Beginner Guitar Lesson 1: How To Read Chord Diagrams and Switch In Time From Em to A

If you have attempted to learn guitar before, you have likely seen the diagram above.  It can seem a little confusing at first, but with some orientation you will see it as a simple graphic representation of the fretboard.  Think of it as though someone took a picture of the end of the fretboard with the headstock angled upwards.  The top line of the diagram represents the nut of the guitar, the place where the fretboard ends and the headstock begins*.  Each horizontal line below the top line represents a fret, so the line below the top line represents the first fret.  The line below that represents the third fret and so on.  Each vertical line represents a string starting from the Low E at the left side and progressing to the High E on the right side.

If you have attempted to learn guitar before, you have likely seen the diagram above.  It can seem a little confusing at first, but with some orientation you will see it as a simple graphic representation of the fretboard.  Think of it as though someone took a picture of the end of the fretboard with the headstock angled upwards.  The top line of the diagram represents the nut of the guitar, the place where the fretboard ends and the headstock begins*.  Each horizontal line below the top line represents a fret, so the line below the top line represents the first fret.  The line below that represents the third fret and so on.  Each vertical line represents a string starting from the Low E at the left side and progressing to the High E on the right side.

In the middle of the diagram, you will notice some black dots; these represent where you will place your finger to produce the given chord shape (which is labeled at the top).  Beneath each dot, at the bottom of the diagram, you will see number which indicate which fingers to use (1=forefinger, 2=middle finger, 3= ring finger, 4=pinky and T=thumb).  The open circles above the diagram indicate strings you will play open when strumming.

How to Make the Em Chord

Now let’s make the E minor chord above by placing our first finger on the second fret of the A string and our second finger on the second fret of the D string.  When you have them placed, be sure your fingers are on their tips, your thumb is in the middle of the back of the neck as though you are leaving a thumbprint and the neck passes over the middle of your palm with adequate space to allow the High E to ring out.

Next we will strum the Em chord.  When we strum we use a compound motion, which means two movements at once.  The first uses our bicep and tricep to extend and contract out forearm at the elbow joint.  The second is our loosely forearm rotating from palm up to palm down (imagine you are trying to flick something onto the ceiling).  When we combine these two motions, we get a nice semi-circle pattern.  When we strum the strings, be mindful to use the force you would use to pet a dog or cat, dragging the pick through the strings fluidly, without jerking your arm like a punch.  Now let’s practice putting our left hand on our knee (a neutral position) then bringing it up to  grab an E minor chord and then strumming the chord.  Repeat this process 5-10 times.

Switching to the A chord

  From the E minor, we will learn to transition to A chord.  Begin by grabbing the Em chord then moving your first and second finger towards the floor one string each.  Now slide them away from the second fretwork just slightly so that you can fit your third finger on the second fret of the B string.  When making the A chord, it is important that we rotate our hand so all three fingers can get as close to second fret as possible for better leverage. Notice that there is an “X” over the Low E string on the A diagram.  This means we do not attack it on our strum.  To do this, simply use less elbow and more forearm rotation in your strum to create a smaller semi-circle.

Switching In Time

Now let’s practice switching back and forth from Em to A using the following process:

1. Fret the Em

2. Strum

3. Move the first and second fingers toward the floor one string each

4. Place the third finger at the second fret of the B string

5. Strum (avoiding the Low E)

6. Remove the third finger

7. Move the first and second fingers toward the floor one string each

8. Repeat steps 2-7

An important aspect of playing guitar is the ability to switch chords without pausing.  We can practice this using a metronome or drum track.  Begin by setting a tempo of 60 beats per minute (bpm) then counting out eight beats verbally. On beat one, we are going to strum the Em chord.  As you count 2 through 8, move your fingers to the A chord.   There is no need to hold the Em chord beyond beat 1.  When you finish counting to 8, start over, strumming the A on count 1 and using counts 2 through 8 to switch back to Em.  Repeat this until it is easy.

Once this process is easy, move the metronome/drum track up to 80 bpms.  Once that is easy, move it to 100 bpms.  Once that is easy, move it to 120 bpms.  Once you can perform this easily at 120 bpms, go back to 60 bpms, but now only count to four, still strumming on beat 1.  Take this through the same process of bumping up the tempo to 80, 100, and 120 bpms.  Once that you can switch every four beats at 120 bpms, go back to 60bpms, now strumming on beats 1 and 2 and using beats 3 and 4 to switch chords.  Once you can do that at 120 bpm, go back to 60 bpms, now strumming on beats 1, 2 and 3, while using beat 4 to switch. Once you can do that at 120 bpm, go back to 60bpm, strumming on all four beats.  Be careful not to pause when switching chords. Keep your right arm moving consistently back and forth.

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