Practicing Chords by Rick Gartner
magazine, January 1980

    CHORDS ARE FUNDAMENTAL ELEMENTS in the musical vocabulary of fretted string instrument players. The theoretical complexities and the manual contortions involved in the playing of some chords can bring a cold sweat to the brows of even experienced musicians. But just as with any branch of musical knowledge, there is an unintimidating place to begin, and there is always something more to learn.
    This month we will focus our attention on learning to read chord diagrams and on working to develop left-hand control. The chord diagrams and on working to develop left-hand control. the chord diagrams will be for guitar, but both the information on reading the diagrams and the exercises for developing left-hand technique can also be applied to banjo and mandolin playing. For further reference, Charlie Tagawa offers a good selection of 4-string banjo chords in his column this month. David Grisman did likewise in his August 1979 mandolin column.
    Chord diagrams should convey the following information: the strings that should convey the following information: the strings that should be stopped (held down), where (at which fret) the strings should be stopped, which strings should be played open (unstopped), and which strings (if any) should not be played. Unfortunately, a Three Chords That Ruled The World songbook may not include all of the necessary information, and a Four Billion Guitar Chords book may overwhelm you with excess information. But if you first concentrate on learning a few properly fingered chord positions, you can avoid frustration and maximize the payoff of your practice time.

Reading Chord Diagrams

    Three guitar chord diagrams are shown below, in Ex. 1. The vertical lines represent the strings (low-sounding strings at the left), and the horizontal lines represent the frets. The uppermost (and thickest) horizontal line represents the nut, the notched fitting that guides the strings from the fretboard to the tuning pegs. the next line represents the first fret.
    The positioning of the dots indicates which strings to stop (hold down), and where (at which fret) to stop the strings. The number to the right of each dot specifies the left-hand finger that should stop the string (index finger = 1; middle finger = 2; ring finger = 3; little finger = 4).
    An "O" at the top of the diagram indicates a string that is to be played open (unstopped), while an "X" indicates a string that should not be played in that particular chord.
    If you're having a problem understanding the format of the chord diagrams, hold your instrument in front of you (with the frets facing you) to duplicate the perspective of the diagrams.



Left-Hand Position

    Proper positioning of the left hand is very important because it has a significant effect on clarity of tone and ease of movement. There are several rules of left-hand positioning that are essential in hte development of good technique, and getting started with good technique saves you from the nemesis of having to correct faulty technique later on. Here are a few basic left-hand concepts and some of the reasons for their importance:
    1. Fingers should be arched at the joints so that the fingertips come down squarely on the strings (see illustrations at right). This is the opposite of "flat-fingered" playing, which decreases mobility and tends to "bend," or pull the strings (causing the notes to sound out of tune). However, it is necessary to flatten the first finger when playing barre chords, in which you stop two or more strings simultaneously.
    2. Fingers should contact the strings just slightly behind the frets; the further back (away from the frets) you go, the more pressure is required to stop the strings, and the likelihood of fret buzzing is increased. But in some situations (the A chord is a good example) it is impossible to stop all the notes immediately adjacent to the frets because of the complexity and the spatial requirements of certain fingering combinations.
    3. The thumb should stay near the middle of the back side of the neck, approximately opposite the first and second fingers (see illustration below). The thumb provides leverage as a counter pressure for your fingers. If your thumb wraps around the neck you lose the counter pressure, which makes your fingers work much harder and decreases your mobility. Many well-known players learned to play with their thumbs wrapped around the neck; Doc Watson [Frets, Mar. '79] is one. But today, Doc says he thinks the centered approach is more flexible.
    4. Fingers should always hover close to the strings when they are not stopping a string. The farther away your fingers are, the farther back they must go to stop the next required note. Economy of motion is a general principle that applies to all stringed instrument players.
    5. The left arm should hang in a natural, relaxed manner. Your elbow should not rest against your body, but should be just far enough away from your body to allow your hand to address the fretboard at approximately a 90-degree angle.



Practicing Chord Changes

    The most important thing to remember when you play chords is that each chord must be pressed down as a unit, not as a group of separate notes that are pressed down one at a time. An exercise that I call the "slam-down drill" is very helpful in establishing the habit of pressing down each chord as a unit.
    First, press down aa A chord. Second, lift your fingers off the strings (one-half inch or so) as a unit, keeping them in the chord formation. Third, press your fingers back down onto the strings as a unit, firmly and quickly. If any of your fingers miss their proper position in the chord (they probably will the first few times), correct them and repeat the procedure.
    When you feel comfortable with the A chord, do the same exercise with the D and the E chords. Then practice the slam-down drill on chord changes. Start with A, then go to D, then go to E. Correct all fingering mistakes as you go.
    The next step is to strum while you play the chords. The most important thing to remember is to keep your strum going even if you miss a chord change. Make your left hand catch up with your right hand. Don't stop your strum to accommodate a chord change.