Upon typing ‘barre chord’ into google, the suggested questions read; ‘why are barre chords so hard?’, ‘ do barre chords get easier?’ and ‘why do barre chords hurt my hand?’, it’s a question that comes up time and time again in guitar lessons and it’s one of the most frequently asked questions across Instagram and YouTube pages dedicated to guitar playing and education, how can I improve my barre chords without injuring myself trying?
Indeed, the barre (or bar) is one of the most tricky left hand techniques to execute, and not only because they require a lot of focused movement and pressure, but because there is such a wealth of misinformation surrounding the ergonomics of the guitar neck on the internet.
There are many reasons for this, but the most prominent is that as the guitar has developed in its build to suit larger spaces and more dynamic pairings of instruments, guitar necks and bodies have become larger, the combinations of wood, lacquer and bracing have become stronger and subsequently string tension and action have risen.
After all, it is only since the development of the nylon string by Albert Augustine during the second world war that guitarists have stopped using gut strings, which are softer to the touch lower in tension and easier to press to the neck of the instrument.
So it is no wonder that whilst advice from the classical guitar legends of generations passed is invaluable, the goal posts and parameters have changed enough since those technical writings and suggestions for barres were made that they can at worst serve to lead astray many conscientious players.
Not only this but due to the fact that the difference between a barre that sings clearly on every string and that mutes them all is the difference of sometimes less than a millimetre, it is important to take note that the approach to barre chords on the electric guitar and the classical guitar are a world of difference due to the measurements of the neck which can sometimes have the difference of up to 10mm between them.
So given that clear information is hard to come by on barre technique and that there are infinite variables, some out of our control and some within, which are the things we must bear in mind in order to execute a barre that not only sounds good, but that does not leave us with a hand injury after playing.
Disclaimer - the advice given in this article cannot guarantee injury free playing, pain avoidance is the personal responsibility of each individual player.
One of the most common misconceptions about barres is that in order to play clearly you must increase pressure from the finger onto the guitar neck.
Perhaps the original term ‘barre’ first reference 12th century France, or ‘bar’ meaning “stake or rod of iron used to fasten a door or gate” has deceptive connotations that lead many to associate success of this technique with strength or pressure, or perhaps it is the suggestion often associated and used in barre technique that ‘reinforcing’ the barre finger with another finger will help to execute the barre cleanly.
It is not the amount of pressure that makes a barre sound clearly, it is in the efficiency of the pressure exerted. To say that you do not have the strength to press a barre down, is to misunderstand what is at stake in its execution.
The amount of strength needed to press all strings to the fret board cleanly on an average action classical guitar on the 1st fret is equivalent to that of the strength needed to lift a smartphone.
The key to exerting this pressure in the most efficient way is understanding weight distribution from the hand, wrist and arm in combination with the angle and distance of the neck of the guitar, the shape distribution of the finger you are using to perform the barre and optimal placement of the finger on the string.
Optimal String Placement
The closer you get to the fret, the less pressure is needed to hold the string against the fretboard – for barres this is just as true. If you find that your barres often produce muted notes one of the causes might be that some parts of your finger are overhanging on the fret, leading to a sound similar to that of a pizzicato.
In order to place the finger on the strings optimally and not cover the frets, it is paramount that you become aware of the shape of your own finger.
The most commonly used finger for barres is the index which, like the others, is divided into three segments. Each pudgy segment is made of muscle and fat tissue, and is squishy when pressed. The segment closest to the palm is the squishiest, followed by the middle segment, and finally at the end of the finger lies the hardest pudgy segment, the part of the finger responsible for pointing, poking and pulling – as a musician this segment will usually have a slightly harder tip.
Separating each pudgy segment is a hard joint bone, feel exactly where these joints lie with the fingers of the opposite hand. Sometimes the placement of the joint bone can be deceptive to the eye.
Given that your classical guitar is a standard size, the width of your strings (1st to 6th) will be somewhere between 47mm and 50mm. Take a measuring tape and measure this distance along your straightened finger.
So long as your barre finger is at least this long, full barres will not be a problem at all.
Place your finger on the 2nd or 3rd fret of the instrument, with the ‘belly’ of the finger face down. Try to engage your mind-muscle connection to feel exactly where each string touches your finger. Experiment with shifting the finger back and forth to find a placement where the joint bones are aligned with as many strings as possible.
Experiment with pointing the tip of the finger in order to make a bridge-like shape with the index, with using the knuckle that joins the finger to the palm or tilting the ‘belly’ of the index away from the fret board and see which shape feels the least tiring for the finger - be aware that this may take some integration, not all techniques that are energy efficient feel that way in the beginning. As with any new technique or position, you will need to take care to integrate new movements slowly and with caution, taking breaks as often as possible and after an extensive muscle warm up at the guitar and also away from the instrument.
Engage the hand!
One of the biggest and most prolonged mistakes that beginners make when it comes to barres is not letting the barre finger be the master of its own destiny. Without engaging the finger itself, guitarists tend to overcompensate by pulling the hand back, leaving the muscle that connects the left hand thumb and index finger desperately trying not to separate. This can lead to tension and eventually injury in the palm in a surprisingly short amount of time.
Avoid this by engaging the finger muscles. If you have ever practiced yoga you will know that standing poses require one to lift their kneecaps and therefore engage the hamstrings. The principle is similar in practicing barre technique, one must engage the finger in the same way that you would to press a door open with the finger, supported from the first knuckle and with a straight tip.
Once the finger is engaged in this way, the possibilities for barres become much more extensive, as now the weight that you exert into the finger is channeled into one entity, leaving the muscle between the thumb and the index relaxed and instead relying on the weight of the arm to draw power into the barre.
To learn more about how the muscles of the hand and arm connect, watch this tonebase lesson with Thomas Viloteau on right hand technique.
Whatever level we are at in our playing, there is always room for improvement in the execution of technical elements, so nobody should feel insecure about looking for tips to improve.
That being said, placing a barre is a technique that requires special focus and attention to the detail of sensations within the body, so as with any technique, new or already learnt, it is paramount that you invest time in mind-muscle connection and stop playing at the first sign of any hint of pain in the body.