While foundational to the guitar, learning new chords can be difficult to master and commit to memory. In the following article, we’re going to learn how to memorize guitar chords using a combination of repetition and reconsolidation, plus a handy practice tip to ensure you don’t forget the chords you already know while learning new chords. So, if you are having trouble memorizing guitar chords stay tuned! However, if you don’t have time to read the complete article the summary below will help you get started:
Memorizing guitar chords relies on developing muscle memory through repetition. The brain receives feedback through repetition that helps refine and master the fine motor skills required for committing chord shapes to muscle memory. In 2016 researchers at The John Hopkins University discovered that introducing subtle modifications while performing repetitive tasks led to even faster skill mastery.
The Art of Repetition
All movement requires brain activity which is fine-tuned through repetition, playing chords on the guitar is no different.
Our muscles can’t think for themselves, but neurons connected to the muscle fibers attach to the body’s central nervous system and as a person masters a new skill, changes in brain matter can be observed. Over time repetition of a movement helps the brain establish patterns, eventually allowing the movement to be performed with less brain activity.
In the case of memorizing guitar chords, this means the brain adapts through repetition that requires a combination of accuracy, dexterity, finger strength, and stamina. The process involves neural networks working together allowing information to be transferred across multiple regions of the brain.
Muscle adaptation also occurs resulting in greater strength and stamina, but primarily with each repetition, the brain learns more about the requirements of the technique through sensory feedback, eventually leading to less conscious thought being required to perform the task e.g. the guitarist appears to be playing on auto-pilot.
The importance of repetition was put best by Tommy Emmanuel when visiting Berklee College of Music in 2009:
‘I need repetition to become better at what I’m doing and to learn how to train my hands to do what I need them to do. Repetition is my weapon, my friend, and is something that I use all the time. We’re learning motor skills; we’re trying to teach our bodies something they’ve never done before. And 9 times out of 10 they don’t want to do it.
(Perfect) Practice Makes Perfect
If repetition is critical (practice makes perfect) it shouldn’t be at the expense of technique (perfect practice makes perfect).
Poor technique will have a detrimental effect on your playing in the future, as you progress toward using more complex chords (e.g. movable barre chords, 7th & extended chords).
Athletes, such as martial artists know this only too well.
Repeating mistakes during training leads to a loss of productive time, dedicated to ironing out technical flaws, developed through poor technique combined with repetition. The fact is practicing something over and over incorrectly will hinder long-term development.
So while repetition plays an outsized role in learning new guitar chords. The foundation of good technique e.g. posture and hand position are critical in terms of developing a good technique to accompany muscle memory.
With this in mind, below are a few tips specific to the guitar you should keep in mind before practicing repetition:
- Be mindful of posture
Good posture alleviates tension through the body that would otherwise affect your neck, shoulders, arms, wrists, and hands leading to a lack of accuracy that is exacerbated by fatigue. If your posture is correct the wrist should feel very little tension when playing chords.
- Use the correct fingers
If you are new to learning chords, utilize chord charts that indicate the correct fingers to use. Correct finger placement allows for cleaner, easier chord changes through the use of a pivot finger for example.
- Play with the tips of the fingers
This isn’t possible if fretting more than one string with one finger (as is the case with barre chords), but where possible fret notes with the tips of the fingers to make cleaner contact with the strings rather than the thicker, fleshier part of the fingers.
- Fretting hand positon
Contrary to popular belief you shouldn’t aim for the middle of the fret when playing a note. Instead, aim to keep your fingers just behind the firewire to increase the break angle of the string over the fret wires resulting in cleaner, more defined notes.
- Thumb position
Your thumb should sit approximately halfway up the back of the neck in line with the index finger. The thumb may move around a little depending on what you are playing but try to keep the thumb upright. This makes it easier to increase the grip strength between the thumb and fingers. If your thumb is sore or aches after playing it’s likely your thumb placement could do with some work.
- Try to land all fingers at once
Pretty simple. When playing chords try to land all fingers in place together rather than one at a time or your chord changes will sound sloppy.
Which Chords to Learn First
I’ve written an article on the most common chords to learn, as these will allow you to play a huge number of beginner songs, but in a nutshell, my recommendation would be to work through the following list of open chords, at least to begin with, before taking on the remaining major and minor chords:
- G Major, Cadd9
- E Major, A minor
- E minor, A Major
- D Major, D minor
Learning these chords first will allow you to play real music rather than focusing on exercises.
