From The Straight Timber of Humanity, How Crooked A Thing Was Ever Made?

by John Holbo on August 5, 2010

I took up guitar in my middle-age some months ago. I’m teaching myself. I think that’s working out ok. But I have a question for you lurking shredders and orthopaedic medical professionals in the CT commentariat. My fretting fingers work thusly. I can make a nice A-shape chord with my pinky, which has learned to bend back at the top joint in an accommodating sort of way. But my ring finger refuses to bend back. At all. I can’t even get it a few degree back past straight, so I can’t even cover two strings, let alone three. (That whole ‘just let the high E be deadened’ kludge doesn’t work for me. I can’t get the B. One lousy note isn’t going to cut it as an A-shape chord.) So my pinky is getting a lot more A-shape barring work than is, I think, standard for his sort of finger. Yes, some people have real problems. My question is whether there is any healthy and effective way to train my ring finger to ‘break at the joint’. Intuitively the way to do it would be like learning the splits. A bit more each day until you’ve got it. But maybe I’m just going to give myself arthritis for my troubles if I try to become double-jointed where I wasn’t born to be. I’ve asked a few guitarists who have offered variations on ‘you don’t need to be able to bend your joint back, dude, just figure out how to sort of do it with what you’ve got.’ But, with all due respect, I suspect most guitarists can get their top joint to bend back at least a few degrees past straight. All my other fingers do, just not the ring finger. Discuss.

Guitar players: how far back do the top joints of your barring fingers bend? How long did it take you to get it there, if you happen to remember?



Alex 08.05.10 at 1:32 am

I’ve been teaching myself guitar for 8 months now, and I’ve got the exact same problem.

Different guitarists say different things, really; some of my friends are of the aforementioned “just-learn-to-fudge-it” variety, but others have suggested that it’s best to do what’s most comfortable–which, in both our cases, is the pinky-A-chord formation, so I’ve been sticking with that.

The obvious downside of the pinky-chord is that you can’t really use your pinky for little licks/ornamentations/etc. during the chord, unless you’re exceptionally dexterous. But it hasn’t been that much of a problem for me so far; I mostly alternate between scales and chords.

Coincidentally, I work in the medical field, and while I’m not in orthopedics, I’d wager there’s only a small amount you can do to improve ring-finger flexibility without self-injury. We’re all jointed differently, I’m afraid. But again, I’m no expert, and I guess it could happen.

Alternatively, you could take up speed metal rhythm guitar and only use power chords.


Glen Tomkins 08.05.10 at 1:36 am

A few questions in clarification

I’m not an orthopod, just a common General Internist, but MDs who take much interest in practical problems aren’t that common, so I may be the best you get. First responder anyway, it seems.

Does the left hand ring finger have the same range of motion as the finger of interest on the right? If not, was there an injury to the right at some point? How much difference is there between range of passive, and that of active, motion (i.e., between trying to hyper-extend just with the intrinsic muscles of the ring-finger, and what you can get by using your other hand to apply pressure)?


James 08.05.10 at 2:03 am

Another option for A-shaped barre chords is to use the tips of your middle, ring, and pinky finger to voice the A chord and to use the index finger as the barre. This requires more stretching, but you don’t have to bend any fingers backwards.


PabloK 08.05.10 at 2:04 am

Your fingers shouldn’t bend back. Smack those bad habits on the head early. More or less straight or slightly bent back fingers are necessary for bar chords with the root note on the A string, but all open chords should really be played with fingers in a loose ‘grip’ posture. Playing an open A should look like .


John Holbo 08.05.10 at 2:05 am

Thanks Glen. I think I jammed this one severely playing softball way back when, so that may be a factor. But basically the right and left hand ring fingers are almost the same, so past injury doesn’t look to be the decisive factor. (My non-fretting ring finger is ever-so-slightly more flexible, perhaps due to non-injury, but it’s a close call.)

