How To Play Barrés Without The Pain!

Firstly thank you to those of you who’ve sent me emails or dropped me a line via the comments box on your classical guitar questions. It’s really good to hear from you out there! And it means I can really tailor what I’m writing for you guys to cover off those burning issues for you and offer a little help, if I’m able. Do keep them coming.

So, today’s post relates to what seems to be a particularly hot topic for a number of you out there judging by the number of questions I’ve had on this issue.

What issue is that?

The humble, oh so useful, but oft troublesome barré.

Is that sore, hot, burning, achey feeling in the ball of your left thumb (or right thumb for left handed guitarists) familiar? Extreme tension, achey? Hate barrés?

Well, I sympathise. I’ve been there before in my formative years as a guitarist. I thought if I just press harder, just squeeze a bit harder the barré will sound, no buzzes, no dead thunking strings. Sound familiar? Well, all I got was a sore hand, and at some points a cramping, twitching thumb! Does that also sound familiar?

If it does, well it’s highly likely that just like I was, you’re thinking about the approach to the barré in completely the wrong way.

It seems to make sense that if one squeezes very hard with thumb behind the guitar neck and forefinger across the strings that this will achieve the desired result, right?  Incorrect. This squeezing and pressure creates a bad tension which is not only bad for you physically but makes it difficult to play.

But if you think about this away from the guitar, just looking at your hand right now as if you have your hand in a sock puppet, there’s not actually that much force that can be generated by such a small set of muscles is there? These muscles are really about refined movement. The end of a job that needs to be carried out by larger muscles.

Don’t think about squeezing, pressure and tension, particularly in the hand, thumb and fingers.

No, to play beautiful tension-free barrés all day long you need to think about weight, gravity, and using your bigger levers to do the bulk of the work for you.

Instead of pressing hard between finger and thumb, actually remove your thumb from the guitar neck and think about moving your hand in toward the neck of the guitar. The motion is kind of like you’d be patting yourself on the shoulder if there were no guitar there.

When doing this you need to be using primarily the muscles in your arm (your biceps should be doing most of the work), drawing your arm backward. And the weight of your arm should be assisting you in this with gravity drawing your below towards the ground. Use that gravitational force to assist you in hand and fingers into the soundboard. Always make sure your shoulders are not up around your ears, that they’re nice and relaxed.

It’s kind of hard to describe in words! And each one of you will, I’m sure, play in slightly different positions and approach this slightly differently.

If you have a teacher I strongly encourage you to work on this with them, or at least have someone that can watch you and provide pointers.

If not, just experiment with it. Either way I actively encourage you to play around with this and experiment with different angles of the guitar, neck, your arm and hand.

Yes, it will feel weird and completely strange to begin with. I can pretty much promise you that! But do persevere with it as the alternative is not a great option! This is just the beginning of a good barré technique – there are other elements to this technique which I can delve into in further blog posts. Try this for now though.

Once you feel like you’re getting your barré under control a little a great exercise to try is Sor’s Study in B Flat Major. A beautiful little piece that’s a great exercise for developing barrés.



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