When I hear aspiring guitar players complain about pain in their wrist and fingers from playing barre chords, I totally get it.
I had a lot of dumb ideas about the guitar when I first started playing. I honestly believed that pain was a normal part of being a guitar player. It took more than a decade to realize how wrong I was.
It wasn’t until I noticed my fretting hand getting cold, and sometimes numb, after I had been playing for an hour or more. Usually the symptoms popped up if I had been playing a lot of barre chords or practicing scales.
That’s when I started to learn about correct posture on the guitar.
The way to get better at playing barre chords—or almost anything else on the guitar—is to systematically eliminate muscular tension from your playing as much as possible. Continuing to play barre chords in a painful manner will not fix the problem.
Eliminating tension can be as simple as straightening out your wrist when you play, or relaxing your fingers to allow them to curve slightly.
The following sections will cover various ways to remove tension from your wrist and fingers. This is not medical advice. If you are experiencing serious pain when playing guitar, make sure to consult a doctor.
Straighten Your Wrist
The biggest mistake I see when it comes to barre chords is all in the wrist. Chord diagrams show where to put your fingers. But they don’t say anything about how to position your wrist.
As much as possible, you want to keep the wrist of your fretting hand as straight as you can. There are positions on the neck where this is difficult, if not physically impossible. This will vary depending on your hands and the guitar you’re playing. Just be aware of what your wrist is doing.
Try this experiment:
- Hold your hands out in front of your body.
- With your wrists as straight as possible, open and close your fists. Notice any tension you feel in your fingers, wrists, or forearms.
- Now, with your hands still outstretched, bend your wrists down so your fingers are facing the floor.
- With your wrists bent, open and close your fists again.
If you did this correctly, you should have noticed a couple things. The more you bend your wrists, the more tension you feel in your forearms. Bent wrists also make it harder to move your fingers.
Now to see how this applies to barre chords.
The above photo shows a G major barre chord with my wrist bent at almost a 90-degree angle. This is a recipe for discomfort. With this posture, it takes more strength to move my fingers into position, and there is constant tension in my wrist/forearm.
Most of the p
Now for an example of the right way.
I’m gripping the same G major chord as before, but the whole thing is much more relaxed. You might even say it looks effortless.
Straightening your wrist has the added effect of allowing your fingers to follow their natural curves. Straight fingers are tense fingers.
Another thing missing from those chord diagrams is how your fingers should look from your point of view.
When you straighten your wrist, the fingers on your fretting hand begin to angle backward slightly toward the headstock. You’re no longer contorting your hand to make the barre chord shape.
The index finger begins to naturally curve along the fret. There is no need to press it flat. It only needs to hold down a few strings.
The other fingers angle backward. This posture requires way less strength and allows the fingers to settle into a more natural position.
How Long Does it Take to Get Good at Barre Chords?
With regular practice, you should be able to master the basic barre chord shapes within a month or two. While you can learn the shapes in a matter of days, it takes time to build strength and endurance.
It also takes time to build calluses. While you may be accustomed to playing typical “cowboy” chords, those mostly develop calluses on the tips of the fingers. Barre chords require different parts of your fingers that may not be as tough yet.
Practice these four shapes at least 15 minutes a day until you can play them effortlessly.
Don’t keep playing if you are in pain. Playing too much will not help you build calluses any faster. It will only hamper your progress.
Keep a close eye on your wrist and the curvature of your fingers. Practicing bad posture will only make barre chords harder than necessary.
Check Your Guitar Setup
If you think you’re doing everything right and you are still getting pain from playing barre chords, it’s always a good idea to eliminate variables. Sometimes the culprit is a guitar with a bad setup.
The first place to look is your action. The action is how high your strings sit above the fretboard. A certain amount of space is is needed to allow the strings to vibrate without buzzing against the frets.
Excessively high action makes it harder to press the strings. This will increase the amount of tension and pain in your hands.
On an electric guitar, the action is typically adjusted by raising and lowering the bridge or saddles. Acoustic guitars may require modifying the saddle.
A poorly-made nut can also place the strings too high above the frets at the opposite end of the neck.
Keep in mind there can be other variables that complicate these adjustments. If you don’t know how to check or adjust your action, take your guitar to a qualified tech for a proper setup. Once your guitar is set up correctly, it should be much easier to play.
If your guitar has a professional setup, and you’re still having trouble with barre chords, you may not be practicing as much as you think.