Puny hands?
June 11, 2005 10:56 PM   Subscribe

GuitarFilter: Bar chords hurt...

I play acoustic, I've played off-and-on for almost 10 years, but never too seriously. I play modern music and I like to play stuff I can sing to. Anyway, if I play a song that is 80%+ bar chords (example), my left hand will start to ache really bad, to the point where I can't play a clean chord anymore. It feels like I'm just not strong enough, but I don't really get it, because I play so often lately I would expect that I'd develop the necessary muscles in my hand. I believe my form is correct, my thumb is pressed into the center of the back of the neck when I bar.

Do I need to do strengthening exercises? Or just keep playing and eventually it will get better? Or what?
PedantFilter: Bar or Barre?
posted by knave to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh, also I have an Alvarez acoustic with reasonably light action, so I wouldn't blame the guitar.
posted by knave at 10:59 PM on June 11, 2005

The guitar you play is a huge factor. The action should be comfortable. This means that the strings should be fairly close to the fretboard. The higher the strings are above the fretboard, the harder time you will have playing bar chords. You probably already know this.

If it's any consolation, I play acoustic guitar several nights a week professionally. My guitar is a fine Martin SPD 16-T. It plays and sounds like a dream. Yet, a tune with 80% bar chords will wear my left hand out, too.
posted by wsg at 11:10 PM on June 11, 2005

Oops...disregard my action comments.
posted by wsg at 11:11 PM on June 11, 2005

The problem is the "on-and-off" nature of your playing. The solution is simple: practice, practice, practice. Try for a month to devote 20 minutes to daily practice including scales. Record yourself at the start and at the end of the month. You'll notice a difference.
posted by runningdogofcapitalism at 11:11 PM on June 11, 2005

If you are playing medium gauge stings, try some lights.
posted by wsg at 11:22 PM on June 11, 2005

I think it's barre.

I've been playing along time but my hands will start to hurt playing alot of barre chords on acoustic too. The thing is, these modern songs you're playing probably used an electric. And electric is easier to play barre chords on. As above, daily practice and lighter strings will help.

You could also get a capo and play "easier" chords in different keys but then the chords might not sound like the album. I use a capo a lot but usually to get a different sounding chord, not for ease unless I'm using F or F# keys.

Action is hugely important and always a tradeoff between ease of playing and buzzing. You could have a guitar tech doublecheck yours. I prefer pretty low action on guitar and pretty high on bass.
posted by 6550 at 12:00 AM on June 12, 2005

I have similar problems, even after playing for a decade. Somebody suggested that I might be squeezing too hard. Relaxing the hand - just enough to properly fret all notes - seemed to make some difference. Nevertheless, I still have to cheat once in a while with some open chords to relax my hand during a song.

As mentioned above, the guitar and set-up do make a difference. My Martin dreadnought is a real work-out compared to my electric and spanish guitars.
posted by swordfishtrombones at 12:21 AM on June 12, 2005

I've been playing for 8+ years, sometimes 2+ hours per day, and barre chord based songs still make my hand hurt. I find some relief when I focus on proper technique, guitar on left knee, neck up at a good angle.. but I generally just find alternatives to using the full chord form. i.e. dropping the low E on an E form chord, and playing it with fingering similar to an open C. Experiment with chord voicing, and you might not have to play so many barre chords. Also.. tabs off the net are often so innacurate they're gross, with barre/power chords one after another.. give it a close listen, and you might be able to improve the transcription you're working from.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 12:26 AM on June 12, 2005

Take care of the 6th string by crooking your thumb over top of the neck.
posted by the cuban at 12:58 AM on June 12, 2005

The size and, more importantly, shape of the neck has much more to do with comfort than the action. Electric guitar manufacturers get this in a way that acoustic makers don't, but you can get some slimmer contoured necks if you look around.

Your thumb should not be pressed into the back of the neck. It should be touching fairly lightly. The barre should be made by your finger and wrist muscles levering over and pulling back against the neck. The whole arm should be brought to bear. Take your thumb off the back of the neck entirely and see which muscles are used (it's flexor digitorum superficialis and extensor carpi radialis mainly, if you care.)

