel and Listen For Problems

While you’re testing your chords--and really, any time you’re playing the guitar--your quality control team consists of your ears and the nerves in your fingers.

Most of your chord complications will result from the dastardly duo, Buzz and Mute. If a string is buzzing, it's probably because it's not being fretted firmly enough. You can solve this by:

Pressing harder
Scooting closer to the fret wire, if you can
Using a slightly different part of your fingertip

Buzzing can also be caused by a finger lightly touching a neighboring string. This buzz has a distinctive sound, like a sitar, and it will tickle the offending finger. [demonstrate]

If a note is partially muted, meaning it's quieter and mellower than it should be, your fretting finger may have crept onto the fret wire when you weren't looking. [demonstrate]

If the note isn't ringing at all, a neighboring finger might be leaning on it--again, you’ll be able to feel the string vibrate against the offending finger for a moment if this is the case. If it's a fretted note, it’s also possible that you haven’t pressed it down far enough to even touch the fret wire or fretboard. You're going to need to press a lot harder. [demonstrate]

Finally, if your string is clucking [demonstrate], your guitar may have turned into a chicken. I don’t know why they do that. [lose eye contact momentarily, embarrassed]

Use Anchor and Lead Fingers When Changing Chords

I saved the best tip for last. This is secret of the guitar gods--something that will make your guitar playing infinitely easier. The crazy thing is, a lot of guitar instruction books don’t even mention this trick. Here we go.

An anchor finger is a finger that stays in the same position as you move from one chord to another. Let’s use the transition from the A to the D chord as an example. [Display diagrams of each side by side above my head] Notice that for both chords, the first finger goes on the third string, second fret. So there’s no point in picking it up. It’s much easier to leave that finger there, pivoting off that finger as you lift your second and third fingers, moving into the D chord position. [do this in closeup as I talk]. Now granted, your first finger wasn’t in an ideal position when you were fretting your A chord, so you’ll want to cozy it up right next to the highwire when you move to D, but still, keeping it on the same fret is a huge benefit. Initially, it may hard to keep your finger glued there as you move the other two, but move slowly and carefully as you overcome this minor obstacle, and very soon you’ll start reaping the rewards of this trick.

Lead fingers stay on the same string as you move from one chords to another, but you scoot to a different fret. Let’s say you’re moving from a D to an E chord. [Display diagrams of each side by side above my head]. Can you find the lead finger?

It’s your first finger again. You lift your second and third fingers, scoot your first finger to the first fret, and place your second and third fingers in an E position.

Practice these two tricks and soon you’ll be able to play with your eyes closed.

Practice Exercise

Now I’m going to take you through three exercises so that you can practice fretting your A, D, and E chords correctly, and start working on moving quickly between the chords. But remember, the slower you go, the faster you’ll get there. Your goal here should not be to move quickly, but to make correct movements, and to do that, you need to go slow.

First, I want you practice playing A and D, back and forth. [Fret an A] Remember to arch your fingers, crowd next to the highwire, press harder with fingers that are in the backseat (in this case, the first finger), be aware of your thumb--mine hand’s big enough so I’m muting the 6th string. Once you’re in position, test your chord and feel and listen for any problems. I’m going to include the 6th string in my test just to make sure it’s muted properly.

And then as you move to D, pivot off your anchor finger. Fret a D chord, remembering to arch your fingers--it’s especially important to arch the third finger with this chord so that it doesn’t touch the 1st string. Crowd next to the highwire. Notice that to do this, I approach the highwire at a diagonal. If my fingers were perfectly perpendicular to the neck, I wouldn’t be able to get my first finger next to the highwire. But by angling in like this, I get it in perfect position. Now this is easier to do with big hands, so your results may vary. Speaking of which, I’ve got my thumb muting the 6th string on this chord, too. Once you’re in position, test the chord and feel and listen for problems. You’ve now completed the first repetition of the exercise. Use your anchor finger as you move back to A--you’ll need to scoot it back a bit to make room for your other fingers, and begin your second rep.

Pause the video now, and do 10-20 reps of this exercise. 20 would be great, but we’ve got two more exercises like this one coming up, so don’t spend all your money here.

[Pause Screen]

Now let’s practice A and E, back and forth. Start with A, and this time, when you move to E, your first finger is a lead finger scooting to the first fret. Assemble an E chord, remembering to arch, get next to the highwire--your first finger’s probably hidden from view, so it might be prudent to peek around your other fingers and confirm it’s in the front seat, and in this chord, your second finger gets crowded back by your third a bit, so just nestle it up as close as you can against the third finger, and you’ll need to press a bit harder too. All six strings should ring on this chord, so no thumb muting. Once you’re in position, test the chord, feel and listen for problems, then return to A using your lead finger to start your second rep. Do 10-20 reps of this exercise.

[Pause Screen]

Finally, work on E and D, back and forth, again using your first finger as a lead finger. 10-20 reps.

[Pause Screen]

Obviously, you have a ton to think about when you first start doing these exercises. But after you’ve done them a few times, you should notice that it takes less vigilance and less work to get your chords to sound good, and your fingers move more quickly. That’s great, that means you’re building muscle memory. Once you think you can handle some more distractions, move on to the next lesson, where you’ll practice using these chords in your song.

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