Rather than just going into a do-this/do-that kind of discussion I thought I’d approach this from the perspective of observation. That is, what I see my students endure and what can be reasonably expected.
What are barre chords, really? It is the act of laying your index finger across all or part of the neck while other fingers fret notes above it (toward the body of the guitar). What you are doing is the job the nut on your guitar does – in the opposite direction. The nut is pressing UP to divide multiple strings at a specific point; when we barre we are pressing DOWN to accomplish the same thing. That in itself is difficult enough, but arching and separating the other fingers above the barre is where the frustration really starts.
The single biggest problem I see with students is a reluctance to abandon what I call their “comfort zone.” When a player advances beyond the raw beginner stage of playing basic 1st position chords they naturally find a thumb and wrist angle and position that works for most of the time. Assuming the wrist and thumb angle is correct (hint: with open 1st position chords ALWAYS try to keep the pad/tip of thumb parallel to your 2nd or middle finger, which forces your wrist into the correct position) and the fingers are properly arched the act of radically repositioning the wrist and thumb for a barre chord is always trouble.
I stress how important it is to DROP the wrist and forearm and position the pad of the thumb centered behind the neck directly beneath the barring finger. This is not easy! Abandoning that comfort zone and dropping the forearm is a big move compared to just about anything else we do with our fretting hand on the guitar. Why is this so important? Because quite simply, there is no other way to straighten the barring finger across the neck. A curved barring finger will absolutely not work. I often tell my students that if I can see the pad of their thumb when they try to barre a chord I don’t even need to hear it; I know it isn’t going to work.
And here’s where things get really awkward and tough. Many times I find students assuming that the barring finger should be flat, with the fleshy bottom of the finger doing the work. But this is not the case. And what I’m going to say now totally goes against what the human hand was designed to do: As much as possible – while still keeping the other fingers upright – you must turn the barring finger slightly on its side! Yikes! This is because the side of the finger is a harder surface than the fleshy bottom and firmer contact will be made on the neck. Doing this without the other fingers collapsing toward the barring finger and staying upright is perhaps the biggest challenge a guitarist will face when they first attempt barre chords.
How about position relative to the frets? You obviously don’t want the barring finger to overlap the fret, which will muffle and kill the vibration of the strings. But you must be as close as possible – without overlapping. This will help a bit with the challenge of arching the other fingers. And don’t waste valuable practice time trying to get a clear sound all the way across the neck with the barring finger, be sure to complete the chord. Remember that the other fingers are ABOVE the barre, so what goes on behind them is irrelevant. Only the notes in the chord that are produced by the barre are what is important.
Compounding things further are two things. There is a reason most electric guitars use thinner strings and have narrower and shallower necks than acoustic guitars – because much of the music played on an electric guitar uses many, many barre chords. So why don’t we just use lighter strings on an acoustic guitar? Well, we could, and some players do, but the lighter (thinner) the gauge of string, the weaker the sound on an acoustic guitar.
Also, many of the most fundamental barre chords used by beginner and intermediate level acoustic guitarists are way back in 1st, 2nd or 3rd position. Having to reach out toward the head of the guitar and still maintain the fundamentals described above makes the whole process that much more difficult. Plus, when playing some of the most common 1st and 2nd position barre chords such as F Major, Bb Major and B minor you are also fighting against that upward pressure from the nut. Sooner or later most players discover that barre chords farther up the neck are actually easier to play because they don’t have to reach as far, the frets are closer together, and the strings are easier to press down when you’re not battling the influence of the nut.
So let’s assume you’ve gotten to the point that at least occasionally you get a reasonable sound from those common barre chords in 1st and 2nd position. Another thing I see with just about every student is real trouble coming OUT of the barre chord and back to “regular” chords. They will often stop at those points and this can be truly frustrating. But remember – just as you had to abandon your comfort zone to get into the barre chord, you must return to it very quickly to avoid stopping and breaking the beat. This again means a radical repositioning of the hand, wrist and arm.
The take-away here is to stay loose! I have said this before but it bears repeating. If you can get to the point that barre chords are a minor PIA rather than a point of panic and despair, you absolutely will get them. I wish I could tell you how long that will take but there are just too many variables, some of which are width of fingers (surprisingly, women often succeed with barre chords sooner than men as they usually have thinner fingers that find those “sweet spots” sooner than men with thick, wide fingers); overall strength, understanding of the minutia that must be addressed to succeed, and most of all, determination.
So why the heck to we have to play barre chords at all? I can tell you that occasionally I will get a new student who is somewhat experienced and has managed to avoid them for a very long time. But the reality is that playing barre chords opens up the whole neck and some songs require barre chords that just cannot be “fudged” with a 1st position (read: easy!) chord.
All guitarists dislike barre chords. There are songs that I play that include challenging barre chords that I always launch into having no solid idea just what will happen. But I go for it anyway, and you should too! What will happen is that over time as your hand gets stronger and you consistently position your hand correctly your percentage of success with the darned things will increase.
Peace & good music,