There is not much difference between passive and active motion. I can straighten the finger out under its own power almost but not quite fully. Without pressing, I’m a few degrees shy of straight (maybe 1-2 minutes to 12). Pressing backwards hard on it with my thumb, while bracing the second joint, pushing to the point where it starts to hurt, only gets me to perfectly straight but not past it. By contrast, my other fingers can go perfectly straight on their own, and a bit past it if I press. Except my pinky, which can go further if pressed, without pain. (But this was something I picked up, not something I had when I started playing guitar. The pinky just learned to go back.)


John Holbo 08.05.10 at 2:06 am

“The obvious downside of the pinky-chord is that you can’t really use your pinky for little licks/ornamentations/etc. during the chord, unless you’re exceptionally dexterous.”

This is precisely what is frustrating me.


Kieran Healy 08.05.10 at 2:52 am

Get a Mac Piano.


lemuel pitkin 08.05.10 at 2:54 am

I took up guitar in my middle-age

Wait wait wait a minute. You’re what, 36, 38? Middle age? WHOA no.


paulo 08.05.10 at 3:00 am

You can congratulation yourself on having some serious strength in the bent pinkie.

In my experience the A formation is the most difficult whether you do it on a barre or you do it with individual fingers.

The barre position is as you describe. It forces your finger into a pretty unnatural bent position – and at the same time you have to exert significant pressure evenly across the strings and at the same time allow the non-participating strings to sound out.

If you do it with individual fingers you end up cramming lots of flesh in a tiny space often catching your own skin with an adjacent finger nail.

It was a long time ago but I recall that chord formation as the most frustrating. Especially when you get out of first position as in the B-flat – 2nd fret barred with index finger while the rest of the crew does your A formation of choice.

It takes time and practice both to build the strength and also the agility to get from and to that position from another chord.

But it does come. And I haven’t damaged anything in the process.


dp 08.05.10 at 3:01 am

If you have fat fingers (like me) you catch one string with your ring finger and two with your middle finger. Regardless, the A-form chord has always been the most problematic to me.


paulo 08.05.10 at 3:03 am

Oops – correction B-flat played as I describe it above is actually a B major. B-flat barres the first fret with the index finger.


Honest John 08.05.10 at 3:07 am

First, don’t give up. You have made the right choice. Love the guitar, and it will (often reluctantly) love you back. Practice & try, and you will become exceptionally dexterous within whatever limitations you are unable to push back.

If your ring finger refuses to flatten, a second tactic would be to pin down the three adjacent strings with two adjacent fingers–if you want to save your pinky for filigrees, step on those three strings with your middle and ring fingers together, perpendicular or tilted slightly to nail all three strings. If it works, a clumsy, imprecise grip becomes just what the doctor ordered.

But if you want to stop those three strings with your ring finger, keep trying–gently but firmly–every day. Sometimes the fingers are slow to understand or submit to what their owner wants them to do. With some chord shapes that felt impossible at first, I have found that my fingers accommodate them with practice. I’m not sure whether it’s increased flexibility or increased familiarity.


John Holbo 08.05.10 at 3:33 am

“Get a Piano.”

It’s funny, Kieran. My youngest daughter is getting pretty serious at piano. She’s good. But she’s insanely double-jointed. Her top joints all bend back at a 90 degree angle. She gets it from her mom. Her piano teacher is horrified because she will press the flesh of her entire top finger joint flat on the keys. It’s like her fingers have feet. I have told her that I’m going to get her a guitar in a few years.


