The Chord Shift Formula: How to Shift Cleanly to a Chord

Have you ever missed a chord shift in a piece of music? You’re playing along fine. Then the music demands you jump to a higher position on the guitar neck.

It can be like threading a needle in the dark – very tricky to get right.

The Problem: Shifting to a Chord on Guitar

Shifting up to a higher position on the guitar while also grabbing a chord – this is the challenge.

When we do this well, we can boast the following:

  • The timing stays steady – no slowing down to make the leap
  • All the notes of the chord are clearly audible. No buzzed notes.
  • Our left hand lands in its ideal form and position
  • The volume of the chord is appropriate for the music

This is a tall order. Many things can go wrong.

One way we can stack the deck in our favor is to separate the issues and practice them one by one.

The Different Ingredients of the Chord Shift

Divide and conquer. That’s the age-old advice. So let’s take it.

To shift up or down to a chord, we have two separate issues. First, the fingers must make the chord shape. Next, we must shift the hand to the new position.

The Guitar Fingers

The left-hand fingers must be able to move gracefully to the notes of the new chord. Each finger must land squarely in its place. We much switch chords with accuracy and precision.

If any finger is out of place, notes will buzz or thump. Strings will mute. Our chord will be a mess and we’ll know the bitter taste of defeat.

The Guitar Shift

Apart from the chord, we must successfully shift to the new position. Shifting is an arm and shoulder movement. We use big muscles to move the entire hand from one position on the guitar neck to another.

Take It One (half-) Step at a Time

Our strategy? To take these two elements (fingers and shift) and practice them first one then the next. Then, combine them (more on this in moment).

Step One: Fingers Only

First, practice playing the notes before the shift, and then the shift-chord. But do not make the shift. Stay in the same fret position on the guitar. This will likely sound terrible. But it’s all in the name of art.

The goal at this step is to train the fingers to move smoothly to the new chord shape. And to do this, we remove the distraction of the shift. The new chord lands in the same position as the old.

Doing this, we can maintain lovely form in our left hand. We can find the ideal wrist position, finger curvature, everything. We can make it all as effortless and elegant as possible.

We can also note the tension in our arms, wrists, hands and face. We can train this transition to be as gentle as a balloon on the breeze. No excess tensing, grabbing or jerking.

Once the fingers can play through the section without the shift, we can then re-introduce it.

Step Two: Add the Shift, Fret By Fret

Instead of adding the shift back in all at one time, we can take it in smaller steps.

First we can play the left-hand notes and new chord, landing just one fret up from the starting point. This will still sound unpleasant.

We can practice keeping our hand position, form, muscle-tone, etc. moving just one fret. Then two.

Trust the Process, Relax and Do the Work

Then, going as slowly as need be, we can work our way up to the written notes. Fret by fret, we get there.

When we practice this way, we should be able to calmly and reliably shift to the new position. And when we’re done, chord will be beautiful.

If anything ever backslides or comes undone, we can return to the process. We can take it one small step at a time. This takes practice and attention. And that means patience and focus. But it lets us play lightly through the most treacherous of chord shifts.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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