I was in a coaching session the other day, and we were going through chords in a student’s song. I was strumming along with one of their songs that was released on Spotify and they stopped me and said, “Oh I really like what you’re doing there”. Honestly, it was nothing too special. What sounded different was first, I had a groove to my strumming pattern—I wasn’t being rigid—but most importantly I wasn’t playing all the notes in the chord. I wasn’t strumming down through all the strings.
What freaks out or stresses a lot of people learning guitar, is that everyone is so string-conscious. It’s great to make sure you’re hitting the notes, but at some point, you need to graduate from that, and trust you’ve done that work—now it’s about nuance.
I find some people have this perpetual fear that not enough of the chord is ringing through, but really the concentration on properness of the chord is killing your song.
So let’s kill IT! You know, I’m really not a violent person, I’m even vegan, but in this case…let’s kill the damn properness, okay?
When strumming and accompanying a song, especially in the recording process, you need to hold back. When you do, your guitar will contribute to the song so differently. Chords and guitar lines should help lift the song emotionally and contribute to the vibe. It should serve as a melody and lyric highlighter. It cannot serve as a highlighter when the listener is being distracted by you harping away on full chords, taking up all the room, leaving nothing for the ear to listen for. It’s all there, plunked down and distracting you from what’s really interesting about the song.
Take for example singer-songwriter, Gregory Alan Isakov—he’s all about the feel, he doesn’t give a f*** about a perfect strummed chord. Or, when you listen to an indie rock band taking it away on single notes—they are not worried about playing the full-on chord, but they still can create a great guitar accompaniment.
I remember hearing a story about guys working with the Manchester Orchestra, and they were playing all these beetle-esque chords, and the storyteller thought, “oh cool there’s some 7th and trails of…,” and the guitarist was like “no man, it’s just power chords… we’re just using three chords” But it didn’t make it any less special, that simplicity and structure helped the groove and nuances shine!
Stop being too nice.
Do you find that you can’t figure out guitar parts easily when listening to recorded music? Well, your ear might be listening for full chords instead of a trained ear being used to less proper playing. You might just be treating everything way too nicely, making sure every note has a chance to be heard. I officially give you permission to let that go.
It’s like sloppy picking patterns—in a good way… it’s great! I’m not worried about a specific progression, ie: 63 62 63 62…it’s too perfect, we’ve heard it before, it’s just one kind of vibe. Allowing different notes to come through and ring out from brushing the strings, along with playing the intentional ones, is interesting. Go ahead and hit different strings, tonally you’re going to get different flavors from it.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to play wrong notes, I’m going in there with confidence knowing I’ve muted what shouldn’t be heard. What should be heard, will ring through if I hit it, but if I don’t hit it, it’s okay too. That sort of sloppy picking gives so many different flavors within a picking pattern and gives my ears a burst of flavor each time. If I can get a different flavor of an A minor chord, I can even hang on to that thing for the entire verse and it’s okay because I’m giving different combinations.
Please. Let the groove LIVE!
If you’re so conscious about the whole chord, the groove has a hard time being highlighted and it sounds wrong. When we kill the guitar properness, we’re going to strip a chord down to a few notes, so we can focus on and highlight the groove more. Now when I’m doing percussion and palm muting, it suddenly allows the burst of notes here and here and there, and you go, “Whoa!!, That’s what it needs!”
It’s helping the feel of the song. When you get the feel of the song, the melody seems to come out more sincerely from the singer, because it also feels good to them.
What do I mean by feels good? Well, it doesn’t feel cold. You can have the same chords on a rigid 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and with that properness and like…excuse me for a minute but… oai*weh#lajw kl%j bLAHG BRRR. It feels so BAD!!
BUT! If I’m allowing a little groove, it can help highlight the emotion, the lyric, and the melody. There’s a personality to it.
Yes, there is a time and place for chord properness.
Guitar properness comes into play when writing from scratch. Just starting to build a song on the guitar is really useful because you can hear all the different notes in the chord—it lays the foundation.
Also when performing, full chord properness can come in at certain points in a song to make a dynamic difference. Use it when the song opens up and it’s going to sound awesome at its peak.
It’s how you play it.
In my favorite Seinfeld moment. Jerry was trying to find out if he was invited to this party, and Elaine was like, “I don’t know if you are” and asked this character Tim if he was. Tim said, “I don’t know, why would Jerry come?” And when she told Jerry this, he was like, “Whoa whoa WHoA! Well, how did he say it?” Did he say WHY would JERRY come? Why would JERRY come? Why WOULD Jerry come?“
You see it’s all about inflection.
That’s how I’m thinking about an A minor chord sometimes—when I get different configurations and different feels, I’m getting a different meaning of what I’m trying to say and I can hang onto it for the entire verse because I’m getting different string combinations each time.
Mike Meiers is an Emmy Award-Winning songwriter, producer, and guitar coach. Mike currently writes for indie artists, has had placements for MTV, VH1 NPR, FOX Sports, History Channel, Showtime, and Target. He’s also the founder of Songwriting For Guitar, helping songwriters enhance their guitar skills so they can write better songs and get them out into the world! If you love fun and educational podcasts with caffeinated hosts and insightful guests, visit and subscribe to the Songwriting for Guitar Podcast.