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I played guitar for about a year like 2 or 3 years ago, and then my guitar broke while I was moving, and I just bought a new guitar last month and started playing again. I am facing the same problem i faced then. When I barre chords for more than 20-30 seconds, my thumb starts to cramp up really badly. I have pretty short fingers, and I can't barre chords the thumb-over style, i have to barre with my index and push on the neck with my thumb. I want to know if you guys have any tips & tricks for making this hurt less? I am gonna stick it through and practice through the cramps but I would really want to mitigate this pain somehow! Edit: This is an electric guitar LP Special II, so it's not an action problem. I know the LP has a larger neck than other models, but still if there's anything I can do :P

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Do you have margin to lower the strings-height? (so you don't have to press so much) – Sergio Jul 12 '13 at 8:14
The neck should be stiff enough that you can push into it with your finger more and rely less on your thumb to pull against. Obviously you'll need to brace the body to avoid simply rotating the guitar though :P – Matthew Read Jul 12 '13 at 15:06

7 Answers 7

up vote 11 down vote accepted

It sounds like this is simply caused by excessive tension in your hand due to inexperience, so the best advice I can give is to simply stick with it and make sure your hand is relaxed. Playing through it to some extent is necessary for beginners, but do your best to work at it gradually; you're more than likely not going to run into any problems, but this is a new action for your hand muscles to get used to so you want to break them in gently.

When you're playing barre chords, you want your thumb to be resting on the back of the neck at approximately the midpoint of the neck's width. You don't have to be pressing particularly hard, though, and excessive pressure is what tends to cause the most discomfort even for experienced players. While you're working on this, I'd recommend finding the least pressure you can possibly apply with your thumb and the index finger (since it's the barre) while still maintaining a clearly defined sound, and always strive to replicate that amount of pressure. Since you're starting out, it's important that you create good habits for your muscles' memory, so playing with the least tension in your fretting hand is definitely what you're aiming for.

In addition just playing as many barre chords as you can, I happened to like the following little exercise when I started playing. The key is to keep your index finger down at all times on the 5th fret, or wherever you choose to do this. You'll leave the index finger barred across all the strings as you work your way up, and it will more than likely feel pretty terrible at first but this is a great way to build up the strength in your hand.


Once again, you'll want to pay attention to two things: make sure your index finger is pressing as lightly as necessary, and make sure your thumb is resting comfortably along the midpoint of the neck's width. If you use barre chords, play exercises like the one above, and are conscious of any tension in your hand, the discomfort you're describing should begin to go away as your muscles become stronger.

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though my problem is that if I"m just doing one or two barre chords, i can control the pressure and mitigate the pain, but when I'm repeatedly going up and down the neck doing barre chords, I have to press harder than id like just so i dont mute any notes in between.. – lonewaft Jul 12 '13 at 3:11
You can work that into your practice routines to help as well. Come up with a few progressions you like and practice the same idea I've described, or just do random sliding ideas: start with a six string Fmaj barre shape, move up 3 frets to an Abmaj, back down 2, up 3, down 2 and so forth. You can come up with plenty of creative ideas, so if the problem arises when you're moving between chords, the same principles of consistent repetition and minimal pressure will work for you there as well. – Evan Carlstrom Jul 12 '13 at 3:18

Best advice I can give you since you expressed that part of your problem already is you have short fingers and can't finger or barre chords sometimes, tells me you have a problem lots of people do. All guitars are Not built the same. Meaning, the profile of the guitar necks are all different. Some have lots of shoulder on the sides of the neck. Some necks are really wide which is great for someone like me with big hands.

I build guitars for people, and one of the things I ask them before getting started is what kind of profile on the neck do they like for their hands. I've come across lots of players with smaller hands or short fingers, and all of them who try playing on really beefy type necks experience the problems you have with muscle fatigue and pains. I would suggest possibly trying out some guitar in a guitar shop with smaller profile necks and see how easier it is for you to play on.

My dad for example has very short fingers and can't fret a lot of notes. I built him a thinner sized neck that wasn't as wide as most necks either. Since putting that neck on his strat he can play full range now and not have any problems or pains in his hands. You find lots of replacement necks out there that you can replace on your guitar. Definitely look at your guitars neck now, see if its real chunky down the middle or really wide. If its really wide, its causing too much room your fingers have to stretch to reach and fret a note.

