Barre Chord Tips

I’ve had quite a few people contact me recently with barre chord problems. My main advice is: practice and lots of it. But here are a few more pointers to help you on the way.

What’s a Barre Chord?

A barre chord is any chord that involves playing more than one string with the same finger. For example, the chord on the left shows the index finger barring across all of the strings.

Some common barre chords are Bb, D7, F# and C#.

A few rules that are always true of barre chords:

– The strings on the barre will always be played at the same fret.
– You’ll always play a barre with your index finger.
– Barre chords have no open strings (meaning you can move them up and down the neck).

So why bother? The uke has four strings, we have four finger, right? Not quite. Anyone who has tried playing an E chord will know the frustration of cramming multiple fingers on the same fret. Barre chords make playing chords easier (once you get the hang of them) and allow for stretches you couldn’t perform otherwise.


The Number One Tip

As ukulele players, we are a bit spoilt with a small neck and gentle strings. That means we can play with your fretting hand wrapped around the neck (like the picture on the right). Players of most stringed instruments can’t get away with that and have to play with the thumb on the back of the neck. Take a look at Jacqueline du Pre and Bola Sete for two random examples.

Most of the time, you can get away with wrapping your hand around the neck. But not when you’re playing barre chords. Then it’s really important to bring your hand round so your thumb is on the back of the neck (like the picture on the left).

That does two things:

1) It gives you more squeezing power.
2) It makes your other fretting fingers arch higher over the strings. This makes them less likely to accidentally catch on the other strings and mute them. This can be a big problem with the Bb shape.

Other Tips

If you’re still struggling, try these tips. They don’t work for everyone but they can help:

Bring Your Elbow into Your Side: I can’t figure out why this works, but it does. Most people play with their fretting elbow out from their body. Bring it into your side and you should find it easier.

Rotate Your Index Finger a Little: Some people find that the ridge on their finger at the knuckle means it’s hard to play a good barre chord. If that’s true for you, try rotating your finger anti-clockwise a little so that you’re fretting more with the side of your finger.

A Bit of Re-enforcement: If you need a little extra strength in your barre, you can bring another finger in to help. This is particularly helpful with the C# chord shape (on the right).

Checking Your Barre Chord

Once you’ve got your barre chord in place it’s important to check that every string rings clearly. Play one string at a time. If one of them doesn’t sound right check to see if any other finger is touching it slightly. If not, try adjusting the pressure and position of your fingers until everything sounds right.

Breaking the Rules

As with all rules, the ones I set out before are made to be broken.

You can use a barre to good effect in playing the D chord (with an open string). I almost always play D by fretting the g and C strings with my index finger like this.

And you can play a barre with you middle finger. For example, you can play an Am7 chord 2433, like this.

A Demonstration

Here’s Diane Rubio’s masterful chord solo on Under Paris Skies. She uses many barre chords. Watch closely and you’ll see the thumb at the back of the neck, the re-enforcer and her using the middle finger as a barre.

More on Barre Chords

Once you’re a dab-hand at barre chords you might want to learn what barre chords go where with the CAGFD system.

UPDATE: Richards Tips

Richard left these tips in the comments:

May I suggest two further tips, noticed from my own teaching, that might help.

The first is shown very clearly in your first photograph: the index finger needs to be quite straight to barre effectively. That way you can get a firm pincer grip with the thumb. A number of my students start out with the finger bending at the second knuckle, so that the finger wraps around the corner of the fingerboard. This has the effect of pulling the top two joints away from the strings and also weakens the finger’s ability to push hard against the strings.

The second tip might help with getting a good ringing sound from each string, especially where the crease of the knuckles means that it is hard to press the middle two strings effectively: Feel that the finger is pushing down all along its length; especially imagine that there is a weight on top of the first joint (the one nearest the tip), so that it really flattens out against the strings.

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25 Comments

  1. Stuie June 15th, 2011 10:29 pm

    Fancy! As with many things with the ukulele, I look at the name and think, I have no idea what that is
    Then I know it already, like with hammer ons, sounds waay above my level, but found out the other week I’ve been doing them for ages.

