Playing your first chord is an exciting milestone in any guitarist’s learning curve. Hearing a chord ring out as you strum is one of the most satisfying markers of progress, opening up a whole other world of playing possibilities.
That’s the up side; but what if you feel like your chords just don’t sound right? Do they sound disjointed, clumsy or lacking in clarity? No matter how hard you try, are you finding yourself at a loss as to why your chords sound bad, but you just can’t put your finger on it? Undoubtedly, this is something that all guitarists have come across at some point – you’re not the only one – and there are some easy ways to fine-tune your chord playing so that you can produce clean, bright, pleasing tones rather than dull dissonant ones.
Bad sounds first
To help you understand the reasons why your chords might sound bad, one thing you can do is to learn what those bad sounds are and how they are created. This way, you can make a conscious effort to avoid these actions.
For example, you may have heard the term ‘fret buzz’ – this is the muffled, buzzing sound created when the string isn’t making proper contact with the fret wire (as you attempt to play a note).
The 3 Ps Process for Clean Chords
If in doubt, you can always use this handy process when you’re trying to clean up your chord technique. It consists of 3 things for you to think about in order to get a clear and rich sound from your guitar:
- Are you fretting fingers close enough to the fret? If not, move them up the neck as close to the fret as possible
- Are you accidentally muting any strings with your hand?
- Are you applying enough pressure to avoid fret buzz?
- Are you applying too much pressure and causing the note to be pushed out of tune?
- Pick each string individually in the chord to listen out for any of these problems. If something doesn’t sound quite right, go back through the three steps until you get a clean sound.
6 Point Hand Position Check
If you’re still having trouble figuring out why you can’t get the clean tone that you want, we can take it back 1 step more and check that there aren’t any bad habits developing in the initial formation of your chord (the hand positioning).
We’re going to divide the hand into 6 areas that are worth thinking about when perfecting your chord shapes.
Your thumb pad should be resting on the top-side of the neck or pushing on the back.
Your wrist shouldn’t be bent too much; it should only bend when you are playing barre chords.
Try not to press your palm right up against the back of the neck, leave a little space. The only exception here is when you might have to play a chord using your thumb to fret a note on the low E string, however, this is very rare.
- Base of fingers
With some chords, you may find yourself accidentally muting the high E string. The culprit is often the base of your index finger. Try to keep a bigger gap between this space if you find this is happening.
- Finger joints
Your finger joints should be nice and curled when fretting notes. If you flatten them out more, you’ll begin to find that you end up muting notes in the chord.
Your fingertips should be centred over the strings, not slipping off to either side. Otherwise, once again, you may mute other strings that should be ringing out..
What is tucking?
Another bad habit that can be common in beginner guitarists is something called ‘tucking’. This is when the unused fingers in a chord shape are tucked underneath the neck of the guitar, as if to keep them out of the way (particularly the little finger). However, whilst it might seem like a good idea to keep them clear, this becomes a problem when you come to transitioning between chords: before you can make the next chord shape, you have to pull the finger(s) out from underneath the neck. The better practice is to rest the unused finger on another (if it’s the little finger, rest it on your ring finger), then you’ll be ready to play the next chord in the sequence more easily.
Are you strumming the right strings?
As you may already be aware, not all chords require you to strum all six strings, some don’t even require five strings, but this can be a key reason for your chords not sounding quite right – you might be strumming another string which is adding a note that doesn’t belong to the chord.
For example, when you play a D chord, only the top 4 strings should be strummed. If you’re accidentally strumming all 6, this could be why it’s not sounding quite right to you.
As a beginner, it can be hard to hear if you’re doing this, but if you use the last part of the 3 Ps process, you can pick through each string and try to hear if one or more strings sound ‘off’.
Another way to stop yourself from strumming the wrong string is simply to learn the formulas for all the basic open chords. This will come easily over time and before you know it, you’ll be hitting the right strings without even thinking about it.
Guitar for Busy Beginners
If you’re reading this but feeling like you still need a little more guidance, my Guitar for Busy Beginners course is aimed at people exactly like you. We start with the very basics and work our way through the anatomy of the guitar, how to achieve a clean sound, chords and strumming, all the way up to playing your first song.
Using a combination of videos, diagrams and downloadable PDFs, the course is entirely online, so you can learn at your own pace, whenever is convenient for you. You’ll be able to track your progress and re-visit any lessons you want to go over again, plus, I’m always at hand if you have any questions.
You can check it out here and even get the first two modules of the course free: