Tips For Learning Chord Progressions
Tips to Learn Chord Progressions - Marc-Andre Seguin
There are so many platforms these days with so much media and information that it is almost too much to handle. If you go on YouTube and you are looking at guitar videos, you will probably see any number of ads for apps or instructionals that claim to have the quintessential guitar method. These programs always target beginners, and while some of these might be really good, it can definitely get exhausting. I will not be making any claims like this, but I will share with you the way that I learned to play chord progressions and what worked - or did not work - for me. I will not be discussing much of the theory aspect of chords here, but I would suggest getting into that early in your playing career or you will be left trying to catch up and many things will seem confusing.
Before moving on, this article requires that you are able to read chord charts. It’s fairly simple. Basically, the diagram is read as if you are holding a guitar up with the fretboard facing you. Any markings are frets that you would play. A “0” above the string, means that string is played open. An “X” above the string means you do not play that string. Lastly, an arc or a thick black line over a set of strings means that you bar that set of strings by placing your finger across multiple strings.
Here’s an example with everything we just mentioned for reference:
Now that we understand how to read chord charts, let’s go ahead and discuss how we can approach chord progressions. In this article, I will mostly address chords belonging to the keys of G and C major. The shapes I will share with you today are open position chords, meaning they use open strings as well as the first few frets. To move these around to different keys, you will need what’s called a capo, which basically serves to move the nut around, so to speak. The good thing is that the shapes themselves don’t change!
First, let’s give you some chords to work with.
Before moving on to playing actual progressions, the most important thing is that you are able to get a good sound out of each chord. Make sure every note is audible as this is often the most difficult thing for beginners. At first, you will certainly be muting certain notes. This is just something you will have to work through in the beginning.
These are a few considerations with regard to getting a clear sound out of each note:
-POSTURE. Yes, like in school. Sit up straight. This will ensure that your hands don’t land in undesirable positions.
-Your grip should look like you are gripping a tennis ball. Try to avoid bending your DIP or fingertip joints and try to avoid pressing your palm up against the neck.
-You should be using the actual tips of your fingers to fret.
Once you feel like you’ve got a good sound out of each chord, it’s time to start trying to play them in succession. The best approach, in my opinion, is to take these in pairs then try to link them all together. Take the metronome, take the first two chords, and play them each four times to a metronome alternating between the two. Remember, take it SLOWLY. It’s important that you get a nice clean sound out of each note than it is to play it fast. I cannot stress enough how important this is. Lots of students come to me with bad habits and it is much more difficult to retrain than it is to learn correctly in the first place. Use the metronome and take it slowly. Additionally, a little bit each day goes a much longer way than trying to cram things into one session and not touching it for another week.
Assuming we play the chords in the order displayed above, your practice should look something like this:
G > C > G > C > G > C and so on…
C > Em > C > Em > C > Em
Em > Am > Em > Am > Em > Am
Then, you would link the first one back to the last one to begin the progression.
Am > G > Am > G and so on…
Once you feel comfortable making each of these transitions, you can go ahead and try the whole progression.
Play each chord four times with a metronome before moving on and then loop the progression.
G > C > Em > Am > G > C > Em > Am etc.
Now let’s add a few more chords in open position.
The F major, while it does not use any open strings, it is close enough to that part of the fretboard that we will group it with the rest of them.
Before moving on, I strongly recommend going over the theory that comes with chord construction and functional harmony. This will give you a better understanding of why chords move the way they do and how to create desired effects with specific progressions.
Now that we have got some more chords available to us, let’s come up with a few more progressions to give you some practice material.
G - Em - Am - D
C - Am - Dm - G
Em - C - G - D
Am - F - C - G
These progressions might sound very familiar. They have all been used to write thousands of songs - literally. As you practice them, take the same approach we discussed earlier. Take two chords at a time, slowly, and link them all together in the end. Doing things slowly and correctly is the key here. Not long after getting this stuff under your belt, you should go ahead and learn a bunch of songs. This is the best way, in my opinion, to see how songs and chord progressions are used to create different effects. The best way to advance in any trade or craft is to build upon what others have already done before you. This way, you will learn new shapes and new approaches as well as gain a better understanding of how certain concepts work.
Lastly, I encourage you to begin writing your own songs. The exploration involved with composing is far and away the most intrinsically rewarding part of playing music. The whole point of becoming proficient with progressions and really getting to know your instrument is so that you are able express yourself as fully and as honestly as possible.
About the Author
Marc-Andre Seguin is the webmaster, “brains behind” and teacher on JazzGuitarLessons.net, the #1 online resource for learning how to play jazz guitar. He draws from his experience both as a professional jazz guitarist and professional jazz teacher to help thousands of people from all around the world learn the craft of jazz guitar.