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

If you want to memorize a song as quickly as possible, you must get past the initial stage where you always need to look at the tabs. This article will show you how visualizing the shapes that the left hand forms when playing chords helps with quicker memorization.

What are chord shapes?

Chord shapes on the guitar are the way that your hand is shaped after you place your fingers on the fretboard to form a chord. Some shapes are recognizeable immediately, such as the triangle shape. Other shapes take more training, such as the E chord shape.

Chord shapes form the basis of the idea behind the CAGED system. In this article we will learn two common chord shapes, the C shape and the D shape.

How To Learn New Guitar Chords

It’s quite simple to learn basic chords that only use two fingers. But what about more complex chords? You can start by learning to recognize easy guitar chord shapes such as D or C.

The D Chord Shape

To get started with using chord shapes, I use the D chord (or the D7 chord) as a helpful starting point.

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

The C Chord shape

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 C Major chord shape include:

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

Using the Chord Shape method to learn songs

So how can we use the chord shape strategy for something other than cowboy chords? If you are stuck learning a new song, instead of trying to memorize what's on the tab, look at the shape of your hand.

Fingerstyle songs contain both harmony and melody. The melody is the part that you can sing and the harmony is created by the notes that are found underneath the melody. By isolating the chord that occurs when playing the harmonic and melodic notes simultaneously, I can use this shape to help me memorize the song.  

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.

How to Use Chord Shapes to Overcome Difficult Passages

When I run into difficulty memorizing a specific passage in this song, I stop and play the chord block shape that occurs on the beat. For instance, if the harmony is G Major, I play the notes that occur on the beat and ignore the other melody notes in that measure that occur off the beat.  

In cases where the harmony changes on beats 1 and 3, I can memorize the shape of the chord that occurs on those beats, and then play the passage at a slow tempo.  I use this technique heavily when learning songs that use alternate tunings, like our example which is in Drop D.

How to Remember Abstract Chord Shapes

Some of these chord shapes can be pretty abstract. One of the ways that I use to remember abstract chord shapes is to use the top finger as a guide. Place the top finger first on the highest string. 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.

Deliberate Practice is Very Powerful

Remembering chord shapes is a form of deliberate practice as defined by the paper on deliberate practice by K Anders Ericsson.  This is the kind of practice that’s tough to do but shows much better results.  Before playing a chord, visualize the shape made with the fingers of the left hand of the chord before playing it – this is the key to faster memorization.