10 Tips to Make Your Chords Sound Cleaner

author: beginnerguitarn date: 07/15/2013 category: for beginners
rating: 8.9 / votes: 73 
10 Tips to Make Your Chords Sound Cleaner
Many beginning guitarists have problems getting each and every note to ring clean in their chords. People with small hands complain their hands are too small. People with big hands complain their hands are too big. I've seen huge dudes play ukuleles and tiny women playing giant Gibson jumbos. So the hands that you have can and will work fine with a few helpful tips along the way. And what do ya know?... Here's the helpful tips right here. Important: Like everything else on guitar, this is about developing muscle memory. Practice and patience will take you a long way here. These tips aren't a magical immediate cure-all, but they will make the process go faster. But you'll have to have patience with yourself to make these tiny adjustments over and over as your fingers learn where they're supposed to be. I think all of us at one time or another would have happily thrown our guitars out a 10th story window than attempt that stupid F chord again. When frustration sets in, take a break for a few minutes and come back to it. There are only 3 reasons a note doesn't come out clean:
  • Your finger isn't pressing down hard enough
  • Your finger isn't close enough to the fret
  • A finger on the string next to your dead note is rubbing up against it Let's look at some ways to avoid those problems...

    1. Work on just two chords at a time.

    If you're playing a song that's got 6 or 8 chords in it, you'll go insane trying to learn them all at once. Break them down into pairs and go back and forth between those two chords until you've got them both clean. Then move on to the next pair. For best results, overlap your pairs. Example: Your chord progression is C G7 Am F. Work C and G7 together. Then G7 and Am. Then Am and F. Then F and C.

    2. Make sure your fingers are as close to the fret as possible.

    There's sometimes confusion on this. So to be clear about this, I'm talking about the fret wire immediately higher on the fretboard from where your finger is. So if you're playing a note on the 2nd fret, your finger should be right up against the 2nd fret wire, not the 1st. You won't always be able to get every single finger in the chord right up to the fret, but come as close as you can. The further back from the fret you are, the harder you need to press down. Otherwise you'll get a buzzy sound instead of a clean note.

    3. Make sure you're pressing down hard enough.

    This may seem obvious, but I have had students so new to the process that they didn't realize they had to push the strings down at all. If you've checked off everything else here and you're still getting a dead or buzzy note, sometimes a little extra pressure will do the trick. You shouldn't have to press down super hard if the rest of your hand is in the right position, as you'll see in the next step. But if you feel like you need to work on the strength of your hands, you can exercise them. Instead of buying one of those expensive guitar finger strength trainer things, go to the tennis department at a sporting goods store. You should be able to find a little foam grip exerciser that only costs a couple bucks. It's a bit more effective than just using a rubber ball of something because it keeps your fingers in a relative guitar-like position.

    4. Make sure your thumb is in the right position.

    Ah, the notorious thumb... An incorrect thumb position can sabotage everything else you try in cleaning up your chords. The pad of your thumb should be on the back of the neck, flat, and pointed towards the ceiling. It may move around slightly from chord to chord, but that's your best default position. DON'T use any of the following thumb positions:
  • Thumb popped up over the top of the fretboard - Later we'll use that when bending strings, but not now. Having your thumb popped up over the top means you're using the little muscles at the base of your fingers to press with instead of the giant muscle attached to your thumb. You're working too hard! If someone watching you play from the front can see your thumb, it's probably to high.
  • Thumb pointing towards the headstock - This sort of move, where your whole thumb is laid out lengthwise along the neck, inhibits the movement of your fingers drastically. Keep it pointed towards the ceiling to open up your stretch and mobility.
  • Thumb bent at the first knuckle - Bending at the knuckle changes the angle of your palm and fingers in ways that make things more difficult. Make sure to keep you thumb straight.

    5. Use the tips of your fingers, not the pads.

    You want to use the smallest and hardest part of your finger to press the strings. That's the tip (where you'll be developing a lovely set of calluses) rather than the squishy pad of your finger. Related to this idea is making sure that your fingers are arched like a hook. You don't want straight, flat fingers. Put a little curl in them and stay up on the tips of your fingers. You should be able to slip a pencil under the arch of your fingers if you're doing it correctly.

    6. Check each string of the chord to make sure it's clean.

    While holding down the whole chord, pick each individual note to make sure it's clean. When you find a muffled one adjust the finger on that string (or the one next door if it's rubbing) just enough to get the string clean. This is the real patience portion of your practice. When you adjust one note another might go out of whack. Keep adjusting each note until all the fingers hit the right spot and the chord is clean. Then release the chord and do it again. Want to make this process go faster? Do this step with your eyes closed. We navigate the fretboard by touch, not sight. And eventually you'll be able to clean up a muffled note just by the feel under your fingers. Your fingers are the second most touch-sensitive part of your body. (I'm sure you can guess where the first is...) and closing your eyes will enhance your sense of touch. So making these adjustments with your eyes closed will further engage both the parietal (touch) and occipital (visual) lobes in your brain.

    7. Practice partial chords first.

    This isn't my favorite tip, but it works for some people. If you're working on say, a C major chord, trying getting just the 4th and 5th strings clean first, without worrying about holding down the rest of the chord. Then add in the 3rd string. Then the 2nd and 1st. The reason I don't particularly like this idea is that every time you add a new finger in, it slightly changes the position of the other two and you're almost starting over again. But for some people it works well. And it offers little rewards for your work along the way. So feel free to try it out. These next two tips are specifically for closed position (barre) chords.

    8. Roll your first finger to the side.

    On a barre chord, your first finger has a lot of work to do. Instead of pressing down with your first finger flat (on the squishy pad part), roll it slightly out (towards the headstock) to use the harder side of your finger. This should also open up the mobility of your other fingers a bit too.

    9. Start with chords higher on the neck and work your way down.

    Part of the reason that dastardly F chord is harder is because it's right next to the nut where the string tension is highest. So you have press the strings a lot harder. Start by practicing barre chords higher up the neck in the 5th or 7th fret area where the strings are a little easier to press. Then work your way down to the 1st fret.

    10. If you've been patient with yourself over a period of weeks working on this and you're still not able to get a nice clear, chimey chord sound, there are a couple things you can try.

    If you're having trouble pressing the strings down hard enough, you can try a lighter gauge of strings. Depending on your guitar, you may need a new set up on it to get the guitar to tune right. If you're still having trouble keeping your fingers from rubbing up against the other strings, you might try a guitar with a wider neck. That will give you a bit more space between the strings. Hit a guitar shop and tell them you're looking for something with a wide neck. Then sit down and play some chords on it and see if it helps. Beyond these 10 tips, the most important ingredient is patience. When your fingers and your brain get tired, leave it for a few minutes, do something else, and come back to it. Don't give up. Everyone's hands are a little bit different and take some experimentation to get everything in the right place. You wouldn't expect to be able to hit a 3-pointer with a basketball every single time without a lot of patience and practice. Your guitar is no different. You can do this. Just keep doing it. Also, there is one other concept you need to know about that is really the best way to learn guitar and put me out of business.
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