Well guys, it’s 3 AM as I write this post. Yes. 3 AM. The time of night when any sane person is unconscious, but I’m shaking off barre chord practice because that’s just apparently how I roll on a Saturday night. The house is quiet, Roomie’s asleep, and I’m not far behind, but as long as I don’t use a pick, I can keep things quiet enough to not disturb anyone.
Earlier tonight I threw out a sort of unproductive, frazzled post, because at 9:30 it didn’t really seem like I was going to get anything particularly productive done, but in the end, I do seem to have made some progress, so I wanted to write up my thoughts now, before I go to sleep and forget them.
So, here’s a list of dumbass things I did that I now realize were problems.
1. Getting my shoulder in on the act: I’ve had this habit of dropping my shoulder as if that miraculously would make the rest of my hand work better. I knew I was doing it, but only really ‘after the fact’. I had to really pay attention to start to break this habit. My shoulder isn’t fretting strings, so the idea that I have to move it into a different position for my fingers to work properly is just silly.
2. Trying to use strength: This is a bad habit I’ve had all along, really. I have this terrible habit of subconsciously thinking ‘press harder’ is the answer to bad technique. It’s not, obviously, but when notes don’t ring clearly, my hand tries to apply more force before my brain catches up. It’s absolutely no help that tutorials all say that barre chords, and chords in general require “strength”, creating a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Barre chords don’t require “strength”; no chords do. What they require is muscle control and accuracy. Learning how to use the small muscles in your hand with precision has fuck all to do with how strong those muscles are.
3. Forming the barre too far from the fret. This is the one it took me the longest to notice. It requires infinitely less work to hold a clean barre when the barre finger is almost on top of the metal fret. Every millimeter behind it makes it harder to get the notes to sound clearly, and easier to tense up/try to pinch the fret/apply too much force to compensate/etc. I’ve had it in my head that a 4 finger chord with a barre, like F, was going to test the limits of my ability to stretch my not-very flexible fingers, but that has been in part because I was under this false idea that my finger needs to be completely behind the fret, that the front or side of my finger need to be utterly flat there, and that’s just not so. It’s actually a remarkably small strip of skin that’s forming the barre, so if my finger looks like it’s overlapping the fret, well, it’s not, and that’s right about where I want it to be to get a nice, clean sound.
What it really comes down to, I think, is that we beginners tend to make things way more complicated than they need to be. I am still running into some issues with my pinky knuckle locking/flattening, and muting the string below it, and I have to train some muscle memory into my hand. Tomorrow (er…today…) I’ll do a bit of practice with just forming the chord, taking my fingers off, forming it again, to train a bit of muscle memory into it, and probaby by next week I’ll start practicing switching in and out of it with some other chord.
Ultimately, what it looks like from where I sit tonight, is that barre chords are hard to learn because the process forces you to break the bad habits you didn’t notice when you were working just with open chords, and those bad habits you’ve formed – whatever they may be – get in the way of learning barre chords until you can identify and overcome them, but from where I sit tonight, I think I’d probably say “barre chords aren’t hard to play, they’re only hard to learn to play.” And, I think, hopefully, from this point, now that I’m able to play a clean F chord 9 times out of 10, progress should be steady, rather than the stops and starts I’ve had up to this point.