I was brought up in the era of people like Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townsend (of The Who). These guys could jump around the stage and play guitar behind their back. All while sounding incredible.
A lot of my friends and I had a romanticized thought about guitar. If they could do all of that, surely if we fiddled around enough we’d be good. Maybe not playing guitars with our teeth. But certainly playing chords, strums, and hold a decent rhythm.
I'm sure most of you who are watching this video have come to the realization that it's not that easy. Especially when it comes to learning things like barre chords.
I’ve had students ask me if I was able to play barre chords because my fingers were exceptionally long. For the record, I’d call them about average. The secret isn’t in a physical advantage like bigger hands and fingers. Or even in any natural talent.
What I have is a system I use to learn new things. I’ve used this over the years for more than just guitar. In fact, piano teachers have used this system with their students for a long time.
I’ve organized this into a clearer system that I think you’ll find incredibly valuable. Especially as it relates to learning bar chords. I’ll go through the system first, then practical approach.
The 5-Step System
- Break It Down
- Practice Increments
- Combine And Integrate
- Assess Where You Are
Step #1 - Overview
You want to take a look and see how you can break something down into logical and manageable parts. How can you break this into pieces and combine them later? What’s the smallest part it can be broken down to? And what’s the most important part?
There’s something called the Pareto Principle. Also known as the 80/20 rule. The idea is that there's 20% of something that will get you 80% of the results. So you want to look for where you can get the most bang for your buck.
Step #2 - Break It Down
After you identify the pieces or sections, you want to break it down to the minimum smallest part. The parts still have to make sense in a way that will give you a good sense of accomplishment within a reasonable period. Not too small, not too big.
Step #3 - Practice Increments
You’re not going for mastery on these increments. What you're going for is something sufficient to feel a sense of success. Think about it as 80% of the way to mastery. Getting it to just about 80% of where you think it should be before moving on.
When you practice you always want to start slow and then progress little by little. Adults often make the mistake of trying to go too fast, and end up getting frustrated. Speed and proficiency come over time. With practice! Focus on getting the parts 80% there and then move on.
Step #4 - Combine And Integrate
Here you’ll want to combine and integrate the increments. Take a couple parts and put them together and see how they fit.
For example, if you’re learning a piece of music you might learn it one measure at a time. After learning two measures separately, you would play them together to get a phrase. Then practice and combine another phrase.
With a skill like playing bar chords, you want to break it down into the different parts of playing a bar chord. Then put those parts back together. More on that in a bit.
Step #5 - Assess Where You Are
Take a step back and see where you are. Is this the best place to use your time and energy? Have you made enough progress?
Now is the time to look at the next increment that you should be working on. This entire process is a cycle. You get started on step 1, move through the other steps until it’s time to assess, then you move forward to the next increment.
Guitar, like any other skill, is learned in steps. Small steps. This cycle will apply to all things on the guitar. But let’s talk specifically about using this technique on bar chords.
Putting It Into Practice
Let’s apply it directly to learning bar chords. Playing bar chords involves:
- Making a barre with your index finger, and
- Fretting other notes with your other fingers.
We’ll start with the most basic part of making a bar chord. The barring itself.
The most useful bar chord would be the F chord. For now I want to call it a sixth string root major chord. You can use this same shape all over the neck. Since it’s rooted on the sixth string, the root note would be the chord. If you start on the first fret it’s an F chord. If you start on the fifth fret it’s an A chord.
We’ll start on the first fret. The hardest part of playing the chord is the barring. That might be an exercise in itself. The first increment.
(I'll link to a helpful bar chord warm up exercise at the end)
The next increment might be the actual form of the chord without the bar. Really, this F chord is just an E chord moved up one fret. The E chord doesn’t need a bar because the nut is doing that for you (with the open strings). You might want to play an E chord with the bar chord shape. That could be the next increment. Getting your fingers used to that.
So let's say you practice those two increments and you're feeling fairly confident. Now we might want to put them together. We'll make that major chord form and then make the bar with it.
Once you get to that point, I’d recommend using an increment I often use myself when learning chords. Instead of strumming through the chord, I’ll make the chord shape and release. Take my hand off, make the shape again, press down, and release.
It’s two different skills to make the chord, and strumming the chord so it sounds good. By just fretting the chord you get a chance to practice just that part. Getting the notes pressed so there won’t be buzzing when you strum.
I have had students do that a dozen or so times a day before adding strumming in. Trying to do it all in one day is probably not realistic. Spread it out over a few days or even a week. Just practice each of the increments and then little by little add them together.
The next increment would be to actually strum the chord. Fret the chord, strum, and take your hand off the fretboard. This gets you accustomed to making the shape a little quicker. If it doesn't sound right take a few seconds to adjust. But don't spend too long on it.
This is another principle that really has worked for me and for my students. Practicing things in short bursts instead of trying to bear through something for a long period.
After a few days of this, you’ll be ready for an exercise that moves the chord around. That would be the next increment. Play an F chord and then move up the fretboard on the fifth fret to play an A chord. And so on.
A Couple Things To Keep In Mind
First of all, everyone at some point along the process will get demotivated. We will feel like we’ve lost momentum.
This is normal and it happens to everyone.
I try to address that by thinking about it ahead of time, and coming up with some strategies. There's a lot of different things you could do and there's not time to go into it here.
One quick example of something I do is keeping a calendar. I often make a strategy when I’m learning something new that’s difficult. After breaking it down I’ll make a calendar for 7 days (as an example). I’m going to practice the part for 7 days and put an ‘X’ on the calendar for each day I practice it.
Regardless of how good I am at the end, there’s still progress. And the simple task of putting an X on the calendar is motivating to me. I can visually see the progress.
(There are a lot of other strategies that we can talk about later. If you have one that works for you, let us know what it is in the comments section below.)
Another thing I want to mention is that when students feel frustrated or confused, they think something is wrong. Like maybe something is wrong with them, or their teacher.
I want to tell you that this is normal and it’s going to happen, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
This can provide fuel for overcoming difficulties. Confusion and frustration are your friends. But instead of dwelling on them, I would encourage you to use them as a signal to go back and break it down into smaller pieces. Or use it as energy and motivation to work through the difficulty.
Finally, don’t be afraid to keep going back around the cycle. This is not something where you just go around once and you get it and you're done. Occasionally it’ll happen. But most of the time you go around, figure out what you still need to work on, and go back through the cycle.
Just make sure you’re assessing where you are before starting that cycle again. What specifically do you need to work on this time around?
Again, this will help you get through any difficulties with frustration or confusion. Keep going back and assessing where you are and what you need to work on next.