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The Importance of Proper Footwork

Whether you are an athlete, a dancer, a martial artist, or even a surfer…  solid footwork is the foundation of everything you do.  The same attention must be given to your fingerwork on the guitar.

People have told me they gave up on the guitar because they “just didn’t get it.”  It seems that many people think that if they can’t figure out how to string a few chords together in a very short amount of time, then they just don’t have the talent.  My response would often be something like:  “Even Kelly Slater fell off his surfboard a few times before he got it right.”

Kelly Slater doing something I wish I could do.

Just as a martial artist must have a fluid transition from one stance to another, so must a guitarist from one chord to another… like a surfer jumping to his feet at the top of a wave.  It has to be one fast, fluid motion.  Learning how to play a particular chord is not the hard part.  Smooth transitions between chords is what takes practice, and that is where the frustration usually sets in for those who give up too easily.  It’s easy to forget that your fingers require the same practice on the fretboard as your feet do on the dance floor, and without it, you will be stepping on a lot of toes.

Aside from throwing around analogies, I like to keep lessons fun by teaching students the music they want to learn, instead of using the same old “method” books that bored me to tears many years ago… (I never got very far into one).  However, aspiring guitarists have to realize that learning what they love doesn’t necessarily make it easier.  While it provides much more inspiration and motivation, it still requires practice… and much of that practice goes toward building dexterity, limberness, and coordination in your hands that aren’t there to begin with.  One of my young students, for example, finally understood when I related it to the practice he had to put in for baseball.  His technique improved very quickly after that.

I was once taught to practice my Kenpo forms without hand movements.  Although moving through a kata while holding my hands behind my back felt awkward, it forced me to really concentrate on my footwork (not to mention balance!).

The lesson there is when you’re learning something requiring two or more parts of your body doing different things, it’s good to separate them, allowing you to really focus on the technique required by each.  Your fretting hand and your strumming/picking hand are both learning something new, and completely different from each other.  It’s better not to complicate things in the early stages of learning by forcing your brain to concentrate on both hands at once all the time.  They will eventually come together.

"Yeah... same to you, Pal..."

In this case, that distracts you from what is your focus at this point:  achieving a smooth transition between chords.  In fact, you really don’t have to strum at all. Remember, you’re focusing on fret-hand dexterity right now.  So like me with my hands behind my back… just use your strumming hand to hold the guitar in place, and get those chords going.

A good way to practice chord changes is to learn all the chords in the song you’re studying, and run through them in random order.   Get used to those transitions without worrying about playing the song, yet.  Learn them back and forth.

Get out of moving one finger at a time by thinking of the chords as “patterns,” and shifting all fingers at once, over and over.  A metronome, or even a clock can help a lot.  If it takes you three or four seconds to make a good chord, watch the clock and change chords every few seconds.

Pay no attention to the musical aspect of it.  If it sounds like hell, it doesn’t matter… and that’s part of the reason for not being concerned about strumming right now.  Just get those transitions smooth.  When you’re comfortable with a chord every four seconds, go to three… then two.

Once the chords start flowing, then work in some strumming.  Now you can really get down to learning the song.

Pretty soon, your transitions will be smoother, you will be playing along with the songs you are learning, and new songs will come easier, mainly because you’re going to know all these chords so well.  In the course of learning various songs, you also learn the many different ways to play chords that make those changes even easier.

Next week… Kicking drills!

~ raVen ~

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