    Bring on some more knowledge :D

  2. RyRawwr June 15th, 2011 11:58 pm

    One of the relatively few times having bassist strength fingers comes in handy on the ukulele :). Really nice tips; certainly encouraged me to fine tune my barre chords. While im commenting, not sure if youve been harrased about it already, but any chance of a chord sheet/tabbing out of under paris skies? Beautiful tune.

  3. Ron Hale June 16th, 2011 1:26 am

    I find, Al, and I know I’m not the only person who feels this way, that bar chords on a uke are
    a dicier proposition than they are on a guitar.
    Perhaps different muscles or combinations of muscles are used on the uke but I’ve always had, and still do have, and no doubt always will have difficulties barring on the ukulele. That’s one of the big surprises after playing the 6-stringer for years and switching over to the (mostly) 4-stringer. Someone made the same comment on one of Ukulele Mike’s videos and he agreed.

    Not unusual for me to have a sore index finger after a practice session involving those bar chord devils. For that matter, it was common for me to have a sore strumming index finger (before I switched to uke picks) after banging and bashing it on the instrument for a couple of hours.

    Now, the size of the uke neck and how the barring finger interfaces with the neck (heh heh heh) can create problems not found on a wider guitar neck.
    Another aside…Despite the fact that the standard guitar neck is wider than the standard uke neck, even on a soprano you have more space between strings than you do on a guitar because there are fewer of them. That surprised me when I dabbled with the guitar a while back. I couldn’t play it because I couldn’t keep my fingers from touching unwanted strings. They were
    just too close together after playing the ukulele.

    My index finger and the uke neck do not always fit well together, especially when I dabbled on the slightly wider Flea neck. If the note on the second string is played with the index finger, unless I make an extra effort to press down, I usually don’t get the note. And this extra effort often leads to soreness. It’s just one of those things about how my finger fits onto the uke neck. Now, I can try moving the barring finger up and down to try and find a better overall position, but that affects the notes on the other strings.

    I’ve seen videos, and not just a very few either,
    where people bar all four strings with their middle finger. Say a 2223 D7 chord, barring with their middle finger and playing the first string C with their ring finger. Now, I suppose this might make going to an open G7 a mite easier for them, but I cannot see barring with the middle finger. Of course, mine is so weak that it would ache if I started barring with it. And as far as moving from the bar D7 to open G7 goes, I play the first string C with my ring finger and just slide it into position on the B for the G7.

    Moving from an open chord to a bar chord on the uke requires a shorter sort of motion than doing the same thing on a guitar. This makes it more difficult for me, too. Going from say an open F (I use my thumb for the 4th string note, as I do for a number of chords, a holdover from the guitar) to a 2223 D7 is dicy for me. I want to make a bigger motion going from one to the other.

    I’m always hitting open strings between the chords, too. I’m hitting open strings in a lot of my chord changes, as far as that goes. So be it, to me it’s not a fault, it’s a style.

    I use my thumb on the 4th string for an open D chord. And then middle and ring fingers for 3rd and 2nd strings. Even then it’s a very tight fit. I don’t see how anyone over the age of seven or eight can use three fingers on that chord, especially on a soprano. There’s just no room on the uke. There’s not much room for the guitar’s open A chord for that matter, and there’s a lot more room there than on the uke for the D.

    Another problem I have with some bar chords, especially the 2223 D7 variety is “bouncing” them
    up and down to get a muting effect. The finger on the first string note usually stays down resulting in a ringing sound while the other notes are alternately muting and ringing out. Or the barring finger lifts all the way off the 4th string so that I have to make a special effort to keep the finger on the string or use the middle finger to keep it on the string.

    And these are just a few of my issues. I thought the uke was supposed to be so easy.