John Holbo 08.05.10 at 3:48 am

paulo, I AM grateful for my pinky, which I’ve figured out is a bit of a blessing, maybe. But I’m still greedy for more and worried that it just isn’t a matter of strength and agility. (After all, my finger will never be stronger than the combined strength of my whole other hand, attempting and failing to push that stubborn top joint back past straight.) The question is really whether it’s dangerous to proceed on the assumption that I might be able to stretch muscles and tendons to good effect without causing damage. Maybe, maybe not. I’m certainly going to try, being careful to stop when I experience pain. But I’m curious what’s ‘normal’. Can most players bend their ring finger back just a few degrees in the top joint – not so much that anyone would even notice it as ‘double-jointedness’, but enough to allow you to play at least two strings? If I could do just that, then good old number 2 finger could squeeze in and get the third string and make the A, even if I muted the top E in the process. I really want to be able to free up my pinky to do something else, potentially.


Eli 08.05.10 at 4:05 am

Am ftw.


Alex 08.05.10 at 4:51 am

Also, are you using electric or acoustic? Because electrics tend to be much easier for barre chords–I still struggle with barre-ing on acoustics, whereas on electrics I can chord it up with the best of em.


Mori Dinauer 08.05.10 at 4:54 am

When I took formal guitar lessons, the instructor, a long-haired fellow who played in a Black Sabbath cover band at the time, highly recommended that I stretch my fingers in addition to practicing chord scales. I can’t assess whether this helped or whether my long fingers gave me an advantage, but my advice is to stick with the conventional fretting techniques and work on making your phalanges more flexible. Sometimes using your thumb to fret the low E string can make a difference.


John Holbo 08.05.10 at 5:08 am

“Also, are you using electric or acoustic?”

Both! My mighty pinky is a match even for an A barre chord on an acoustic guitar! (Well, getting there anyway.) My puny ring finger is a match for nuthin.

Mori, what stretching exercises did you do? I’ve been doing what I would do if I were learning the splits – namely, go to the pain point, hold it a few seconds, relax. Repeat several times. Are there totally different finger stretching exercises not obviously aimed at my specifically desired result, which might produce it as a collateral benefit? (I’m not asking for any guarantees, of course.)


Mori Dinauer 08.05.10 at 5:22 am

Actually, the “push it till it hurts” method was what I was taught. Beyond that, I really can’t say. Must have been the long fingers. I am curious about how you’re forming the chords. An A chord, if I’m reading your description correctly, should be performed in the open position using the index finger, not the pinky. I do not have a good resource at my fingertips that tells you the proper way to form chords, but in general it’s best to yield to the official method than try to reinvent the wheel (physical pain exempted, of course).


AlanDownunder 08.05.10 at 5:35 am

My right ring finger is as you describe both of yours to be but my left contraflexes thanks, I’m sure, to perseverance at A-shape bar chords. I don’t recall any injury that would otherwise explain the difference. Keep at it and reserve pinky for those indispensable 6ths and 7ths.


John Holbo 08.05.10 at 6:10 am

“An A chord, if I’m reading your description correctly, should be performed in the open position using the index finger, not the pinky.”

Yeah, I’m talking about barre chords, not the open position.

I guess I’ll just keep pushing it until it hurts, exercise-wise.

Thanks for the datapoint, AlanDownUnder. I crave the elusive 6th and 7ths.


e julius drivingstorm 08.05.10 at 6:29 am

Obviously, you need this capability for Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone but you might be too far gone to develop the flex. In the meantime, try C7 with the index finger barring the eighth freight and bounce the pinky on the second string tenth. How does it feel?


e julius drivingstorm 08.05.10 at 6:32 am

Sorry for the ital excess.


Matt McGrattan 08.05.10 at 6:45 am

Mine bends back to about a 60 degree angle with the next joint down, so I don’t really have a problem with partial barres with the 3rd finger. I can place the top joint flat on a table and almost have the next joint perpendicular to the table — in the ‘fingers have feet’ manner. I think it’s developed that way through playing guitar though, rather than being ‘natural’ as until recently all of my other fingers only bent back about 10 degrees from straight. With work on particularly tricky ‘gypsy’ jazz chord voicings — which use multiple partial barres — the top joint on the 2nd finger is also beginning to be a bit more flexible now. So I can only assume that it’s possible to develop increased flexibility even fairly late on.

