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It’s a guitar neck, not a pick axe!

Often those who try to play the guitar for the first time are put off by the challenge of, and sometimes pain experienced from, having to hold down frets to form chords or play melodies. Their fingertips are soft and haven’t yet developed the callouses that make playing for long periods possible.

There are many factors that affect the efficiency of your fingers on the fretboard. General body posture (note especially the shoulders, arms and wrists) and finger shape in relation to the fretboard all play a part. It’s important to seek advice and address these issues when learning to play the classical guitar. Practicing in front of a mirror is highly recommended in order to properly see what you are doing. Seeing what’s going on will help clarify advice received from a tutor and is essential especially if you are self taught.

Beginners also have to understand that when pressing strings down, it requires only the lightest of pressure from the fingers. The guitar neck must never be gripped as if it is a pick axe. The thumb should not be used to put pressure on or squeeze the guitar neck. The thumb is really only there to act as a guide and to keep things balanced. In fact it is possible to hold frets without the thumb touching the neck at all. That’s quite a useful exercise to try (in the case of more experienced players) if you feel that you are over-working your thumb. See how far you can get with an exercise or a piece you are learning, without your thumb touching the fretboard. You will most probably find that your fretboard hand will soon become tired and want to give up. That is because you are exercising different parts (in particular micro muscles) of your hand which are not used to such work. In time the hand will become stronger and you should be able to play an entire piece without thumb contact.

Guitar strings only need as much pressure as necessary to avoid making the note buzz. A good strategy to illustrate this is to lightly touch a string above a fret/note position. Then gradually apply more pressure to find the point at which the note buzzes. Then press a tiny bit more until a pure note is heard. That is the amount of pressure required to press down. Remember too that ideally you should trim the fingernails on your fretboard fingers otherwise they won’t be able to hold strings down properly or move about the fretboard efficiently.

As you become more advanced, you will eventually come across barés which, in their most demanding form, require a chord to be held while the first finger is pressed across all strings at one fret position, usually with other fingers holding notes to form a chord. Beginners often end up gripping the fretboard with more force than necessary while trying to produce a clean sound across all strings without buzzes. Unfortunately due to the shape of the fingers and finger joints, some strings are not pressed down sufficiently to produce a clean sound. This problem varies from player to player due to differing hand and finger sizes and shapes.

So how do professional players successfully cope with this problem? To an extent it is a matter of luck and our ancestral genes! However, one important thing to realise is that all barés still only require that same lightness of pressure. Figuring out how to achieve that lightness is something that requires careful analysis of the situation and training. You need to understand what is actually required of your fingers and to recognise when things are not working as they should.

It’s important to realise that it is not always necessary to press the first finger down on all 6 strings at the same time while holding a baré. Usually the 2nd, 3rd and 4th fingers are holding notes on strings that the first finger doesn’t need to also hold.

Of course, what needs to happen depends on what has or will happen before or after the baré is required. For example, if the note held by the 4th finger is followed on the next beat by a note that can only be fretted by the 1st finger which is already holding the baré, that needs to be taken into consideration and prepared for.

Our hands have micro muscles that need to be developed as they play an important roles in fretboard work and string plucking. In time and with experience, it is possible to sense and adjust how much pressure different parts of your hand and fingers are applying at any given time. The matter of micro muscle development is not easily explained and goes beyond the scope of this tip. However, realising its benefits can reap real rewards and is worthy of further investigation as your playing progresses.

Please always remember that if you experience any pain at all during your practice and when trying out new exercises then you must stop, put the guitar down and have a break. Also try to understand what might be causing the pain, ease back on that particular thing or try a different approach. Remember, the aim is to enjoy the pleasure of making music and not to injure yourself.

It’s also worth mentioning that if, despite your very best efforts, barés prove too much of a struggle for you, then you can do well to consider avoiding them altogether. It is sometimes possible to find alternative fingerings that work around the need for barés however that is not guaranteed. There are times when you might have to accept that a piece of music you adore is going to be out of reach. It is more satisfying to play music that you can cope with and play well than to struggle and produce poor results. The good news is there is plenty of excellent quality classical guitar music available today that doesn’t involve barés or keeps their use to a minimum.