Perhaps it's just that I have small hands (e.g. index finger is barely longer than the 12th fret), but I seem to have issues with barring; no matter what I do it seems there is a string that's right on a finger joint and gives a dull note instead of ringing out. What can I do to ensure more consistent tone from all strings when barring without having to take a moment to readjust every time?
Well, don't let lousy sounding barre chords stop you from playing them anyways. After getting your action adjusted by a pro, the next step is just to keep playing them and let your fingers get strong, and find their place. IE, where do I need to put the pressure, and where do I do not.
Alternatively, you might look into a guitar with a smaller neck width, or do what I did, and switch to an hollow bodied electric, specifically a Gretsch. For the first time, playing thru an amp, I could hear each string, which made me want to play those cool sounding 7ths and m7th's, and it was much easier to fret than my acoustic or my other electric. I strung the action really low.
But after getting my fingers stronger and more comfortable with the barres on the Gretsch, it is now easier to play them on the other guitars, too. It takes time, tho.
One vital bit of advice that I wish I had years ago..
Its possible to barre all of the strings with very little strength, it can be achieved with technique alone. First, press your index finger against the strings, but keep it relatively relaxed. Strum the strings and you will probably find that the top and bottom strings ring but the middle strings are muted. This is because of the way our fingers naturally bend when relaxed.
Now, from that same position, bring the elbow of your fretting arm towards your ribs, allowing your index finger to roll slightly so that the side of the finger is pressed against the fret board. Strum the strings again, and you should find that the strings ring out more and the tension in your hand is no greater than the first time.
A common mistake, and its the one that I made too, is that the thumb provides the force required to press on the strings when really it should be just there to steady your hand. The power should come from your arm, which is much stronger.
There's some good advice in todd's answer. My experience with your particular complaint about the gap in the finger joint is that it went away with time. I too used to never be able to barre without there being at least one string that would find its way into a notch in my finger.
While hand strength and the action on the guitar were important, I also learned that the practice itself of barring generates a callus right on that joint. This has the natural effect of filling in the space, and voila, the problem solved itself over time.
Just keep at it!
I agree, action setup - the distance of the strings from the fretboard - for your hands is crucial. Also, play with different string gauges to find the one that works best for you.
The technical purists will probably read me the riot act, but I think everyone needs to adapt to what works for them. Ultimately this is about bringing out your magic and if you can't because you're not comfortable, what's the point? There are lots of technically great players, but lots of them have no feel.
I have small hands and have to compensate. With regard to Barre chords, I primarily get the "F" chord figure, for example, in place and then worry about the Barre factor - the bass note. Some people will use their thumb to cover the bass note.
Pick muting can help too. Pluck the bass note first, then mute across the "A' string and then strum the rest of the chord.
Lastly, you can shift the weight of your hand as needed rather than trying to hold the full chord tightly.
Keep at it - it will get easier!
Great advice in other answers already. My four main points about effective barre chords are:
- make sure your index finger is absolutely straight and close to the fret. Often it is tempting to have the finger slightly diagonal, so that it is further from the fret on the first string.
- experiment with how much you need to press your first finger and where. Some chords will allow you to have your finger slightly bent, as you won't need to press down the middle strings; other chords will require distributing the pressure in other places. Eventually you'll naturally know which chords require pressure where. (If you really do need to barre nearly all the strings, eg. for an "E-minor-seventh-shape", keep the pressure as even across all the strings as possible.)
- if playing a chord that doesn't require all the strings, eg. an "A-shape" barre chord, only barre as many strings as you need. In fact, you can use the tip of your index finger to damp the low E string when playing "A-shape" barre chords, so that you get the root in the bass, and not the fifth. (Sometimes though it is easier to barre more strings than necessary, as this makes the whole hand position more comfortable - again, experiment!)
- on half (or 2 and 4 string) barres push your wrist forward a little, so that your finger "bends-back" a little. This helps to ensure pressure is evenly applied on half-barres, rather than there being more pressure on string 1. Technically this is usually a bad idea; this is the only time I use this technique in my playing.
As other answers have pointed out, positioning is the key thing. This allows pressure to be effectively applied where needed, and so less pressure to be used overall, leading to less fatigue and better tone.
Not much more I can add but I'll try:
After you get your action adjusted if needed, start by just barring with your index finger and make sure all the notes ring out clearly. Then add each note one at a time making sure each one rings out clearly. Barr chords can be uncomfortable at first. We all went through it, and yes it can hurt, and notes get muffled, or make some weird buzzy noise, but each time you do it you'll get better at it. Also, try just holding the chord. don't strum, just hold it. By doing this you're building the muscle memory in your hands, and this will help in the long run. remember that term "long run" that's what we usually strive for when learning guitar. Unless your a prodigy, then you'll have to work at it for some time before you're recording albums and signing autographs. =-)