Bar Chords A Problem?… Here’s What To Do About It
Updated September 2017
One of the most common issues when learning to play guitar that I've encountered with students is a general grumbling about bar chords. And rightly so. Most students struggle with buzzing notes and a sore hand and wrist.
In this article I want to narrow down the main reasons for difficulties with bar chords. But more importantly I want to give you the clear guidance on how to get through it and play beautiful sounding bar chords.
Let's Dispel A Few Myths
First let's get a few of the myths, or rather excuses, out of the way that I've encountered that just hold people back.
My hands are too small or large.
I've heard this many times over the years. Certainly some people's hands are smaller and some larger. However it usually is not a significant issue.
I've had students with small hands and with larger hands that play beautifully and effortlessly. Then I've had other students with average size hands that continue to struggle.
The hand size doesn't seem to be the deciding factor.
My fingers are too short.
This is another common concern that I've heard often from students. Because barring chords involves stretching your index finger across the neck it makes sense that if your finger was too short that wouldn’t stretch far enough.
Again this hasn't been what I see as a deciding factor. If it really was it would be just a matter of getting a guitar with a thinner neck.
98.3% of the time that's not the first place to go. It's best to work with the physical attributes that you have and look for how you can make the best use of them, not focus on how they're holding you back.
No it's not because you just suck.
It is human nature when something is difficult to first start looking for a reason that you are somehow handicapped (as in short or fat fingers).
The second tendency is for students to think something is generally wrong with them that they can't learn, or they're just unable to do it like other people.
Let's get that out of the way right now. Your difficulties with bar chords are not because YOU suck!
Here are the most significant five issues that is keeping you from playing bar chords the way you want to.
Your Guitar Is Fighting You
There are times when you need to consider making changes with your guitar.
I briefly mentioned that if your fingers are exceptionally small you may want to consider a guitar with a thinner neck. Occasionally there are times that is helpful to have a guitar with a wider neck if you have exceptionally large hands.
Many times it's not really necessary, but it's something to consider.
The biggest issue is when the guitar is not set up properly. In particular it means the strings are too high off the neck of the guitar. This will make it tremendously difficult to play bar chords properly.
Have your guitar instructor or a competent repairman look at your guitar and see if it would benefit from a guitar action setup.
This involves a combination of things including adjusting the bridge and the nut of the guitar to lower the “action”. Also they may recommend adjusting the angle of the neck and even smoothing down the frets.
When done properly it can make most guitars easier to play and even sound better.
I strongly recommend having it done by a reputable repair person. I have known mechanically inclined people to do a reasonable job by watching YouTube videos… but it's risky.
There's Something That You Don't Know
There are specific things that you need to know to play bar chords properly.
Some of the things are knowing how to place your index finger properly across the neck, the best angle for your wrist, where to place your fingers in relation to the frets and how to think about changing from one chord to the another properly.
Without understanding the proper mechanics you'll always be swimming upstream.
And more importantly you'll probably be practicing incorrectly and have to undo some bad habits later.
Learn the proper mechanics of playing bar chords. A time-tested way to do this is to find a competent guitar instructor who could not only show you the proper way to do it but help you make corrections when you get off.
Another way that's becoming more and more effective is to learn from a progressive set of videos online where you can watch the technique and make adjustments from what you see.
Not Enough Practice
Yes everyone seems to know they should practice. But in reality most students underestimate how much time and persistence is needed to make your body do something it's not used to doing… Like play bar chords
Okay, here's the bad news… You're probably going to need to practice more than you think you do.
Here's the good news. It doesn't have to be a bad thing.
Getting a consistent practice schedule can become a habit and gets easier what you do it regularly. Also the act of practicing can be a positive experience when you just put your heart into it and stop thinking about how hard it is or other things you want to be doing.
First make some time to practice at least five days a week. I recommend 30 minute sessions for beginners.
Then spend some time in each practice session working methodically on bar chords. Don't expect immediate results but think of it as a long-term program.
You'll not only improve your bar chords but you'll be setting the mechanics in motion to improve everything that you choose to work on.
Practicing In The Wrong Things
So now you’re practicing regularly. That’s great. Let's take a look at what you’re practicing.
I interview students at my music school that have been playing for a while and want to take lessons to get better. One of the questions I asked them is if they are currently practicing regularly. Most say yes.
Then I ask them how and what they practice.
What many tell me is that they play the guitar for some amount of time every day. This is not practicing. Playing songs or even techniques that you can already play is not considered practicing.
Practicing means working specifically on either techniques or exercises, or even songs, in a progressive attempt to get better.
In the case of bar chords that does not mean just trying to play them for a certain period of time each day. It's possible to get better very slowly this way, but that's a long and painful road.
Use a progressive and methodical system to practice bar chords.
This would involve practicing specific exercises that will strengthen your hands and help you to get your fingers in the right place with the least amount of effort.
You also want to avoid creating too much tension in your hand and especially your wrist.
If you'd like more information on a system for practicing bar chords you can find a free bar chord lesson at this link.
You Just Need More Time
We all know patience is a virtue… Right?
But most people, including myself, often act like it's a sin.
Wouldn't it be great to take the “Play Awesome Bar Chord Pill”? I'm right there with you
If your practicing regularly, practicing the right things and you've learned the proper technique to play bar chords there is just one more thing that you need…
That's to keep doing it until you get the results.
Playing bar chords accurately and smoothly is just a matter of getting the fingers in the right place, having the strength to press them down sufficiently and enough practice time (i.e. repetitions) to change chords and get to the next one in time.
That said I have never met a student who could not do it. It comes down to just doing the right things and to keep doing them.
What Do You Want to See Next?
We would love to hear your comments and questions. What specific things are you struggling with while learning guitar?
When he's not making guitar instruction videos or creating more music to record (currently 7 CDs including Beauty and Fire) he's riding his bike along the beach with his dog Marco Polo or traveling to interesting places with his lovely wife Pui.