How to Learn New Guitar Chords: A Proprioception Exercise

Many guitar players spend a lot of time learning chords. And they practice switching between them.

We want our chord changes to be quick and accurate, preferably without looking.

But it’s hard at first. The strings are close together, and there’s not much room on those frets. We need to train our fingers to be precise and reliable.

All this takes time. But we can shorten that time using effective training methods.

A Powerful Way to Learn Chords More Easily

Below you’ll find a powerful way to learn chords more easily.

But first, what is proprioception?

We sometimes also hear it referred to as kinaesthesia (or kinesthesia).

It’s the sense of knowing where your fingers (or other body parts) are in space. Sometimes it’s called a ‘sixth sense’.

We can work directly on this system to learn chords faster. We can train the fingers to know more accurately where they are, and where they need to go.

This comes from the world of physical therapy. Some stroke victims lose control of their fingers. And this is one of the ways the pros work with these people to rebuild their ability to use their hands.

Let’s dive in…

Step One: Loading to Train the Brain

Let’s take a C chord. The goal is to find a C chord without looking.

The first step is The Bounce.

Place your fingers on the chord, and then bounce your fingers up and down in this position.

Don’t raise your fingers too high off the strings. Just press and release. Load and unload.

Do this a few times until it is comfortable and accurate.

Once we’re happy with C, we can do the same exercise with other chords. And we can practice switching between them, bouncing a few times on each.

Step Two: To Learn Chords Faster, Don’t Look

The next step is to Look Away.

Bounce on your chord several times, and then look away and continue to bounce.

We should feel that we’re finding the chord easily. If not, we need to go back to watching our fingers for a bit longer before trying again.

Step Three: Play Air Guitar

The third step is Air Guitar.

Make the chord shape in the air. You don’t even need to be near the fretboard.

This is a bit harder, and the shape won’t be perfect. Just get used to flipping your fingers into that typical C chord shape.

Then we can practice switching from one ‘air’ chord to another.

Step Four: The Hover Game – Snap to New Positions but Don’t Touch

Let’s add some extra coordination to this.

Step four is the Hover.

Bring your guitar back.

Choose a chord. Hover your fingers over it, but don’t touch the strings. (It’s fine to look.) Hover first, and then drop gently down onto the fretboard.

This is a combination of the earlier exercises.

When we are comfortable hovering over a chord, or series of chords, we can try it without looking.

Every so often, take your fingers away, wiggle them, and start again.

Mind the Fundamentals

While we’re working on these exercises, it’s a good idea to keep in mind good form. We should take care of our hand position and wrist position.

And short nails on the left hand also help.

Form and Positioning

If we want our chords to be accurate – so they sound clean – we need to keep our fingering consistent.

When we do the bounce exercise, we need to ensure that we are up on our fingertips. We should press the strings down as closely behind the fret as possible. All without touching the fret wire.

Bodily Awareness and Appropriate Tension

The hovering exercise can help us to develop finger movement without tension.

Unlike actually playing the chords, we don’t need to hold down strings or squeeze the neck. The muscles move the fingers.

This reminds us that we should use as little pressure as necessary when we hold down notes or chords.

Appropriate Tension

Let’s take the bounce exercise a step further.

Slow down the bounce, and strum the chord repeatedly as your fingers begin to touch the strings. You’ll hear the open strings ring, but the fretted ones are still muted.

You should hear the sound get clearer as the string is pressed behind the fret.

You can do this with individual notes as well.

It’s a good way to judge how little pressure we need to get a chord to sound clean. Ideally, we play with enough pressure, but not too much.

Practice Methods Like This Move Us Forward

Proprioception exercises like the one above train our fingers to know where they are. Then, when we need the chord, the fingers are more apt to snap to the right position.

Exercises like this one give us greater accuracy and speed. And that applies whether we are learning new chord shapes, or improving our shifts.

Thanks, Valerie!

Many thanks to Valerie Bender-Werth for her input on this article.

She’s a member of The Woodshed® Classical Guitar Program. And she’s also a physical therapist.

Valerie uses this technique with stroke patients to re-establish proprioception.

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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