And yeah, you’ll need the pinky if you want to get into jazzier voicings.

“Gypsy” jazz chords using partial barres:

Major 6/9
Minor 6/9

It’s a good idea to practice as if you were doing some sort of sport. Gentle warm-up, start with easy stuff, build-up to things using bigger stretches, gradually work on increasing the range of motion, don’t push it, and it will develop over time.


Matt McGrattan 08.05.10 at 6:53 am

Also, as a general rule, if certain chord shapes are tricky it’s worth watching for two things. One, you might be pressing too hard, which makes everything tense rather than relaxed, and two, the position of the thumb at the back of the neck [and therefore the shape of the wrist]. Generally the orthodox classical fretting hand position with the thumb near the centre of the back of the neck makes a lot of chording easier [except where you need to fret over the top of the neck with the thumb]. Sometimes rotating the wrist slightly so that the thumb points slightly more towards the bridge end of the guitar can help with some partial barre chords.


John Holbo 08.05.10 at 7:00 am

Wait, I don’t quite get that one, e julius. Barre the 8th. Then 3rd finger on 10th fret A string. Then second on 9th fret D string. That’s C7 [right?] So far so good. But what do I get by bouncing pinky on 10th fret 2nd string. A very cramped situation, no? And I’m not sure what I’m hearing? Sorry. What am I trying to get here?


e julius drivingstorm 08.05.10 at 7:07 am

John, second on 9th fret G string makes C7, try again.


John Holbo 08.05.10 at 7:08 am

“Mine bends back to about a 60 degree angle with the next joint down, so I don’t really have a problem with partial barres with the 3rd finger.”

I should say not! And here I was, bragging up my mighty pinky with it’s awesome – oh, 20 degree bend. Tops.


John Holbo 08.05.10 at 7:15 am

Whoops, sorry. I knew that, e julius. Right. I can’t really get my pinky in there but I sort of get what it’s supposed to be now. I get what you are suggesting. Too cramped for me, for now.


Matt McGrattan 08.05.10 at 7:21 am

If you are barring at the 8th, playing the A string at the 10th fret, leaving the D string open [to be fretted by the 8th fret barre], fretting the G string at the 9th fret, that’s a standard C7 [a dominant 7 chord]. The b7 [i.e. dominant 7] is the Bb being barred at the 8th fret on the D string. If you add the 10th fret on the B string [with the pinky], that’s a C13 chord [i.e. a C dominant 7 with A the 6th/13th added]. If you barred with the pinky to fret the top E at the 10th fret as well, then it’d be a C6/9 [as you are also playing D, the 9th].

With, the strings [from bottom E to top E] fretted 8-10-8-9-10-10.


John Holbo 08.05.10 at 7:36 am

I can sort of do that, after a few minute of practice, even the pinky barre. Sort of. But it’s hard, it’s so cramped in there. It’s like a clown car for my fingers. Thanks, though. (At least it’s not physically impossible!)


Matt McGrattan 08.05.10 at 7:58 am

The clown car feeling goes away. Especially once you learn to relax and the hand doesn’t feel like it’s being held in position by lots of little muscles cramped up together. Some fairly famous guitar players had fingers like sausages. Way way more cramped looking than even fairly biggish normal hands. They still managed.


novakant 08.05.10 at 8:02 am

Try the air guitar! (I used to take classical guitar lessons as a kid and hated it …)


Thom Brooks 08.05.10 at 11:24 am

I’ve played guitar since I was about six and continue to play. It will take a while, but it will bend if you give it time. Plus, also try different finger exercises like playing from E-to-E (starting off first fret) 1-3-4, 1-3-4, 1-3-4, etc. moving up a fret each time. This will help it move…and bend.


Irrelephant 08.05.10 at 12:56 pm

Another novice middle-aged guitar player? Funny, me too. Three months now.

