Barre Chords Playing Tips

By: Jerry A. Greene

Question: Whenever I try to play barre chords on my acoustic guitar, I hurt my hands. I think that I am playing them correctly, but my hand and wrist always hurts after only a couple of minutes. Could you give me some tips on how to play barre chords without them hurting much?

Answer: Barre chords are initially very hard to learn for most beginning guitarists, simply because they hurt. Your hand and wrist muscles are not usually used that way for anything else.

Guitar Action and Setup

Before you do anything else, make absolutely sure that the guitar you are learning on has soft enough of an action, for a beginner. This means that the strings should not be too high off the fretboard. Generally this can be adjusted. You don't want the strings too close to the frets, or there will be buzzing. Take the guitar to a qualified technician and ask them to do a "setup" for you. Ask them what their opinion is of the action and if it is suitable for a beginner.

The Strings Must Touch The Frets

One of the reasons that new guitarists have problems learning barre chords, is that they think that they have to press really hard to get the sound to come out right. If your guitar's action is suitable for a beginner (as stated above) you should be able to press the strings to the frets without much of a problem. (the first 2 frets are usually difficult because of how close they are to the top bridge (where the strings pass through). You need to practice keeping your index finger as strait as possible and as close to the fret you are barring at, without going over the fret (or the strings will mute). The amout of squeezing power that you need is to make all of the strings have full contact with the fret and nothing more! This is an extremely important point because most beginning guitars press way too hard. You will need to practice this until muscle memory takes over. Use a metronome to do this systematically. You will want to practice around the 4th, or 5th fret, where the tension is usually bearable for beginners, then gradually move down to the 3rd, 2nd and finally the first fret. Practice these chords:

E major barre chord shapes:

  • E Major
  • E Minor
  • E 7
  • E Min7

A major barre chord shapes:

  • A Major
  • A Minor
  • A 7
  • A Min7

Alternate Open Chords to Barre Chord

You'll want to practice going back and forth between open chords and barre chords. Pick two to work on, like open G Major and barre B Minor. Use a metronome to keep your pace steady. Pick a slow tempo and slowly work your way up to a faster tempo, once you feel your getting stronger.

Take Regular Breaks

It's also important that you take regular breaks to allow your muscles to get stronger. You should practice for 5 minutes on, and 5 minutes off in the beginning. If it still hurts too much to go for 5 mins at a time, go for shorter intervals of practice and longer intervals of rest. Soon, you'll be able to play the barre chords without any real pain.