Why do bar chords hurt my hand?
August 18, 2005 12:44 PM   Subscribe

Bar chords - still painful after 10 years. Anyone have tips?

I've been playing (acoustic) guitar since I was 15 or so, and my left hand (sort of below the thumb area) still hurts after only a half hour or so of playing bar chords. I've made do by using the thumb on my left hand for bass notes, which actually works really well, but still - I'd ideally like to do both. Am I simply pressing too hard? What's the deal?
posted by ORthey to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
How high is the action on your guitar? Acoustic guitars tend to have the strings higher than on electrics in order to keep a clean tone, so you naturally have to press harder. And the higher you move up the neck, the more pressure you will need to apply. But it seems like you should have gotten used to that on your gutar by now.

I've seen some high end acoustics that have lower action, but they will be expensive. Maybe get one of those hand exercise things?
posted by InfidelZombie at 12:52 PM on August 18, 2005

I had the same issue when I started playing. Try rotating your index finger slightly away from the rest of the chord (i.e., toward the pegs). I find that this helps me press down harder, even to the point where I don't need my thumb on the bottom of the guitar neck. If you can do that, you won't have to squeeze the guitar, which should get rid of the pain. YMMV.
posted by danb at 12:58 PM on August 18, 2005

This has been asked two times now (once by me), and the resulting threads have some good information for your perusal. :)
posted by knave at 1:04 PM on August 18, 2005

Maybe you need to look at your overall technique and wrist position.
posted by lunkfish at 1:30 PM on August 18, 2005

Response by poster: Infidel - it's pretty high, which is definitely part of the issue.

knave - oops. Thanks. I totally skipped that part (the searching)...
posted by ORthey at 1:57 PM on August 18, 2005

The arthritis in my hands has become too bad to form barre chords and I don't have any interest in learning to fingerpick, so instead of strumming chords, I started playing double- and triple-stops, fill notes, open-strings, and other tricks.
posted by mischief at 2:00 PM on August 18, 2005

You could learn all the triads and make a chord wherever you like.
posted by princelyfox at 2:04 PM on August 18, 2005

it's pretty high, which is definitely part of the issue

High action on an acoustic guitar will (in my experience) always make playing bar chords a little sore, no matter how good your technique.

The problem might be that the neck isn't straight. You can actually check this by looking down the lenth of the neck. Also, check if the strings are noticably closer to the fretboard at the nut than they are further up the fretboard. If the neck is bent, I'd recommed taking it to a guitar shop and seeing what they can do for you.

You can avoid a crooked neck by making sure you never lean you guitar against something (a wall or a desk or whatever) by the neck or headstock, as this means the neck has to support some of the weight of the guitar and it doesn't like that.
posted by Little Bravado at 2:30 PM on August 18, 2005

The takamine jasmine is only $140 and has a serviceable action, albeit mediocre tone.
posted by craniac at 3:11 PM on August 18, 2005

Check the action - that's really the main thing. Try other guitars with that in mind just to see how they compare.
Also, unless you have huge hands, you'll need the leverage you get by keeping your thumb pressed against the middle of the back of the neck opposite your index finger, which is making the bar (rather than wrapped all the way around the neck). That's the only place you need to squeeze - you shouldn't need pressure opposite the other fingers making the chord.
posted by smartyboots at 3:22 PM on August 18, 2005

Assuming you have a decent enough guitar, you can take it to a reputable guitar shop with a luthier or repair technician and ask to have it "set up" for lower action. They'll know what you mean. They'll adjust the tension in the truss rod that runs up through the neck, put the most effective guage strings on it, seat the bridge pins really well, and attempt to straighten the neck gently if there is indeed any twist in it. It shouldn't cost more than $30, 35 bucks, strings included.

If you can't ge the guitar set up to your liking, then the problem really is the guitar. Some are simply designed with higher action, because some players and styles prefer the tension and single-string emphasis you can get from that. And some guitars are just plain badly built.

I've been playing 20 years now (yeesh!) and I know my bar chord technique is good. But I still encounter some guitars that are just a bitch to bar on. And it's for one of the reasons above. To determine whether the problem is you or the setup, why not find a better player than you and ask them to both watch your style and then try barring on your guitar. They'll be able to tell you right away where the problems are. Of course, it could be a little of both, in which case you can get the setup or a new guitar, and then get down to work building hand strength.

Finger exercises never killed any guitarist, either. There are dozens. Get one of those stress balls and squeeze it while you watch TV or drive or read. Or take a long narrow strip of newspaper, hold one end in your hand, and graduallly draw it up, crumpling as you go, with only the one hand. It will feel like a workout until your hand gets stronger.

Good luck solving your problem. Yeah, you could just learn different voicings, but there are so many times when barring gives you the intonation you want, or the percussive effect you want, or just sounds way more rock'n'roll. So don't give up.
posted by Miko at 7:26 PM on August 18, 2005

Although this is kind of a hack, I'd try tuning down a whole step. This will "loosen" the strings and make them easier to press down. Then you can work your way back up to standard tuning after you've had a chance work on your dexterity. Kind of like weight training.

Note that this suggestion won't work as well if you're used to singing at a certain range or if you're playing with other people in standard tuning. But it's easily remedied by slapping a capo on.
posted by quadog at 12:36 AM on August 19, 2005

yes, lower action and looser strings will help. You may want to get lighter gauge strings as well. Ask the local music store guy for 'em. but like other said, these options will change the tone to something less desirable if you're some kind of virtuoso savant. for the rest of us, the difference is minimal
posted by poppo at 5:33 AM on August 19, 2005

I'll second (third? fourth?) the action thing. I used to think that my guitar was pretty normal and then I went to a friend's house and commented on how smooth the action on his guitar was and asked him how thick the strings were. They were thicker than the ones I used!
posted by the_W at 7:39 AM on August 19, 2005

I can vouch that the Takamine Jasmine has a serviceable action. Easy to adjust and play barre chords. Anything more expensive probably has an adjustable action as well. Get a guitar shop or someone who's done it before to help you.
posted by achmorrison at 8:22 PM on August 27, 2005

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