My hypothesis is that the prostate gland starts to release a hormone which stimulates the limbic system into craving new experiences. Basically the prostate is saying “You’re almost dead and we haven’t gotten laid nearly enough! Try something new”.

But seriously, if you are sticking with self-taught guitar after more than a month you ahead of 95% of the pack. And don’t worry overmuch about fingering. Django Reinhardt seemed to do OK with a crippled hand…


Kaveh 08.05.10 at 1:27 pm

re stretching, this isn’t quite the same, but somewhere I read about a famous composer/pianist who damaged his ring finger doing exercises to increase its strength.

My advice is just keep at it. Practice chord progressions that include the A barre and play it in songs you’re practicing and don’t think about it too much (practice it like you would any other chord, in other words). It really takes a long time to get the hang of this chord, but don’t let that discourage you.


blogbytom 08.05.10 at 1:44 pm

I have to second Thom Brooks and Honest John here: it’s simply a matter of patience and practice. When you’re learning to play the guitar, you’re forcing your fingers to do unnatural things that they don’t want to do. For a long time when I was learning, I barred fifth-root bar chords by putting my pinky on top of my ring finger (and consequently fudged the high E), because I simply didn’t have the strength to get the strings down on the damned fret any other way. It was a novel innovation (one that I’ve never seen replicated in any of my students), but it sufficed until I had the dexterity and strength to play the chord properly. At any rate, yeah, your fingers will limber up in time is what I’m saying. Keep at it.


The Modesto Kid 08.05.10 at 1:46 pm

I am playing mostly violin these days; back when I was playing guitar, I didn’t play very many A-shaped barre chords because my fingers would not do it properly — when I did play them I would not play the bottom string because I could not get it to ring.


The Modesto Kid 08.05.10 at 1:48 pm

(Or finger the 7th on the bottom string with my pinky.)


polyorchnid octopunch 08.05.10 at 4:58 pm

Me, I’m a pro player with around twenty years of experience (I’m actually wiped out at work today ’cause I got called to do a fill-in last night at eight, and again at midnight at a different venue) and my ring finger doesn’t bend back at all… it’s perfectly straight. I use two fingers to do a barred A-shaped chord. My forefinger frets the root note on the fifth string and barres on down to the 1st string, and my ring finger barres across the 1st-4th strings, and I don’t play the 1st string. This lets me use my pinky to play those filigrees. Another technique I like to use that’s related is to use my forefinger to bar across the 1st-4th strings, use my index finger to fret two frets up from that barre on the fifth string, forming the third of the major chord. This means that I now have both my index finger and my pinky to play scales around the chord shape… you can think of it as a barred G shape without the root note on the 6th string. I only really use my pinky down on the sixth when I’m doing a run that has to end on the root way on down there. This particular voicing and technique really rocks when you’re playing country or bluegrass in an arbitrary key.

If I really /need/ to use the 1st string 5th note of the chord, I switch techniques to using my forefinger on the 1st string barring across the 1st to 3rd strings, and my index and ring finger on the 2nd and 3rd two frets up. This can be nice because by alternately lifting off the ring finger, or by moving it up a fret, you can easily walk around on the 2nd-3rd-4th degrees of the chord.

When using the “double-barre” technique to play the A shape, I generally find the pinky is only useful for playing the sus4, the 6th, the 7th, and the maj7th degrees of the chord. If I need more than that, I switch by sliding my whole hand up two frets and using the open G shaped barre technique, which opens up more frets and more strings.

And hey, if you live near Kingston, Ontario… I teach.


jonathan 08.05.10 at 5:01 pm

I am an orthopedic surgeon but am totally illiterate in terms of music. I can only offer the following which may not be much help. The range of movement in any joint is dependent on the boney architecture and the flexibility of the supporting soft tissues, hence the normal variation.
The range can be increased by stretching, and diminished with age or following an injury.
Perhaps you might try to emulate Django Rheinhart who had significant injuries to both hands as a result of a fire but still managed to perform on violin and guitar at a high level inspite of his handicap.


