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My wife is learning the guitar and is getting pretty good. She gets frustrated though because she can't play barre chords. She claims that her fingers are literally too short to ever be able to play some common barre chords.

Is it possible? Is the guitar a dead end for her? Is there anything she can do?

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6 Answers 6

Hand size is of of key criteria when choosing a guitar you want to play. You did not specify guitar type, but I can guess, that you have a classical acoustic guitar (with nylon strings and a large distance between strings), am I right? One of the people I know have the opposite problem - he has a very big hands and could not literally take any chord on a folk guitar, that he got on as a present.

Anyway, if hands are to small or too big for the instrument, the industry thought of that. In the case of small hands you need to get a guitar that has a smaller distance between the strings. If it's an acoustic, then folk (steel-stringed) guitar is the case.

If the hands are too small even for them, or she wants to keep playing classical guitar, there are models that are 3/4 or even 1/2 smaller in size. They are made to be used by the people with the small hands (in most cases it's children). The same is for any other guitar type.

So, your wife can definitely play guitar, it's just a matter of choosing the correct one.

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Too big is a much bigger issue than too small. I have large hands, but I don't have much trouble using a smaller kids guitar. Having big hands may make you feel clumsy when you start out, but it's a benefit in the long run. –  yossarian Feb 8 '11 at 22:28
    
Angus Young of AC/DC is a pretty small guy with pretty small hands. He does alright. I don't see a problem with it, providing the right guitar is chosen. –  VarLogRant Nov 26 '12 at 20:48
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I was going to launch into a long answer about how wide necks can be a real hindrance, especially with barre chords, but Silver Light got there first :)

If she is still convinced, after playing with different neck widths, that her fingers are still too short to play barre chords with, then I can throw in a bit of advice. She can try playing the variations of barre chords know as 'Beginner Barres.' The pictures below use the 'F chord' as an example, but can be used all the way up the neck, as there are no open strings involved. A lot of people use these to help them learn, before playing the full barres, but they can be used as full chords in a progression in their own right.

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Hope this helps :)

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No, I have seen little kids that surely have smaller hands than your wife play bar chords just fine. There are some very small children than can play classical guitar amazingly on a full sized guitar(the guitar is almost as big as they are). You'll find these video's all over you tube.

This is not to say that bigger fingers don't make it easier but only up to a point. Most likely the problem is not with size but of strength. Classical style guitar's have a much wider neck than normal and hard harder to barre than a strat. A LP has a slightly larger much much larger radius(much flatter) than a strat and it is harder to barre.

Smaller hands will have smaller muscles but strength can be built up. Also note that leverage is the key here. Sometimes it is easier to use your middle finger to help the index finger and also to use the edge of the index finger(you kinda curl the finger a little). There are many things to help make a barre easier but they are generally only discovered by practice(since each person tends to be different).

Tell your wife to spend 5 hours a day working on it for a week and if she can't do them then get her a smaller guitar ;)

Also, if it is an acoustic guitar sometimes the action will be too high. Acoustic guitars are already probably the hardest to barre on due to the larger strings and usually higher action.

Take her to a music store and have her play on all the different styles of necks(from classical to the strat) and see if she can feel the difference. If she struggles on the strat then most likely she doesn't have the hand strength developed and the practice.

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I was going to suggest the beginner barre chords, but alistair beat me to it. By way of encouragement, you might point out to your wife that Jimi Hendrix almost never used barre chords (check youtube) and opted instead to use his thumb to work the E.

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Although, he had monstrously huge hands. –  yossarian Feb 8 '11 at 22:27
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I know, but that would not be /encouraging/. The dude could barre the a and d strings with his thumb as well :) –  horatio Feb 8 '11 at 22:30
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barre the e and b strings with the fore finger make your e shape with middle ring and pinky mute low e with ring finger barring all six is not about strength but application keep that elbow tucked in and thumb in the center of the neck you next problem will be how to handle your success ..... rock on!

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the difference between the average guitarist and a great one is comitment and passion –  steve Nov 24 '12 at 18:11
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First, I have to clarify the statement that "acoustic guitars have stiffer action" - there is a big difference between nylon and steel string guitars, and the setup itself can make a huge difference. And of course electric guitars (steel strings) have absurdly low and soft action, so they are the easiest to bar of all.

But in any case, the type, size and quality of guitar has been covered well here - although no-one mentioned the small guitars that are built specifically for childrens' hands - kids will distort their technique to cope with a full-size guitar, so take those videos that were mentioned with a grain of salt ;-)

But there is something obvious missing from the discussion - barring is inherently difficult for the human hand! First, it relies on the tiny muscles around the big knuckle in the hand - most of our hand strength relies on large muscles back in the forearm (you can see this by wiggling your fingers and watching your forearm). Second, it requires a very high degree of independence between the fingers, something that most people are not born with, and must develop gradually over time. The independence is required because the index finger must hold the bar firmly while the other fingers must move freely to take care of the rest of the chord.

There are lots of techniques for developing good barring and finger independence, and I keep students' expectations low as they gradually build up the requisite strength and independence. But there is one exercise I've found, in forty years of teaching, that makes an enormous difference - it was developed by a teacher of mine doing research at the San Francisco Conservatory, and it is simple and really works. Here we go:

  • Hold your hands out straight in front of you Extend all fingers out as far as they go
  • Clench your fists
  • Extend again, and clench - do this as fast as you can, getting full extension in the big knuckle each time.

Simple, eh? But after many fewer than fifty repetitions (unless you're unusual) you'll start to feel burning in your forearms. You can't injure yourself doing this - it's an isometric exercise - so "power through the burn" to a reasonable goal. After doing this twice a day, after several months you might be up to 200 repetitions, and feel a tremendous difference in your barring - good luck!

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