Barre Chords: Myth Busters

Barre Chords: Myth Busters

Feb 28, 2024

There’s no getting around the fact that barre chords are one of the biggest hurdles for anyone trying to learn guitar. Even people that can play a barre chord still struggle with tension and fatigue years and years later. Take a quick look at any message board and you’ll see a handful of people asking the same questions every day: “can’t play barre chord. What should I do?” “why do barre chords hurt?” or “are my hands not big enough?”

If I may speak a bit firmly about this particular subject, barre chords are one of the most poorly taught aspects of guitar playing. YouTube videos with millions and millions of views unintentionally promote learning in a complete state of tension with a total lack of understanding the intricacies that go into this technique. And I know “understanding the intricacies” makes it sound as if I’m putting the barre chord on the intellectual level of rocket science, but it’s the oversimplification of how to learn and practice this technique that has led to so much struggle for teachers and students. 

Here are the common solutions to playing the barre chord that I’ve seen or heard:

“Just keep practicing”

But keep practicing what, exactly? Where does the problem lie? The tip of the 1st finger? The bottom of the 1st finger? The middle? Is the 3rd finger note buzzing? The pinkie? What if the wrist is out of whack? Squeezing too hard? What if the thumb is too high up or digging into the neck? To “just keep practicing” something without a full understanding of what is needed to practice is a frustrating endeavor. 

“Press harder”

Strength and excess force solves nothing. It only promotes you learning and executing the technique in a state of tension and clearly doesn’t pinpoint exactly what you need to be bringing your attention to. Ever find yourself needing to shake off your hand after playing a handful of barre chords in a row? Even when the song is slow? This is due to overuse and from the “press harder” mentality. The “no pain no gain” mentality is not something that belongs in playing an instrument. A barre chord in its final form is played with as little “strength” as possible. 

“Think of your 1st finger as a capo”

Ok so what does a capo do? It latches onto the guitar to firmly press down on all 6 strings, right? Right. But what is your barre finger supposed to do in a 6 string major barre chord? Is it supposed to press down on all 6 strings? Absolutely not! Your barre finger is in charge of 3 strings: the low E, B, and high E string. To press down on all 6 strings is literally doing 50% more work than you need to. Who wants to do more work?! And if you’ve had this “1st finger as capo” sort of mindset, don’t worry, even Google is out here spreading misinformation.

“Use the entire weight of your arm to push back with the barre finger”

This is one that made my jaw drop because, as opposed to the other suggestions where it’s a bit harder to see to the untrained eye, you can so clearly see that this is something that you should not be doing. Why are we trying to play guitar like the Incredible Hulk? Why are you putting the right arm in a position where it has to counteract the extreme force you’re applying with the left arm? Again, this is all the result of the false idea that the barre chord requires excess force. We need clarity in everything we do! 

I think it’s important to remember that the modern guitar is a relatively young instrument and that its pedagogy is constantly evolving. There are numerous professions that have evolved their practice through modern science and research, why would learning an instrument be any different? The more we understand our instrument and the more we understand our bodies in relation to the instrument, the better we understand ourselves as teachers and players. This isn’t to say that I, Raziel, am the only person on the planet that can properly teach a barre chord. There are great resources out there, but I still find that not all of them go into every necessary detail, which is what I’m here for. I understand the need for teachers or aspiring guitarists to want short, concise information to explain certain aspects of guitar, but I would be doing you a disservice by oversimplifying this technique. My detailed approach to this technique (as well as all other techniques) is not meant to overwhelm but to provide crystal clear information for what it is you’re trying to do. 

Over the next handful of months, I’ll be posting step-by-step instructions (with video examples) of how I approach and teach the barre chord. Some concepts are easy, other concepts maybe not so easy, it all depends on where you’re at as a player. Regardless, one should approach every step with as much patience and self compassion as possible and avoid negativity, frustration, and judgment. While these are of course natural and understandable emotions, they offer you no benefit. After all, what’s the rush?! A love for process and small victories is a beautiful thing. The sooner you approach learning the guitar this way, the sooner you’ll be playing with ease.

© Embodied Guitarist 2024

© Embodied Guitarist 2024