You might notice the chords are grouped in pairs. The reason for this is the chords are similar and require only subtle adjustments to transition between.
For example, once you can play a G Major chord, it’s relatively simple to transition to Cadd9 as you retain the two fingers on the B and E string and drop the index and middle finger down a string each, as per the example below.
In the case of E Major, once you are comfortable with this chord shape simply drop each finger down a string, mute the 6th string and you have A minor.
The same goes for E minor which requires one additional finger, along with muting the 6th string, and you have A Major.
And, lastly, once you can play D major you can keep the ring finger as a pivot (meaning it stays in place) and we simply swap around the index and middle fingers so the index is playing the 1st fret on the high E string and the middle finger on the 2nd fret of the G string.
If you need a refresher on reading chord charts click here.
How to practice memorizing chords
We’ve discussed the traps to avoid with regard to technique, covered the most common chords to learn, and discussed the importance of repetition, but how does one put all of this into practice?
The most effective way to familiarize yourself with a new chord shape through repetition is to play the chord, release tension from the fretting hand and then grip the chord again. e.g. squeeze the chord shape and release.
In practice, this would mean playing a G Major chord, for example, applying pressure to the strings for about 5-10 seconds and strumming the chord so the chord rings out nicely.
Then release tension from the fingers without removing the fingers from the fretboard completely, waiting 5-10 seconds, and then repeating.
Once you have performed this task for several minutes repeat the process but this time remove the fingers from the fretboard completely and then form the chord again and repeat.
As you can see we are gradually increasing the degree of difficulty, and instead of mindless repetition are introducing subtle variation. With this in mind, the next iteration would therefore be to remove the fingers from the fretboard completely, play a new chord or perform a random action with the fingers and then return to the original chord.
These subtle changes introduce the concept of reconsolidation e.g. making minor adjustments while performing a repetitive task, which has been studied at John Hopkins University and found to be beneficial in honing fine motor skills.
This means making minor adjustments as you play the chord shape e.g. focusing on coming from a different position on the neck, or playing a different chord between or changing the distance from the fretboard you move your hands. Don’t make the adjustments wildly different, making only minor adjustments to repetitive tasks is key to progressing faster.
Of course one of the keys to playing efficiently which lends itself to smoother chord changes and faster playing is to only lift the fingers as high as needed to change chord shapes. So when removing the fingers from the fretboard e.g. to play a new chord shape take care not to lift the hand too high of the neck and then reinforce that bad habit through repetition.
The Importance of Sleep
We all know the value of sleep, but in my experience, this is particularly important for guitar. If you have been playing for any period you have probably experienced burnout e.g. you might feel regardless of how much time you are putting in you don’t feel you are improving.
If this is the case put the guitar down. Like training in the gym, adaptation occurs outside the gym, despite the initial stimulation occurring inside.
I can’t tell you how many times I have attempted to learn something, overdone it and experienced burnout, and then woken up the next day to find the exercise feels substantially easier.
Tips and Tricks for Memorizing Chords
Don’t Rush it
It might be tempting to try to learn several chords at once, but you are better off learning 1 or perhaps 2 chords per session. This will allow you to reinforce the chord shape more effectively. From there, ensure you continue practicing the chords you have learned along with learning new chords.
The same goes for learning songs.
Reinforce what you already know
When you learn a new piece make sure you don’t leave the songs you are already familiar with behind. This can be handled through a dedicated practice routine e.g. once warmed up practice your older material first and then dedicate a portion of your practice time to learning new music, or chords and scales.
Focus on Music
While guitar theory, particularly concerning how chords are constructed is important, especially when constructing more complex chords when you master your initial chords you won’t be thinking about the individual notes at all, but rather the specific shapes.
Theory can come later, first, you need to adjust to the mechanics of the guitar and there’s no way better way to accomplish that than playing real music. Learn songs that contain the chords you have learned and look to improve in terms of your timing, accuracy, and ability to play cleanly.
Practice daily, even if you only have limited time. Focusing on consistent practice is more important with regard to skills-based learning than cognitive learning.
Honing your fine motor skills is key to memorizing chords on the guitar.
Repetition e.g. playing a new chord shape 5-10 minutes per day for 1-2 weeks, reconsolidation e.g. focusing on introducing subtle variation into your practice, and then reconsolidating and focusing on technique will allow you to learn faster and ensure you are developing the necessary skills to continually progress.