A shocking title? Have I offended you?
First, my intention is to not offend you, but to encourage a different thought process as you learn the guitar.
In this article, I’m going to bring up some points that have led me, and my students, to ultimately get rid of that 1000 chord diagram image poster on the wall.
Let’s first start here: The Chord Diagram poster.
The Chord Diagram poster is a mini-encyclopedia of common chords guitarists play. The images are lines and black dots which represent the strings and frets of the guitar, with the black dots representing finger placement.
I’ve taken time to research the origins for these posters, but I’ve literally come up with nothing. So where did it come from? My guess is an instructor, who had well intentions to help students learn their chords, create the seemingly genius immediate visual access to common chords on their wall. Here’s three examples of potential issues I see going on:
Issue #1 - The poster is posted on the wall, not immediately accessible unless you have sharp vision. Sometimes the chord images are so small too because the poster is trying to fit as many chords as possible.
Issue #2 - It is disruptive during your practice to get up, set your guitar down, and take precious practice time perusing a chart for the right chord. In addition, they don’t have EVERY chord or form of the chord you may need.
Issue #3 - Though it looks nice, I tend to believe it’s a statement to have the poster there mounted in front of you, yet you don’t have the chords WITHIN you.
Let’s transition to here: You, The Guitarist.
Think of or do any brief research on the bands you’ve seen live, the albums/CD/Spotify playlists you’ve played endlessly. All of this wonderful music, as a large majority, is played by memory. Granted, yes, most of these artists are professionals, but doesn’t that tell us something about the actual realized experience of music? It comes from within.
When you first start learning guitar, it usually seems like it should be easier than it feels - am I right? The guitarists you’ve looked up to make it look seamless, beautiful, easy. How did they get to that point? Do they have chord posters with them on stage? Do they have them in the rehearsal room?
“Well then, what about the chord diagram posters, should I really throw my poster out?”
Let me first ask, if you are practicing and you don’t know how to play it or can’t remember, what’s your first impulse? Look at the wall?
Scenario 1: The next time you are practicing, learning a new song, working on educational material and run into a chord you don’t immediately remember, I want you to try this:
Challenge 1: Don’t look at the poster, instead:
- Take a moment to relax
- See if you can visualize what the chord looks like, can you see it in your head?
- Look at your fretboard, can you visualize the chord on the fretboard with the right fingers?
In this challenge, the main benefits you get are developing: 1. greater self-confidence to solve your own problem and 2. Attempting to think before being reactive to the situation
Scenario 2: You are practicing, learning a new song, working on educational material and run into a chord you FOR SURE don’t know. Okay well, I’d like you to try the following:
Challenge 2: Don’t look at the poster, instead:
- Purchase a chord dictionary to keep near you when practicing, and search for the chord. Dictionaries offer a plethora of options, images, and variety of chords vs the chord diagram poster. Here’s one I would recommend: Click Here
- Have a book or print off blank chord diagrams - writing these out by hand is a great way to reinforce your knowledge and memorization of these chords. Label the fret #’s and fingers.
- Create flash cards - Cut up the new chords you are learning into flash cards and have someone quiz you. Click Here to access a free resource of flashcards I’ve created.
The key here is memorization and developing yourself as a successful guitarist.
Many of the pros you adore have taken years, a lifetime, to learn the skills they have now harnessed. You might say, ” Well I don’t want to be a professional!”.
If you wanted to improve your cooking skills, is that what you’d say, “Well I don’t want to be a professional chef!”. Of course not! What I mean is that you can still learn some of the skills of being a chef, without having to build a career off of it.
When I performed on a regular basis, I was involved with bands that had different sets every week. We were constantly learning a new song, reintroducing an old one, and/or pulling from a core set of material. The only reason I was able to consistently play the sets, change songs and keys without a hitch, was because of memorization of the chords involved in the various songs. That is really the secret and it’s a secret you can absolutely obtain whether your just starting or you’ve been reliant upon chord diagrams on top of every song you are playing.
The sooner you memorize, the easier it will be to recall, and at a certain point, the common chords you use and love will go into auto-pilot, so you can better enjoy playing the songs that you love.
So, let’s say you’ve made the decision now to throw out the poster. Get something in its place! Maybe a favorite musician of yours playing live, or a song lyric that is meaningful to you.
In addition to the resources provided above, I recommend finding a professional who can help you on your journey to develop these guitar skills even further, much faster!
About the Author
Jonathan Olson is a Fingerstyle and Blues Rock guitarist from Everett, Washington. Here, he lives with his family and is the Lead Instructor at The Guitar Circle, a music school located in the heart of Downtown Everett. If you or someone you know are looking for guitar lessons in Everett, WA, visit www.TheGuitarCircle.org for more information.