BH 08.05.10 at 5:27 pm

My ring finger can bend back but it doesn’t when I use an A-barre shape. So yes, I’m going to side with those saying to tough it out and keep trying.

polyorchnid octopunch described an alternate voicing (the no-root G shape) that I’ve found useful (especially for chopping), but as weird and wonderful as some voicings are, someone just learning guitar really should start with the basic barre chords. If you need a cheat, rather than alternate voicings I’d suggest trying lighter strings (or nylon or “silk and steel” strings) and having the action checked out by a professional.


Don Grimm 08.05.10 at 5:31 pm

polyorchnid octopunch’s advice at #40 is excellent. The barre A shape in conjunction with the G shape also enables you to do some walking of the bass notes on the 5th and 6th strings as you switch between them. As an aside, I showed my guitar teacher some little lick that I had learned (this was 40 years ago!) that included using my thumb over the top of the neck to fret the 5th string. He told me that no serious guitarist would ever do that! I never went back.
You will learn to do whatever it takes to play like you want to play. Practice will enable you to do things in a few months that seem impossible now. Good luck!


rea 08.05.10 at 5:48 pm

So you want to be a rock and roll star
Then listen now to what I say
Just get an electric guitar
Then take some time and learn how to play

And in a week or two
If you make the charts
The girls’ll tear you apart


chrismealy 08.05.10 at 6:09 pm

I have the same problem as John. That backwards bend has always been torture for me so I just use oddball voicings to get around it (stuff like 3XX5XX and 3XX54X). Open tunings are fun too.


michael e sullivan 08.05.10 at 6:39 pm

If you don’t require the top open E to sound on an A chord, then there is no reason the ring finger needs to bend backwards at *all*, let alone more than a few degrees.

Mine doesn’t bend easily either, and more to the point, I have trouble holding the shape without hurting my ring finger. For the open position A chord, I pretty much always use 2 or three fingers, instead of 1, and for barre chords with that position, I usually use three fingers. I can bend down and barre the pinky to cover 2 strings for licks requiring the 6th (2 frets from the barre on the top string). I cheat by damping the third string (since it’s just doubling the root at the octave) if I need pinky to play more than that on the top string.

I’ve played classical for about 25 years now, seriously (regular performances, occasional paid gigs) during college and my early 20s.

In general, you’ve gotten pretty good advice here. Don’t go crazy trying to get perfect shape when you are just starting out. Keeping your fingers as relaxed as you can while still getting clear sound is the most important thing.

Also, it takes a fair bit of time and practice to get your fingers to recognize the chord forms and have it feel easy. The C7 described (bar on 8th fret) is one of the simpler barre formations, and eventually will feel very comfortable. Just keep practicing it, keep as relaxed as you can (it’s impossible to have fully zen fingers on barre chords in my experience), and let it sink in. If your chords sound crappy at first, just verify that your fingers are in the right place and live with it. After some practice, your fingers will start to feel more comfortable, then you can work more on the sound, and it will be much easier.

Also — barre chords are HARD. I know you need them to do three chord wonder songs, but in terms of good technique, they are some of the most difficult things to do well. Practice your open chords, and melody lines and scales, until they are very fluid, resonant and relaxing. The finger flexibility and fretboard familiarity will help get your fingers ready to do the harder stuff.


bdbd 08.05.10 at 7:41 pm

I don’t have any additional insights. I’ve played guitar for a long time, never particularly well, but with great enjoyment. George Harrison often played fifth root barre chords with his pinky, and I think I’ve even seen a couple of clips of him playing with a ring finger that’s buttressed with the pinky. John, keep plugging away. There are some remarkably sausage fingered guitarists out there — one is Johnny Hiland


andrew c 08.05.10 at 8:24 pm

I’ve played 35 years and my ring finger doen’t bend back either. However I tip my hand slightly to the right so that I use more of the side of the pad to form A barres. No problems with all notes ringing as the effective angle can be whatever you want by tipping further.

