How Do I Play Barre Chords with Small Hands?

How Do I Play Barre Chords with Small Hands? What is a Barre Chord?

A Detailed Guide All About Barre Chords for Beginner Guitarists

If you’ve begun to play guitar recently, you may have seen the term “barre chord” and gotten thrown. Or perhaps you know what a barre chord is but can’t seem to pull one off. If any of that sounds familiar, then you’re in the right place. In this guide, I plan to walk you through the world of barre chords and how to make them.

What is a Barre Chord?

By now, you may have noticed the term “barre chord” and wondered what I was talking about. A barre chord (sometimes spelt as “bar”) is a type of guitar chord made by pressing a finger across multiple strings at the same fret at once. Usually, it involves your pointer finger holding down all (or most) of the strings while your other fingers create the chord shape ahead of it. This type of chord is necessary for playing in keys that can’t be achieved with open chords in standard tuning.

Barre chords are a tough skill to learn for beginners, and can tire your fingers out quickly, but are quite essential for guitar proficiency. They allow you to switch to any key or play any chord anywhere up and down the neck without needing to fiddle with a capo. This is especially true if the song you’re playing contains a key change.

Chords come in five basic shapes, referred to as the CAGED system. It’s a mnemonic for the five chord shapes, which are simply: C, A, G, E, D. These shapes can be played in the open position-that is, near the nut using open strings to complete the chords, or in a barre form anywhere on the fretboard.

Which Barre Chords Should I Learn First?

The first barre chord you should learn is B minor in the first position (that is, at the second fret). The F major and B minor shapes require the same kind of muscle memory to form, but there will be a bit less tension from the nut at the second fret than at the first fret for the F chord. I would recommend you start with the slightly easier chord if you’re a beginner.

Work on making the B minor chord ring clearly without any buzzing. If you hear a buzz, that means one of your fingers (usually the point holding the second fret) is not pressing hard enough. Once you’ve gotten a consistent clear tone from the Bm, move onto the F major shape at the first fret. From there, go back to the B minor position but practice the B major chord instead. Then I would move to the B minor in the second position (starting on the low E string at the seventh fret) and learn that new Em barre shape. This is just my personal suggestion, and as long as you practice each shape it doesn’t really matter which one you start on.

How Long Does It Take To Learn Barre Chords?

On average, it could take between six months and a year of consistent practice before you can make barre chords comfortably and cleanly. The exact time it will take your hand muscles to bulk up for the task could vary based on:

  1. how tough your hands are to begin with,
  2. how often you practice barring the fretboard, and
  3. the type of guitar you are playing on (more on that later)

Some people have told me it took two years before they could make barre chords cleanly; a few people will admit that they still struggle with them many years later. Yet some people will get it down in just a few months. Don’t feel discouraged if your hand is struggling with this skill; it’s practically a universal experience for beginner guitarists to wrestle with barre chords. Just give yourself time and consistent practice. As long as you’re guitar neck is not hampering your efforts, than you will see progress.

How Do I Play Barre Chords with Small Hands?

Barre chords can cause fatigue and strain in any hands, but can especially pose a hassle for people with smaller hands who may not be able to reach their forefinger all the way across the fretboard. Here are my top 3 suggestions to improve this situation:

  1. Do hand stretch exercises
  2. Use lighter gauge strings
  3. Play on a guitar with a narrower nut width
  4. Start with power chords and work up to barring

1. Hand Stretches.

Like any muscle in the body, your hands and fingers will need stretching and practice to reach their full potential on the fretboard. There are warm-up exercises both on and off the guitar you can do to improve the amount of stretch between your fingers and the amount of pressure you can apply to strings. My go-to exercise on the guitar is called the “Spider Scale” and I have a video all about it. When I started playing guitar back in 2006, this was the scale exercise I used to improve my finger stretch so I could play jazz chords. I’m only 5’7” with relatively bony little fingers and I have no problem with chords anymore.

For building hand strength off of the fretboard, you can also train with a hand grip strengthener. This is basically just two bars with a spring keeping them apart: you hold the bars in your hand and squeeze them together, and the spring acts as resistance to build the muscles in your fingers, wrists, and forearms.

2. String Gauge

There’s also the issue of tension. Higher-gauge strings have more tension; and the more tension a string has, the more pressure you will need to apply to get that string down against the fretboard. For beginners and people with smaller hands, I would suggest that you start with a light gauge of strings; on electric guitar this means a set of 9s (such as D’Addario EXL120), for acoustic this means a set of 11s (such as D’Addario EJ26).

3. Narrower Nut Width or Thinner Profile

If you’re cramping or getting fatigued too easily while practicing barre chords, also consider the shape of the neck on which you are playing. A thinner neck profile and a narrower nut width will mean less wood that your fingers have to stretch across: if you’re hands are small, look for a guitar with a nut width of 1-11/16” or less (that’s about 43mm in metric). You can find guitar necks that come as narrow as 1-1/2” designed for children learning to play, but the widths 1-11/16” or 1.650” are far more common and should suffice.

I have written an article just discussing guitar necks, how they can affect playability, and which ones are well-suited for small hands. You can browse through it here.

4. Power Chords

You can also start with partial barre chords and work your way up to full ones. A power chord is a partial barre chord that only uses three strings and leaves out the third note of a chord (that is, the note that makes a chord either major or minor). Power chords are extremely common in pop rock, punk, alternative, and metal music; they are also much easier to make than a full barre because you don’t need to focus on three strings rather than five or six. In actuality, some rock guitarists only use power chords…a prime example being Kurt Cobain, who admitted he didn’t know how to play barre chords!

In Conclusion

Don’t beat yourself up if you’re still slogging through barre chords. They are a challenging but rewarding technique to learn on guitar. Take your time, stay consistent in your practice, and give yourself any little advantages that you can.

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