  4. TJ Luschen June 16th, 2011 3:35 am

    I had a lot of trouble starting out when barring with my index finger. It didn’t come together until I moved my index finger up until my first knuckle is almost even with the top string. Since I started doing that, I haven’t had much of a problem. I have such big clumsy fingers that I barre whenever possible. I play a D by barring with my middle finger and E by barring with my ring finger. I also usually try to play C and G chords by barring at the third and second frets because those formations always sounds better on my ukulele than having open strings. Sometimes I play D by barring as 2225, but that doesn’t always sound as good. I have to say, I think this is my first time to post, but ukehunt is by far my favorite ukuele blog (my favorite site has to be Richard G’s songs – sorry – you are a close second!) I definitely plan to purchase your book when it is released.

  5. Woodshed June 16th, 2011 8:55 am

    RyRawwr: Diane’s tabbed out her version (you can buy it in the underbar of the video). I might do a (simpler) arrangement myself sometime.

    Ron: It’s been a long time since I played guitar. Let me think back. I’m not sure which is easier. It took me forever to get barre chords right on the guitar. By the time I was playing the uke my fingers were very used to it. That might colour my experience but I don’t find uke barre chords any more difficult. Perhaps it’s due to my tiny girl-hands.

    TJ: Thanks very much! I’ll take second favourite!

  6. Mike June 16th, 2011 1:42 pm

    It’s worth noting that not everyone has the flexibility in that last finger joint (called the distal interphalangeal joint, FWIW) to barre with their middle finger. But you don’t know until you’ve limbered it up a little, so don’t get discouraged. As a person who’s had wrist problems forever, I promise that you can find creative ways to play just about anything on a uke!

  7. Richard June 16th, 2011 2:19 pm

    This is a great demonstration of how to get a good barre with the first finger.
    May I suggest two further tips, noticed from my own teaching, that might help.
    The first is shown very clearly in your first photograph: the index finger needs to be quite straight to barre effectively. That way you can get a firm pincer grip with the thumb. A number of my students start out with the finger bending at the second knuckle, so that the finger wraps around the corner of the fingerboard. This has the effect of pulling the top two joints away from the strings and also weakens the finger’s ability to push hard against the strings.
    The second tip might help with getting a good ringing sound from each string, especially where the crease of the knuckles means that it is hard to press the middle two strings effectively: Feel that the finger is pushing down all along its length; especially imagine that there is a weight on top of the first joint (the one nearest the tip), so that it really flattens out against the strings.
    I hope this helps.
    Your tip of rotating the finger a little anticlockwise is really good: I hadn’t realised that I do that too!
    Thanks, man. And thanks also for the link to the CAGFD. I have never before seen chord inversions explained so succinctly.

  8. perry June 16th, 2011 3:30 pm

    she makes it look so easy, but I find it is not for me..

  9. SamD June 16th, 2011 9:40 pm

    In answer to your above question, bringing the elbow in to your side means that the vector in which the finger muscles are pulling is perpendicular to the fretboard, allowing greater pressure with less effort. Just a little biomechanics for you there…

  10. Woodshed June 17th, 2011 10:34 am

    Mike: Yeah, fingers are a tricky thing! There are work arounds for most things.

    Richard: Thanks very much. Excellent tips. I’ve added them to the post.

    perry: That’s probably because she does a shit-ton of practicing.

    SamD: Excellent knowledge! Thanks very much.

  11. ukuleletim June 17th, 2011 11:37 am

    Having played guitar for 30 years I completely take it for granted, the ease of playing barre chords on the ukulele.. for me, that is. I can also naturally bend the crap out of my knuckles. It may be genetics or the constant playing, or both.

    Even haveing taught music for many years (ago), I still have to be reminded that a lot of people’s fingers don’t bend like that. So, it’s refreshing and educating to see a discussion on the “mechanics” of this aspects of playing… on any instrument, really, and including the diversity of players’ physicality.

    Keep at it, everyone, and thanks for the post, Al.

  12. ukuleletim June 17th, 2011 11:42 am

    I might also agree with Al’s comment to perry. Diane looks to be a seriously practiced musician.. the only way to achieve that precision.