To loosen up my fingers I will grip the first joint and try to rotate the whole finger – gently – back and forth. Do it on all your fingers once a day.

Also, guitaring doesn’t take much strength – it is just applying it only at the right time and at the right place. Find the lightest touch you can use to make a single note ring and that is all you need for a chord as well. Just has to be exactly right. A couple of million repeats should make you pretty good at it.


John Holbo 08.05.10 at 11:40 pm

Thanks much for advice and idiosyncratic personal reportage, everyone. This has been quite helpful. (Keep it up.)

I was thinking of blaming Obama for my ring finger, because that seems such a natural thing to do. But many of you have given me a whole new perspective on my problems!


Helen 08.05.10 at 11:53 pm

I guess I’ll just keep pushing it until it hurts, exercise-wise.

Please don’t do that – when I had to see a physio some years ago also due to music issues, (playing, that is) the word was “until you feel a stretch”. I think you should see a physio specialising in sport medicine. They’re very good at this sort of thing and will give you exercises to take away.

(Did you know you can get a golfer’s elbow from playing drums? And me only having ever played one 9-hole round in my life. Oh, the unfairness.)


John Holbo 08.06.10 at 1:13 am

Yes, Helen, ‘until you feel a stretch’ is the better term for it. I am aware that the medical wisdom is that you should stop when you start to feel pain in such a case. Pain bad. So my phrase was misleading.

So: anyone stumbling on this thread, years from now. Don’t take ‘push until it hurts’ to mean ‘feel the burn’. It’s more like the stove. Pull back when you feel the burn.


Googs 08.06.10 at 1:31 am

Like Polyorchnid,Michael,and Andrew, I’ve been playing for 30 plus years,have played professionally doing more complex jazzy stuff with lots of extensions. I’m not Wes Montgomery, but I’d say I am a decent hack guitar player . My ring finger bends a little, maybe 20 degrees at the last joint. When I play a full barre “A-style” chord (what is it, third position?), most of the time I end up muting the high E. But in my opinion, who really cares? In any barre chord where you’re hitting all six strings you’ve got the root and fifth in there so many times, what does it matter if you get an extra fifth on the high end or not? In my opinion I and V aren’t the most expressive degrees of the scale, and the ones I drop first in playing partials. I’ve always had much more fun playing interesting notes on fewer strings, to the point where I developed a sort of half-conscious prejudice against barre chords.

Which isn’t fair to barre chords, I know.


Luther Blissett 08.06.10 at 3:57 am

My dad taught me to play the guitar on his acoustic 12-string, starting when I was in fourth grade. And he wouldn’t buy me an electric until I could form barre chords on the 12.

That said, on most acoustic guitars, my A-formation barres rarely let the high-E ring out. Most often, it’s muted by the bottom of my ring finger. Which is generally the way it’s used in rock music anyway. If you’re playing acoustic music that uses that formation, I’d bet the guitarist is using a capo. Even on my Telecaster, my A-form barres usually mute the high-E. You don’t need that note anyway, because the fifth of the chord is already being played on the D-string.

Another way to play that sort of chord is to merge your G-form and your A-form, so an A chord would look like this (low E to high E): 5 – 4 – 2 – 2 -2 – x, with the high E muted again. That let’s you barre with your index finger. (And you get more bass with the addition of the low E.)

If your fingers are feeling good, you can get the high E with a variation on that chord shape, ‘tho it requires a bit more stretching: 5 – x – 2 – 2 – 2 – 5, with your ring finger on the low E, your pinky on the high E, and your index finger barring the D, G, and B strings. (This tends to mute the A string, unless you’re feeling particularly spry, in which case you can use your middle finger on the 4th fret of the A string — basically like pushing an open G chord up and using your index finger barre as a capo.)

