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Installment #1 - Chord Tune Up

This week's practice tip is on how to learn new chords or improve your facility with chords you may know but have trouble playing smoothly or quickly, hence the name "Chord Tune Up." Even if you know your chords pretty well this is a good procedure to teach if you have students.

Playing chords smoothly and quickly is hampered if you have one or more of the following technical problems:

1. flamming
2. inconsistent finger placement
3. excessive or insufficient finger pressure

Let's describe these problems.

1. "Flamming" means that your fingers land on the fingerboard one by one. The term comes from the drum world, where a "flam" means one drum stick (intentionally) hits slightly later than the other. On guitar, flams are caused by learning to play chords one finger at a time, but instead of replacing this motion with an all-at-once technique the motion is simply sped up, which often makes for slowed or sloppy execution.

2. Inconsistent finger placement means that you don't know exactly where your fingers should land, and as such the placement varies each time. Sometimes notes that should be there aren't, or notes that shouldn't be there are, because your fingers miss the correct strings altogether or otherwise land in the wrong place.

3. Excessive or insufficient finger pressure is self-explanatory, and can result in strings being pulled out of tune or some notes being muffled.

So, on to the Chord Tune Up. Begin with playing a chord that you want to learn or be able to play better. Build the chord one finger at a time, and strive for good placement, mostly on the tips of the fingers. Press the fingers down and hold the chord, but play each note individually and listen carefully to its sound. Make any adjustments you need in your fingering until the chord sounds full and resonant. Then, take a moment to notice what this feels like. If it feels tense at all try lightening the pressure, but still maintain the full sound with no buzzes. When you are happy with the sound and the feel, take a moment to memorize the sensation. You want a clear mental "picture" of what it feels and sounds like.

Then, relax your hand completely, but keep your fingers on the strings and in position. Remembering the sensation of the "happy" sound, press down simultaneously with all the fingers and play the chord again. It's very important to have all the fingers make the motion at once. I tell my students to think of this as like a light switch - all on, then all off. This motion is what you'll practice, making sure each time you press that the chord sounds clean and full, and then relax all fingers completely and simultaneously. Do several reps, like an exercise. Ten is a good number. If you get off track and the chord sounds less than ideal STOP, and begin from scratch. There's absolutely no benefit to practicing sloppily.

When you feel you can play the chord cleanly every time in this fashion you may lift your fingers slightly off the strings, and still try for a simultaneous landing. Gradually increase the distance. Your goal is to have your hand come from a resting position at your side, form the chord shape in flight, and have all fingers hit the strings at the same time.

By practicing chords this way you'll soon notice your speed and accuracy increasing, and it's a good exercise to revisit if you've had a layoff from playing and want to get your chops back fairly quickly.

© 2001 by Clay Moore; all rights reserved

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