    (and apologies for my grammatix in previous comment.. 5am in Austin)

  13. Christine June 17th, 2011 3:45 pm

    Awesome post! Using your tips after 2 months of practice I was finally able to hit some B barres. Thank you from a newbie.

  14. Woodshed June 18th, 2011 8:29 am

    ukuleletim: There’s no doubt about Diane. There’s only one way to get chops like that.

    Christine: Excellent!

  15. John November 9th, 2011 5:54 pm

    So, why are Barre chords easier with your elbow tucked in? Its because you can’t strongly flex your fingers (curling them to make a fist) when your wrist is flexed. Having your elbow out shortens the distance to the neck of the uke and means you flex your wrist so can’t generate grip strength. Anatomically the reason is that when the wrist is flexed the extensor tendons (the ones that straighten the fingers) are at full stretch so you can’t bend against them. Try squeezing something with your wrist curled round – you’ll be really weak!

  16. Woodshed November 10th, 2011 7:03 am

    John: Thanks very much for the info.

  17. Emily February 17th, 2012 9:05 pm

    I find it hard to play barre chords because my hands are so small (to the extent that the sop ukulele is only just small enough!) Have you got any tips for that?

  18. Marc February 25th, 2012 5:44 pm

    hey first off many thanks to the guys from this website, its quite something!

    im a beginner (2 months or so) and ive been wanting to learn some barre chords. funnily enough i dont seem to have any problems with simple barring (D7 e.g.) but rather with how to get from any other chord to a barre chord. it may have something to do with how i hold my uke, that is, where my thumb is while im playing a chord. i somehow have to “lift” my uke (to keep it from moving) in order to be able to position my thumb under the neck.

    does anyone know what im doing wrong? or does the change in position of my thumb become natural in time? many thanks in advance.

  19. Phil March 7th, 2012 11:34 pm

    @Marc — I’m very much in the same boat with you after a month or two of playing. My own feeling on this is that it’s better to avoid the baseball bat grip (neck resting in crotch between thumb and forefinger) altogether and just keep that thumb squarely on the back of the neck at all times. This requires more strength/endurance but seems to result in cleaner playing overall and fewer of those awkward ‘now I have to lift up the neck’ moments. Any advice from the pros?

  20. Marc March 28th, 2012 9:19 pm

    thanks Phil for your insights. still having some troubles, but much less :) although i thought this forum would be somewhat more active. just sayin’ (it says speak your mind..) :)

    Marc

  21. Woodshed March 29th, 2012 12:18 pm

    Marc: It’s not a forum. That might be why.

  22. Cassie September 7th, 2012 3:29 pm

    I am still struggling with barre chords. I blame it on little fingers. I can’t manage to wrap my hand around the neck effectively and end up using my thumb on the back of the neck. Also i have trouble keeping my index finger completely flat. are there any tips of exercises that i can do to help??? (my other opition is playing the Bb with two strings coverd by my index. This works well but i have trouble changing chords sometime with this. any tips would be greatly appreciated.

    Cassie

  23. Woodshed September 9th, 2012 2:05 pm

    Cassie: Yes, definitely move your thumb onto the neck for barre chords. That makes things much easier.

    I usually play Bb with my index covering two strings.

  24. Sharon November 22nd, 2012 5:30 am

    Thanks for the advice! Barre chords are still really hard for me, though. I find that I can get them to sound right for a few seconds, but then it sounds wrong again. In particular, I always hear this slight buzzing sound when I hit barre chords, which really bothers me. In order to get a clear sound I have to push down so hard that I feel like I’m really hurting my arm. It feels too tense. Am I doing it wrong, or do my muscles just have to get used to it?
    Also: when you play the B-flat chord, how do you keep your finger flat? I find that I have to bend my knuckle inward.

  25. Woodshed November 22nd, 2012 12:12 pm

    Sharon: That sounds like you’re pressing down too hard. It shouldn’t hurt your arm.

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