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.


How To Practice When You Don’t Feel Like Practicing

Yes, it does happen from time to time, that you just don’t feel like doing your guitar practice today. It happens to those most dedicated to their learning. It happens to the amateur. It happens to the pro. And I can tell you it certainly happens to me too! We’re all human, not mindless, lifeless robots, so it’s completely understandable.

When you find yourself in this situation of not feeling like practicing it’s important to examine why it is that you don’t want to practice, or have minimal appetite for it, and act on that. I had a bit of that feeling this weekend, for example, and taking a look at why I didn’t feel like practicing may be relatively easy to understand – 6 aeroplane flights in the preceeding 5 days, working away from home in various locations all week, cramming Christmas parties in, shopping and family stuff all into a 48 hour period.   I could possibly be forgiven for wanting to flop on the couch and watch just one more episode of Game Of Thrones! But crack on with practice I did!

We can’t help situation and circumstance – Yes, I am busy. Yes, I am tired. And I completely understand where those of you are coming from who also have busy lives in terms of practice. But this is not excuse enough. Well, not for me anyway.

I’m saying this in a “let’s be hard on myself, go, go, go, more, more, more” kind of way. Nope. I’m saying this in a “consistency is key” kind of way. Even picking up the guitar for 10 or 15 minutes and working on just one small thing, I know from experience, has absolutely undeniable benefits.

It comes down to choice. You can choose to do something else other than practice (and sometimes if you’re really super tired that’s probably the right choice!). You can also  choose to pick up the guitar for even just a few minutes, reconnect and play at least something. And more often than not I make the choice to practice, if if I do feel like flopping on the sofa!

How do I do that? Well, here are some of my top tips for practicing when I don’t feel like practicing:

(1) I firstly examine whether I’m just being lazy or am genuinely tired. I also look at my schedule coming up and when I’ll next be able to practice if I don’t get a session in now or today. If I’m away for a few days and the next practice session is looking like it will be 3 or 4 days away then it’s a bit of a no-brainer – pick up the guitar and get on with it!

(2) But if I am genuinely over-tired (to be honest it doesn’t happen that often that I’m just being lazy!), then it’s simple. I may tinker for a little on the guitar, play a few favourite tunes to keep the fingers moving, but I won’t do what I call proper practice. You need a more-or-less switched on brain for that!

(3) I remind myself that I don’t have to sit there for the next 90 minutes! I tell myself to give it just 10 or 15 minutes. More often than not I end up then getting into the swing of it and practicing for 30, 40 minutes or more. Getting started can sometimes be the most difficult bit! Once you get going though you’re often off and on your way.

(4) I remind myself that picking up the guitar for just those 10 or 15 minutes I’ll be one step closer to getting that piece under the fingers and understanding the music than the same time yesterday, rather than two steps back (potentially) if I’d not practiced. Every little bit really does count when it comes to practice.

(5) I’ll often seek some external inspiration by listening to a favourite recording or a recording of a piece I’m learning. I’ll listen in to the sounds and shapes of the music, and think about how I’d create that myself on the guitar. This invariably starts the fingers itching for some play and practice.

(6) Set a schedule – practice is an art in itself, it’s true. You can also say it’s about habit. Set yourself a regular time slot, if possible, six days out of seven and stick to it. You may have to encourage yourself to practice in this manner for a while, but like practice the habit soon begins to stick with you.

Happy praciting!