man playing F major 7 chord
The Fmaj7 chord shown here uses the C Major line shape

Are you having trouble memorizing guitar chords? If you get stuck at learning guitar chords because you can't remember where to put your fingers, here's a method you can try.

The best way to memorize guitar chords is to use visualization techniques. For example, when you're learning a new chord, try to picture the chord shape in your mind's eye. 

If you come across a new chord that is unfamiliar, here are the steps to memorize it:

  1. Place all your fingers on the chord
  2. Take note of where the top finger on the guitar is located (finger, string, fret)
  3. Remember the shape that your hand makes with the chord

Write this down on a sheet of paper if you have to. Then, using only these notes and without using tablature or chord diagrams, try to place your fingers on the chord that you just played.

Why Can't I Remember Guitar Chords?

If you have trouble consistently recalling guitar chords, it's because you haven't associated the chord shape with something recognizable. To have chords go from something abstract to a logical way of putting your fingers, you must start to think in terms of chord shapes.

Chord shapes are the shape the fingers on the fretboard create when you form a chord. Some shapes are recognizable immediately; other shapes are more abstract and take time to recognize.

Chord shapes form the basis of the idea behind the CAGED system. This system means you only need to memorize five chords, C, A, G, E and D to learn all the chords on the guitar.

I think we can simplify and expand the CAGED system, however, by using easier to regonize shapes such as lines and triangles. We can also use this idea to memorize songs faster, by using a "snapshot" of our hand at a certain section if we can't remember where to place our fingers.

You will learn more about CAGED and the correct order in which you should place your fingers in the online course, Play Fingerstyle Guitar Now!

What Chord Shapes Should Every Guitarist Know?

The easiest chord shapes that you should know are the D chord shape (the triangle) and the C chord shape (the straight line). Let's see what these chord shapes look like, as well as the chords that you can form with them.

The Triangle

In the D Chord, or D7 chord, the left-hand fingers form the outline of an equilateral triangle.

Fig. 1 - The D7 chord shape forms a triangle, as shown 

Chords that use or contain the triangle shape include:

  • D major
  • D7
  • B7
  • The diminished chord shape

Here is the triangle clearly visible in the chord D Minor:

The D Minor chord and the triangle shape
A wide triangle shape for the D Minor chord

The Triangle Shape in a Part of the Chord

Sometimes the chord contains a shape in only part of the chord. In the case of B7, the triangle is on the bass notes:

B7 Chord shape with a triangle
The Triangle formed by the top fingers in the B7 chord.

The Straight Line

Both the C chord and the F chord on the guitar have the fingers all lined up in a diagonal line.

Fig. 2 - The C Major chord shape includes all fingers lined up

Chords that use the straight line chord shape include:

  • C Major and C7
  • F major, F7 and F Major 7
  • G7
  • D9

How To Memorize and Learn Fingerstyle Songs

If you have difficulty remembering a passage in a fingerstyle guitar song, you can use the chord shape visualization technique. Take a measure of the song, and break it down into the individual chords, and analyze the shape that your fretting hand fingers make.

When you are doing this, play the chord notes all at the same time - don't worry about separating the melody and the bass.  Observe the shape that the fingers of your fretting hand make, and take note of the top finger of the chord.

Next, practice moving from one chord to the next. Play the notes that occur on the beat and ignore the other melody notes in that measure that occur off the beat. Always use the top finger of the next chord as a guide, and place that one first.

Once you have mastered playing the section as block chords, begin to add in the melody notes and other effects such as percussion. 

How To Memorize A Fingerstyle Tab

To memorize a fingerstyle song when you are learning from a tab, start at the section of the song that you want to learn. Analyze the chord shapes and memorize the order in which they occur.

Then start playing from the beginning of a section. When you draw a blank, move back a couple beats from where you stopped and start playing again. If you draw a blank once again, don't immediately look at the tabs. Instead, try to visualize the shape that your fingers are supposed to make, and place them down on the guitar neck.

Don't even be too concerned about which string you need to place the fingers on. Just get something! If you are wrong, check with the tablature.

This is the technique that I used to memorize my fingerstyle arrangement of Pachelbel’s Cannon.  This work consists of eight chords in succession: D Major, A Major, B Minor, F# Minor, G Major, D Major, G Major and A Major.

What To Do If You Forget A Chord

To memorize chords and to avoid forgetting chord shapes, isolate the top finger of the chord and remember the string and fret placement.

Place the top finger first on the highest string of the chord, then place the chord shape. As long as you can remember this finger, it will give you a head start on placing the rest of the fingers for the chord.

I use this technique heavily when learning songs that use alternate tunings, such as DADGAD tuning. Remembering the top finger of a chord is the best way to memorize a chord in a short amount of time.

Deliberate Practice is Difficult But Gets Results

Remembering chord shapes is a form of deliberate practice as defined by a paper on deliberate practice by K Anders Ericsson et al

This is the kind of practice that’s tough to do but shows much better results.  This is the power of this technique of visualization. Use this technique to memorize your fingerstyle songs much faster.

For more help on setting goals and learning different chords for fingerstyle guitar, check out the course Play Fingerstyle Guitar Now!