Barre Chords 101
Can one devote an entire page to barre chords on the ukulele? These are tips I have learned directly from some of the world’s greatest guitar players and I have found that they are also appropriate for the ukulele.
1) NECK POSITION IS CRUCIAL! Make sure that you are holding the neck perpendicular to the floor or, preferably, slightly tilted AWAY from you. If you can see the dots or inlays on the FRONT of your neck, you are holding your uke in a manner that makes an already challenging task much HARDER. Use the dots on the SIDE of the neck to find out what frets you are playing on. If you don’t have side dots, get a white-out pen or paint pen and put your own dots on the side of the neck at frets 3,5,7, and optionally at 10 & 12.
WHY: If your fretboard is tilted toward you, your wrist and all of its complex components must stretch farther than normal to get around the longer curve, thus everything is weaker.
2) THUMB POSITION IS CRUCIAL! When playing a barre, make sure to slide your thumb to the center of the back of the neck. This puts your hand in position to achieve the greatest pinching power. (Although this is technically proper thumb placement for all playing, you can move it about as needed to comfortably play open chords and notes.)
3) DON’T LOCK YOURSELF INTO ONE POSITION: Feel free to swivel your hand, wrist, and elbow slightly to get comfortable. Many newbies start in one position and think they must stay there. Every body is different. Use proper technique, but also find your most comfortable positions. The goal is to play relaxed, not tensed up.
1) POSITION, THEN PRESSURE. Start learning barre chords by laying your fingers on the strings in the proper position, but don’t press down. Strum the song as usual. You will get a thunky, thuddy sound from the muted strings but that’s OK—it’s part of the learning curve. (You can actually play this way in a group setting—you’ll be adding a nice percussion section!)
Next, press down just a little, alternating up and down as you strum. Don’t worry about the rhythm or how often you press, just get your fingers accustomed to the up and down action. This will build strength and also come in handy later when muted chords are an intentional part of an arrangement.
As you get comfortable with finger position/placement, slowly increase pressure, hold fully down for about 6 seconds, then slowly let up and rest for about 6 seconds of no pressure. NEVER press so hard that it becomes uncomfortable. Repeat this for 2-3 minutes, 2-3 times a day.
2) WEIGHT TRAINING FOR Bb: To strengthen your hand for Bb, play the SAME CHORD SHAPE up on the 3rd fret whenever your music calls for a C chord, and on the 5th fret when music calls for a D chord. You will find the chord shape much easier to play up the neck as the strings are easier to press down in those positions.
Playing those alternates for C & D is like weight training: You begin by combining light weights with repetition to build strength. While you are building strength, play the thunky, muted-string version of Bb from #1.
WHY IT WORKS: In addition to the 2 or 4 string barre itself, Bb is difficult as you are right up against the nut where the string is both shortest AND must be pressed down the farthest.
3) FIND YOUR SWEET SPOT AND DON’T EXCEED IT. As above, lay your hand lightly on the strings in any barre chord position and slowly strum. Next, start pressing down on the strings as you continue to strum. Listen carefully as the notes begin to emerge. Once you are playing a clean chord, hold that pressure and do not press any harder!
Note how much pressure you need to JUST get the clean notes out. Repeat that exercise several times a day. Your muscle memory will eventually lock in the minimum amount of pressure needed. Newbies often wear themselves out by pressing too hard.
4) RELAX YOUR HAND! A tense hand is an enemy. Shake it out. Learn slowly.
The Instrument Itself
What uke you play can affect barre chords!
1) CHEAP UKES ARE HARDER TO PLAY! Buy a decent quality ukulele. You don’t need to spend a fortune, a Kala KA-C or KA-T is a good starting point, Ohana also makes great entry level ukes. Cordoba is OK (but instrument to instrument is not as consistent). Fender is OK. There are others too, but figure on spending at least $150 and stick to the top brand names. If you need to stay under $100, a Makala MK-C or MK-T is a good starter.
2) A NUT JOB IS A GOOD THING! At minimum, take your uke to a guitar/uke repair person or luthier and have the NUT set up properly. Or purchase from a dealer who does a set up before sending out. As I mentioned previously, playing at the first fret is the hardest position and uke music has those pesky Bb and Bbm chords! A proper nut job will make that easier.
3) ZERO FRET: A few ukes come with this, it is an extra fret wire sitting just inside the nut. There are sonic reasons for a zero fret but it also makes barre chords easier to play by making a barre at the first fret the same as everywhere else in regard to how far you must push down.
You can add a zero fret to any uke by purchasing a GoldTone “ZeroGlide” kit, (about $25-$30). You do need some DIY skills to install it. I suggest using a knowledgeable technician. In my experience the kit and labor will run you at most $100, but you will improve your uke substantially!
4) RADIUSED FRETBOARD: If you can afford it, purchase a uke with this feature. In the long run, I feel that it is the most valuable add-on feature you can request. It is somewhat of a luxury item found mostly on ukes from custom builders, but it can be added to a uke during the process of a full fret replacement job so I’ll include it here anyway to close out this post.
Nearly all guitars (except traditional classical models) have slightly curved/radiused fretboards. Guitars require even more hand strength than ukuleles when it comes to barre chords but the radius curve still helps tremendously with ukulele playing, especially after a long period of playing time.
Relax your hand and look at your fingers. They should rest in a slightly curved state. A radiused fretboard allows you to play barre chords in this natural position. I have radiused necks on all of my good ukes and my 63 year old hands thank me every time I play.