Rotating the barre finger back a ways onto its edge makes this easier, engaging the ECR more, at the cost of making it harder to get your pinky and ring finger down the board for those crazy long-stretch 9ths.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:58 AM on June 12, 2005

Oh, and yeah, it'll get better with daily practice.

the_cuban: if the original poster had the kind of Hendrix-sized hands that make your suggestion practical, I doubt he'd be posting.
posted by ikkyu2 at 1:02 AM on June 12, 2005

You don't really need Hendrix hands to play the hendrix style barre, the A string can be muted with a bit of thumb, but that's losing one of the 5ths in the chord, so it sounds very different. There's also not an easy shift to a minor, and it's pretty bad form. You can slide an open C if you mute properly, play a barred A with three fingers and a muted high E, so the pressure is off of your index finger, and exploit the other positions of chords that have open strings, like using the open A while filling it up at around the 5th fret, and a D minor with that same shape by moving it all up one string.
I know hundreds of people who play with worse form than myself, don't practice as much, and have no problem with barre chords, so I just figure I have wimpy hands.
Sorry if my descriptions are useless, I'll tab them out if anyone asks.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 2:39 AM on June 12, 2005

I mostly play bass, but sometimes also steel-stringed acoustic guitar. My technique improved a lot when I started exercising my fingers.

Try combining strength exercises with finger independence training. For example, you can squeeze the outer two joints of all fingers as hard as you can, and then straighten one finger at a time and wiggle it, without moving the rest. At first it seems impossible, but you get better at it quickly, and hopefully your guitar skills improve as you do.
posted by springload at 3:18 AM on June 12, 2005

When you do barre chords, you're stretching muscles in your hand you wouldn't normally; at least to the extent and in the direction the guitar requires you too. Like learning any chords, your brain and your hand don't know how to do them at all, at first, but repeated practise will make it second nature.

I hate barre chords myself, and have never had enough patience to practise them. I may now, though.
posted by armoured-ant at 3:55 AM on June 12, 2005

I asked this question a while back... here's the resulting thread.
posted by weston at 4:04 AM on June 12, 2005

It seems you have your answer already but it's definitely all about developing the muscle and playing frequently. When I was in my garage band years ago I could play bar chords all day long because that's what all the songs consisted of. But even now I have to work up to it if I write a song with lots of bar chords. Just keep playing the song each day and i'd say within a couple days you'll be fine.

Also, the fact that you are playing it on an acoustic could add to the strain because they typically have a wider neck than electric guitars. In my experience, electric guitars are much easier to play bar chords on.

btw, good example song.
posted by freudianslipper at 5:19 AM on June 12, 2005

Take your thumb off the back of the neck entirely and see which muscles are used

I've been playing for years but that sentence has been a revelation, thanks ikkyu2.
posted by hippyboy at 6:00 AM on June 12, 2005

After playing guitar over 30 years, the rheumatoid arthritis that runs in my family has finally caught up with me, and even on an electric, I can only form barre chords for no more than a couple bars.

Realizing that adjacent strings are already tuned to the roots of II-V-I chords (EAD or ADG) allowed me lighten the load on my fretting hand by playing in a sparser manner that still sounded full. Allowing the root to drone, I then play broken chords and single notes over it. I find it amazing how full accompaniment can sound when most of the time, you are just playing the root note on the eighths with some occasional embellishment.
posted by mischief at 6:15 AM on June 12, 2005

Not quite answering your question, but Exit Music for a Film is played with a capo on the 2nd, which isn't just a lot easier but also sounds better to me. Try this tab instead.
posted by fvw at 6:32 AM on June 12, 2005

A few observations:

1. Play regularly. Play barre chords regularly. Play to the point at which it starts to hurt; rest, then do it again. Oh, and did I say do it regularly? You need to keep the relevant muscles trained, because very little else you do with your hands will do so. There's no quick fix for this. It takes time. I've been playing guitar for thirty years and I still get the aches if I take a couple of weeks off. Also, I mainly played electric until about five years ago and as others have pointed out, playing barres on an electric is much easier than doing so on acoustic. You might want to make yourself feel better by practicing on an electric for a while and then getting back to acoustic.

2. Technique. One thing that helped me a lot was practicing making a full barre without using the thumb at all; just bracing the body of the guitar with my right arm and pressing down with my left index finger. Then holding it for a long time picking each string to make sure I'd got them all clean. Then I'd do the same thing just resting my thumb on the back; then taking away the right arm bracing in mid-pick. It seemed to help me 'get' where my thumb should go for most efficient support, and it feels like such a relief when you start using your thumb. You can feel the pressure on your wrist easing immediately. I admit this is unorthodox - I certainly haven't seen it in any guitar tutors but it seemed to help me so...