If you have a thinner neck with a smaller width, you won't have to fight to fret notes or play chords. It should feel effortless. You will find your playing improve greatly! For myself, I need a really wide neck, but for a profile I need a medium size, not real chunky at all. I have arthritis in my hands now and with the really chunky necks it hurts my hands. But a medium one is just right. Give it a try if you can, you might find its just the neck, you need smaller ones for your size hands. Again, not all necks are built to the same sizes. And many people overlook the necks itself as the issue for playing problems.

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I second the classical guitar position. Depending on which strings have to sound, I try these approaches in this order... (not all are possible depending on the size and shape of your hands and fingers - my index is not very flat so however much pressure is applied strings under the finger grooves won't sound)

  1. Fret the barre close to the fret -
  2. Apply downward weight to the barre - towards/onto the fret - in effect pull down with your whole arm - practice without the thumb - you shouldn't need it
  3. Roll the finger slightly
  4. Move your finger back or forwards across the fret to avoid the strings coinciding with the grooves in your finger
  5. Make sure your finger is rigidly straight - this is easy to forget - you're pressing hard but the finger isn't rigid so the effort is going to waste
  6. Conversely sometime you only need to get a couple of strings to sound with the barre - (often at both ends)- in which case you can apply differential pressure at the ends with a more relaxed, slightly rolled finger.
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I deal with the same issue, a tip I was given is to make sure to keep the wrist low and the index finger as straight as possible, also be sure you are rolling your index finger slightly so you are playing more on the fingers edge/side rather than the fleshy middle part. Also ensure you are as close to the fret as you can get.

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Several ideas:

  • For the time being at least, change the strings for lighter gauge, which will mean they're easier to press down.

  • Have the action checked, and lowered if necessary, meaning you won't have to push the strings so hard. Bear in mind that the index finger on an 'E' shaped barre chord only presses the 6th, and top 2 strings effectively: the other three are catered for by the other fingers. So, you don't need to press like crazy.

  • You shouldn't be pressing hard anyway, as if you pull back with your fretting arm against the neck, you provide the tension needed. It's quite possible to play barre chords with NO thumb on the back of the neck. (Pull the guitar body in with your strumming arm's elbow).

  • Experiment with the amount of index finger you use: it may be low, so just reaching the 6th string, it may be sticking over the top of the neck- whatever is more comfortable and effective.

  • Try to use the side of the barring finger rather than the pad, and bend it slightly.

  • Consider how high/low the guitar is worn; it will make a big difference to the angle of your arm against that of the guitar neck.

  • Consider the actual angle of the guitar's neck; some people find it easier to play with the head higher than the body, rather than horizontal.

  • When your thumb/wrist tendons start to ache, give it a rest. Yes, you can play through it, but you'll probably end up, like me, with some form of strain injury eventually – not good.

  • Try other guitars out. L.P's necks are more playable now than 50s/60s, but you could find a different make suits better.

  • Some of these suggestions will be a temporary measure, till your arm/hand gets used to the odd thing it's being made to do. As time goes on, it will adapt and you'll wonder what all the fuss was about. Good luck!

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I'd suggest you switch to classical guitar technique for a while. Preferrably of course with a nylonstring acoustic, but with an LP-style electric this should also work quite well. So, guitar on your left leg, elevated by a foot rest (or e.g. book stack).

The thing is, in classical guitar technique, the thumb mostly acts as an orientation/stabiliser; it never excerts much force on anything. This isn't necessary, because your arm has such an angle (similar to cello) that it can ideally transfer its force onto the fretboard. You can quite easily train this in classical position by playing Barre chords with the thumb not touching the back of the neck. This will give your hand much better mobility, as well as a good feel where exactly you really need how much pressure on the strings.

Unfortunately, this technique can't quite be transferred to the more horizontal position of normal electric guitar playing, the arm angle just isn't right. Still, you can take quite a lot of the experience over there.

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It can be helpful to subtly pull backwards at the shoulder, using your arm muscles to press your fingers against the strings instead of solely relying on your thumb.

As an exercise you can form the barre chord, pull back with the arm and then release your thumb from the back of the neck; You should still be able to strum the chord even with the thumb removed.

Of course you can overdo the use of your arm, leading to tension/stress in your shoulder, but being aware of this (slight) arm-component in forming barre chords can be useful.

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