What Every Beginning Guitar Player Should Know About Changing Guitar Chords

Placing your first guitar in your lap and hands is certainly a thrill. You are embarking on a exciting, new journey, with one of life's greatest pleasures. In our initial excitement and exuberance though, there is a human tendency to jump straight into it. As fast as we can and just go for it. Although there is a lot of fun, joy and rewarding times ahead, there is also a small warning that should not go unheard ...

When you first start to learn guitar chords, you will most likely experience 'growing pains' in your hands. The muscles and tendons in your hand are being stretched, with odd, uncomfortable movements. This is quite normal.

Up until this point in your life, when you have now put a guitar in your hands, you have probably used your hands only for what they were designed for - gripping, pulling and holding.

You're about to begin to twist and contort your hands into strange and unusual positions. When studying your first chord diagrams, this will feel totally foreign to you and your hands - here, is where you need to exercise a little caution.

Your hands, unlike larger muscle groups – thighs, biceps and shoulders, have many tiny tendons, ligaments, muscles and bones in them. Due to their size, they are more delicate than your arm or leg muscles. Your hands will need to adjust slowly to the new 'workout' you are giving them. It is not unusual to feel some strain in your forearm, wrist and hand itself, when placing your hands and fingers into position at first. Forcing them into position may cause sharp, acute pain. If there is pain in your hand, STOP!

Playing with a sore hand (often caused by poor hand position, excessive strain and over stretching) may cause long term damage to all the miraculous things that are hidden underneath the skin of your hand. This will not only cause you discomfort but severely limit your playing pleasure and progress. Give it a rest for an hour or so - maybe for the day. You definitely don't want to push through at this time.

As you practice placing your fingers in the position of the chords, do not overstretch your hand. An open position C and G chord, for beginner guitar players, presents a lot of pressure on your fretting hand to perform. At first, your hand may 'feel the strain' as this is a large, unusual stretch for most hand types. The open C major chord presents its own, unique challenges for first-timers.

This chord requires your fingers to be placed across three different frets at the same time. For most people, this will feel hard and difficult for a while. The muscles in your hand need to develop in their own time. You not only have to place enough pressure down, through all three fingers and fingertips, to sound the notes cleanly, but to stretch across the three frets at the same time. This is physically demanding and strenuous for most hand types.

Due to how the notes lay out on the guitar and their shapes at first it is totally foreign, and feels near impossible to get your hands into position. Most people believe at this stage that the guitar is too hard and give up and quit. What they didn't do is seek expert counsel before making the decision to put the guitar in 'too-hard-basket'. Here is what to do before you quit and give up.

If your hands are physically not able to reach all the notes to play the chord, begin by putting only two fingers down at a time. Don't expect to get your hand into position by force. This is a false expectation. Your hand will get there. It will be able to play the chord comfortably in time.

Place your first two fingers only in position (in this case with the C chord, it will be fingers one and two) and a little at time, day by day, slowly and gradually move your third finger into position. You are playing for pleasure here - not pain. Keep your two fingers in position as you slowly move your third finger into the wider stretch. Think of it as like you’re at the gym. You start out on the lower weights and gradually add more weights as your body and muscles develop.

For the open G chord, the problem for most beginning guitar players is the stretch between the third finger on the high thin string and the second finger on the low, thick string. If this is the case for you, place your first finger and third finger in position only. Use the instructions above for the C chord and gradually add the second finger as more flexibility develops in your hand and fingers.

Everybody's hands are different. This may take you a couple of hours or a few days to a few weeks before you see results. However, if it takes you longer, remember that nothing worthwhile is easy to get. The point is: don't strain your hand. Don't force it. With some practice and time, your hand will gain more dexterity and accuracy. It will become more flexible. With patience and caution you will get the chord, which will give you many years of playing pleasure and happiness.


About the author: Allen Hopgood is a professional guitar teacher on the Gold Coast of Australia. Since beginning to play guitar at the age of thirteen he has shared the stage with some of Australia's biggest musical acts. He is the director of the only guitar school in his city.