3. Recognise that while most barre chords are easier to play with your index finger dead flat, knuckles up and the thumb pretty much directly under the barre (e.g. the E major shape), others are more comfortable if you 'roll back' a bit to the upper edge of your index finger, and move the thumb slightly forward (e.g. shapes where your other fingers have to reach more, or squeeze together on the higher (pitched) strings). This is because in the latter case there's more pressure forward of the barre so the thumb needs to shift a bit (not much) to balance it.

4. Practice moving barre chords around a lot, not just playing individual ones in the middle of those nice, finger-resting open chords. Start with mindless metalesque riffing up and down the fretboard with an E major or minor shape. Then practice swinging between the Emaj and Amaj shapes at the same fret. Then switch it around. Do the three chord trick with barres all over the neck. Aim for playing "New Values" by Iggy Pop, using full barres. That's when you know you're getting some serious strength together. Anyone who knows that song will know why: you have to slide your chords back and forth quite rapidly. Of course, the real song doesn't use full barres but trust me; doing so is a great way to give yourself steel wrists and tungsten fingers.

But mainly: work it baby, work it.
posted by Decani at 6:54 AM on June 12, 2005

Oh and yes, as someone else has pointed out... Thom Yorke plays "Exit Music" with a capo at the second fret. I know, because I've seen him do it. The acoustic version of "Creep", however, is a real wrist-tester.
posted by Decani at 7:08 AM on June 12, 2005

Lotsa great suggestions!
Just as an aside, tho, I got as much out of learning to simply mute selected strings while making full or partial barre hand-shapes, along with focusing on accurately hitting only 2-, 3- and 4-string groups with my picking hand as I've ever gotten from insisting on playing clean 6-string barres. I just like the sounds better, and find it easier to discover interesting harmonies, when the voicings are thinner. Plus I've enjoyed learning how much more is going on within selected string groups in a single fret position than you'd ever suspect if you focus mostly on 6-string chords.
posted by dpcoffin at 9:49 AM on June 12, 2005

You could try the GRIPMASTER - I had one of these back in high school, and it did strengthen my fingers quite a bit. The bonus to having a portable exercise thing is that you could improve your strength when you are away from the guitar - at work, at school, etc. Plus, with a name like GRIPMASTER, how could you go wrong?
posted by sluggo at 10:18 AM on June 12, 2005

Looks like the question has been pretty well answered, but I might add that if you don't want to spend ~$20 on one of those Gripmasters sluggo mentions, you can get one of those "stress balls" from an office supply store and squeeze on it in your free time. Hell, you can even make one with a small balloon and some sand.
posted by baphomet at 10:34 AM on June 12, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great answers guys, I'm going to try out some of these suggestions and see how they work out. Thanks also to fvw for the alternate tab link, although this isn't the only problematic song for me. :) (Creep was mentioned as another example.)

weston, thanks for the link to your thread, for some reason it doesn't come up on any google searches. Lots of good information from the ask.mefi crew!
posted by knave at 11:04 AM on June 12, 2005

Lots of good advice in this thread. I've been playing for 4 and a half years or so, and I learned on an Ibanez acoustic with medium strings and high action. I played all the time, and got pretty proficient, but playing a song with all barre chords still really tired out my hand. I played one three-hour gig with that guitar before I got myself a Taylor 214. It's a low-end Taylor, but it plays like a dream. I haven't played any acoustic guitar that was easier on my hand. I know you said you liked your guitar, but it might be worth looking into.

I also second the advice about using a capo and trying other chord forms. Constantly using barre chords doesn't make for a very exciting sound, anyway. Take this opportunity to expand your voicing vocabulary. And practice a lot, but rest when it starts to hurt.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:43 AM on June 12, 2005

And let me add that the simplest way to make it easier is to play the same voicing, but smaller. i.e., just drop out one or two of the notes so you no longer have to barre. So a G major barre chord could be played as: 3 5 5 4 x x, or x 5 5 4 3 x, x x 5 4 3 3, etc. You still have all the notes of the chord. You can get some alternate bass notes that way, too.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:46 AM on June 12, 2005

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