Guitar Articles And Resources > Do Your Open Chords Still Run On Dos?
Do Your Open Chords Still Run On Dos?
By Aldo Chircop
OK, for the benefit of those of you reading this who are not old enough to remember, DOS (short for Disk Operating System) was the first PC operating system to really gain widespread favour in the early 80s, before graphical (or ‘windows’ based) operating systems were even a thing. You know, back when PC systems used to be called ‘IBM Compatibles’. And yes, this is in fact an article about guitar playing. Please bear with me. 😊
What does an ancient operating system have to do with guitar playing, you’ll ask? Well, let me give you just a little more history, and then the analogy will become clear.
When people become very comfortable with a way of doing things, it’s very hard to persuade them to abandon it in favour of something new, even if the new way is objectively better. No one enjoys having to re-learn something from scratch, especially if, as far as they are concerned, the old way of doing things is still perfectly adequate for them.
When newer ‘windows’ based operating systems came on the scene, the people to whom these new systems were marketed – PC users world wide – had already spent years coming to grips with DOS and they were used to it. Although Windows was obviously a superior system, very few people were willing to completely abandon the old way overnight.
To make migrating to Windows more palatable, the new system was basically ‘patched’ on top of the old one, so that users could still have the option of working within DOS if they wanted to. The result of trying to patch the old with the new was a very cumbersome and inefficient system, and certain quirks and limitations of the old system would end up haunting and constraining the overall efficiency of the system for decades, until they were able to phase out the old system completely.
How does this relate to guitar And For You?
Well, something similar happens to a lot of guitar players, believe it or not. Open position chords are a typical case in point.
Open position chords are a very common starting point for self-taught guitarists especially. Everyone seems to start their guitar journey with open chords, something which I don’t agree with nowadays, since movable chords allow you to understand the geometry of the guitar fretboard much more logically and quickly, and chords should not be what you learn at the very beginning anyway, for various reasons. But I digress. Truth is that many popular tunes can be arranged to be played with a few basic open chords, and one needs only to hop online for a few minutes to find a list of such chord diagrams. Within a relatively short time, our typical beginning guitarist can therefore learn to play many popular songs quite convincingly.
Approaching Open Chords
But here’s the problem with this approach. While learning to use open chords, the typical beginner still does not know how to hold his fretting hand properly, especially if he’s self-taught and has no teacher to coach him in proper technique. Yes, he can make those open chords work somewhat with whatever hand position he manages to stumble upon on his own, but he’s also internalizing a very inefficient and flawed technique.
That flawed technique is what will become his ingrained ‘DOS problem’, relative to the rest of his guitar technique!
Eventually the typical student realizes that he can only do so much with a few open position chords and seeks something more. He decides to learn more chords and techniques, whether by himself or with the help of a teacher.
What's the problem?
However, there is a problem. The flawed technique he learned to use with open chords usually persists through simple force of habit. Even if he graduates to a better technique – taking care to keep his thumb centred at the back of the guitar neck, keeping his hand relaxed etc – when playing other types of chords and scales, he’s very likely to never improve the way he performs open chords, simply because the way he first learned to play them has ‘stuck’. He thinks he already ‘knows’ how to play open chords, so why should he pay them any more thought?
I’ve seen many guitarists suffer from this. They might have pretty good form in general, except whenever they hit an open position chord or open power chord, upon which their form reverts to ‘total amateur’ as if by magic – thumbs hooked over the neck when there’s absolutely no need to, crooked and stiff wrists, and ghastly finger mobility and positioning. It’s even more fascinating when you notice them clumsily switching their form back and forth without even being aware of it, making their playing very inefficient and much harder than it should be.
Here’s an example of how a bad hand position might look like for an open C chord:
Notice how hooking the thumb over the neck and ‘hugging’ the neck with the palm of the hand results in a crooked wrist held at the limit of its range of motion, greatly reduced mobility and excessive tension and stiffness in the fingers. There is absolutely no reason to hold your hand in such an inefficient position while playing an open position chord. Moreover, this unnatural position can eventually cause strain and even injury over time.
Here’s how the correct position looks like:
Note here how the thumb is held correctly centred behind the neck and the palm is kept well away from the neck for maximum mobility. The fingers maintain their natural relaxed curve to minimize tension and maximize mobility. This position is much more comfortable and allows to you move smoothly in and out of open chords, movable chords and single note playing with minimal adjustments to your hand position. The result? It will feel much easier to play anything you want to play.
I want you to examine how you perform open chords vs all the other techniques, and make sure you fix any old, bad habits which you’re still holding on to. Get rid of your DOS if you are still clinging to it. 😊
It might take a little time to get rid of bad habits and replace them with better ones, but the results will be well worth it, I promise you.
Now go and practice!
About the author:
Aldo Chircop is a guitarist, composer, producer and guitar teacher based in Malta. He is president and chief instructor of Malta Rock Academy, home of the best blues, rock and metal guitar lessons in Malta.