Lots of people do it, maybe you do too: avoid learning a song because it requires barre chords, or limiting your songwriting vocabulary because you struggle with them and it’s easier to just avoid them. I’m not going to suggest that barre chords aren’t a challenge, for most people they are at least in the beginning. But here are some things you can do to make the learning process easier.
1. Make sure your guitar is properly set up. If the your guitar has high or uneven “action” (distance of the strings from the fretboard) it can make everything harder, not just barre chords. If you struggle with chord changes in any way, you should make sure your guitar is set up with the action set as low as possible without any buzzing. Higher action helps the guitar project and can allow you to produce more volume, but it’s not worth fighting while you’re learning to master barre chords. You can always have the action raised later if you find you need more projection.
2. Try going to lighter strings. A light gauge set on an acoustic generally has a .012” string for the high E. I use a .013 set on my smaller-body guitar and 12s on the larger dreadnought. Know what you have on your guitar now, and try moving one gauge lighter if you feel like you need to press too hard to make the notes sound. Again, you can always work your way back up.
3. Detune your guitar a whole-step and then place a capo on the 2nd fret. This will reduce the string tension significantly. Yes, it displaces some things visually, and if you use a capo a lot you’ll need to move it two frets higher than normal. This is a temporary solution, unless you find you like the sound of the lower-tuned guitar…some people do. Listen to some of Neil Young’s early 70’s solo performances to hear how sweet a down-tuned guitar can sound.
4. Stop working so hard. Even if the guitar is set up perfectly, many people mistakenly believe they’re supposed to grip as hard as possible. Some well-intentioned but misinformed teachers contribute to this problem. Your goal with guitar technique is to learn to use less effort, not more. The next time you play, think about lightening your touch and letting your grip soften. This can be really challenging, and you might find that your whole upper body is trying to clamp down on those strings without your even noticing. Ideally, the position of your fretting hand should allow you to balance or “hang” on the strings rather that squeezing them: index finger extended, the rest of the fingers more or less curled with the fingertips resting on the strings.
If you do identify this as a problem, developing a routine of SIMPLE exercises to improve finger balance and coordination will really help. (I’ll dig into this in depth in a subsequent blog post). Be aware of how important hand and finger position is…changing the position of your wrist or thumb can make an instant difference. (Many people drop the wrist too far, or don’t drop it enough when they should. In general, a straight wrist is better because it produces more grip with less effort. Drop the wrist when you need to extend your fingers or stretch, but no further than you need to).
5. Recognize that in most cases a barre does NOT mean a flat finger. To play a 6-note F barre, the index finger should actually lean a little to the side…consider that the side of your finger is much straighter than the underside. The best leverage comes from the base segment of the finger, exactly where your thumb would land if you simply touch the thumb to the side of the index finger. Hold your hand up in this position with the thumb pointing up, and just envision the guitar neck in between the thumb and finger. Most of the power and force should come from the curled fingers, not the extended index.
All of these tips should help you develop your control, strength, and confidence in playing barre chords. Yes, it’s a big topic and a legitimate challenge for most people, but it shouldn’t be the barrier to improvement that it is for so many. Forge ahead and you’ll get there!