Mandy Rowden (singer/songwriter and founder of Girl Guitar) guests on the blog today to show you how to spice up your guitar playing. She’s sharing some wonderful tips on how to make those old, worn out chords sound new and interesting again.
Why you want to dress up your chords
Your song is written, your heart is on the page, your voice is warmed up, and you’re ready to shake up some souls tonight on stage. You’ve truly expressed yourself in a way that’s sincere to you and will genuinely move your listeners. Like many songwriters your voice is your main instrument and you know you can deliver the goods, and you’re really going to pack a punch because you went the extra mile and you look damn good while you do it. Go girl, you got this.
Everything is in place as you tune up, and while you deliver a fine set one thing keeps gnawing at you: Why does your guitar sound so boring and lifeless? You’ve learned your chords and change them smoothly, you have great rhythm and strum in time, you’ve sprung for good gear and the house sound is great, SO WHAT’S STILL MISSING? You’re a songwriter, not a guitar slinger, so how can you dress up your guitar playing without committing all of your writing time to lessons and guitar study?
The perfect little black dress needs the right jewelry to make it pop, and your thoughtful, sincere, powerful song needs the same treatment.
You don’t go on stage without accessorizing your outfit, and you can gain a lot from thinking of your songs the same way. The perfect little black dress needs the right jewelry to make it pop, and your thoughtful, sincere, powerful song needs the same treatment. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel or enroll in a music program to fancy up your playing, and exactly how to do that is what we’ll explore here.
1. Less is more
We often learn which strings not to hit when we learn our chords. (ex: first two strings on D, first string for C and A, etc.)
But what our chord charts or YouTube lessons rarely tell us is that just because you CAN hit all the strings in a given chord, hardly ever means you SHOULD hit all of them. The quickest, easiest, most immediately gratifying way to add texture and depth to your rhythm guitar playing is to only hit one or two strings at a time within those chords. If hitting individual strings is still tough for you, think of your available strings in “zones” – bass, mids, highs – and aim accordingly. You can keep the same pattern of strums but become more minimal and selective of what you hit; instead of a chunky, boring ‘down-down-up-up-down-up’ of 4-6 strings at a time, try the exact same pattern like this: ‘bass-mid-high-mid-mid-high’.
Watch the video below to see this technique in action:
Another major thing to notice is that your two highest strings have potential to be extremely obnoxious if you’re including them in all your strums, not to mention the fact that they compete directly with most women’s vocal ranges. Are you hanging out too much on these strings? If you haven’t noticed it before you probably will now and they’ll start to drive you crazy. Lay off! They’re annoying when they’re overused. Instead, hit them (together or separate) in that space between lines were you’re not singing anything. These strings are great for fills and leads but definitely don’t have a place in every single strum.
2. Movement is key
Within every basic chord you’ve learned, there are a few different fingers that you have the option to lift or put down around the existing shape that will add movement to the top of an otherwise blocky and potentially stagnant chord. How and how often you do this is absolutely at your discretion and depends on the rhythm of the song and how busy you want to be and are capable of being. When it comes to accessorizing chords (like any art, the sky is the limit) you can and should open-mindedly explore things for yourself, but I’m listing several basics and some of my favorites here to get you started.
G Major: from the open A string, hammer on the second fret. Use this alone or in conjunction with the root, which is the third fret of the low E string.
C Major: lift and replace middle finger, then do the same with the index finger. Use these alone, back-to-back, or at the exact same time.
D Major: lift and replace the middle finger or, in a lot of cases, just leave it off altogether. This creates a D9, which is really beautiful, especially in the keys of G or A.
A Major: lift and replace whichever finger you have on the B string. You can also slide this same finger up into the third fret and then slide it back down for some really cool movement over your A chord.
E Major: For a great dirty bluesy sound, remove your ring finger (making an E7) and drop it on the third fret of the low E string. With the right rhythm this is a lick you can write entire songs around.
a minor: my personal favorite chord to accessorize, you can lift any of the three fingers individually or all at the same time. You can also use the trick from the E Major (above) and drop your ring finger on the the third fret of the low E string (give it a little bend, why not?).
e minor: there’s a lot you can do with this, but one of my favorites is to take whichever finger you use for the D string and slide it up to the fourth fret and then back down to the second, where you started.
3. Turn your ears on
One of my favorite soapboxes as a teacher is to encourage us all to ween ourselves from having paper (ipad, whatever) in front of us while we practice. Just as important as what you’re doing with your hands or voice is the development of your ear, which is seriously stunted by reading everything you play. Sure, you mess up more when you first stop looking, but in the big picture your playing takes a huge leap. If you want to do any one thing to kick your playing and overall musicianship up several notches, turn on your ears and give your visual side a break.
Another GREAT approach is to ask yourself: If I heard this on the radio or walked into a club and this was playing, would I find it pleasing? Would I tune in, turn up, feel inspired, buy the album? Sometimes when we can remove ourselves from our own heads and listen to our playing objectively we start to improve things, sometimes without even knowing what exactly we’re changing. Our ears are really powerful tools, and engaging them, again, will boost you to a new level of musicianship.
4. Bonus! Make your guitar sound more expensive than it is
Ever wonder why somebody else picks up your guitar and it sounds a thousand times better than when you play it? Sure, they may just have more experience and that’s fair… good for them! But in the meantime, a super simple, quick, easy way to improve your tone is to simply choke up on your pick. A common beginner mistake is to grip too close to the edge of the pick when in reality you should be holding a good two-thirds of it between your thumb and index finger in what we call a ‘key grip’ with just the edge sticking out.
To make a key grip, pretend the pointy end of the pick is the end of a key and you’re unlocking a door. Relax the wrist and voila, we lose the sound of plastic and gain a warmth that wasn’t there before, PLUS we have a better grip, so no more dropping the pick in the guitar (a rite of passage that we have all gone through).
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