You might already have one, but I highly recommend getting a chord encyclopedia, which will give you a variety of shapes for each chord in each position. Real freedom as a rhythm guitarist comes from using different voicings of different chords. It can make a world of difference where the first, third, fifth, etc. of each chord falls in the low-high string continuum. One thing I love about a great jazz guitarist like Bill Frisell is his ability to find interesting voicings and harmonic substitutions for the expected chords.


Glen Tomkins 08.06.10 at 5:29 am

Sorry about the delay on getting back to you after the questions answered @5, but Thursdays are the days I volunteer at the local free clinic, and today was a bad day in free clinic land. This has been a trend over the past two years or so, as the insurance picture becomes more grim.

If the finger in question is different from all the others in its decreased range of extension (except, if I understand, the pinky, but the pinky was able to “learn” to extend with guitar practice {aided by active hyperextension exercises?}), and can’t even get to full extension, much less any hyperextension, then the old injury you mention is probably to blame. Either that, or you’re at the very early start of a DuPuytren’s contracture.

With most joints, gentle but persistant stretching to push the range of motion gradually, would probably not do any harm, and might get you some extra range. But that approach isn’t quite so safe with the interphalangeal joints, because their range of motion is determined, not just by tendons intrinsic to the finger joints, but also by the flexor and extensor tendon system. These are the long tendons, one each flexor and one each extensor per digit, that run from the muscle bodies in the forearm, then over the back (extensor) or palmar (flexor) aspect of the hand, then into the fingers through little tracks that keep them in line even as they flex and extend the fingers. Unlike other joints, you don’t have muscles that flex and extend at each finger joint, you have these flexor and extensor tendons that transmit the pull from muscles in the forearm that do all of the work at both the interphalangeal joints of each digit simultaneously.

At any rate, the practical impact is that the repeated hyperextension pressure at the distal interphalangeal joint (the DIP) that might safely give you a few more degrees of range of motion by stretching intrinsic tendons if this were any other sort of joint, is not quite safe in this joint because it might instead damage the little tracks that keep the extensor and flexor tendons in line, and then you’ve got a real problem, and not just a minor abnormality like you have now. If you want to try to use hyperextension stretching anyway, you can minimize the risk by being careful to keep the proximal interphalangeal joint (the PIP, of course) at full extension whenever you apply your hyperextension pressure on the DIP. If you have the PIP flexed when you actively hyperextend the DIP, you create pressure tending to force the flexor and extensor tendions out of their tracks. Google “Boutonnierre’s deformity” to see what I’m talking about graphically. There’s uncertainty how it got that name, but one account is that this was an occupational hazard of boutonnierres, created by the repetitive and long-standing application of hyperextension on the DIPs of their index fingers as they grasped their needles very tightly with PIPs flexed so as to allow that firm grip required by their occupation.

You might consider going to see an orthopod, specifically a hand specialist. That isn’t clearly indicated, and has a lesser chance of yielding any good results for you, because the loss of range (sounds like about 10 degrees from your description) is not such as to make this pathological, as opposed to a mere abnormality. Another way of putting that is to say that, for the general population, the loss of that last 10deg of extension in the ring finger is not disabling. It’s not normal, but it’s not a disease. Specialists are wonderful, can’t live without’em, but their inherent limitation is that they tend to look down their noses on anything that’s not a disease, that’s “merely” a damn bother abnormality. (Generalists, of course, are too damn busy to bother.)

You are much more likely to get whatever help medicine might be able to provide, if you can find a hand specialist orthopod, and/or Occupational Therapist, who has cultivated an interest in the problems of musicians. You need someone who will take a loss of 10 degrees of extension in the ring finger seriously, because he or she is used to thinking of that as being, for a musician, a disease, something that’s disabling, and not just some mere abnormality. I have heard of such, but I don’t know any such, and actually, fellow musicians are your best bet for a sound referral in this department.

Overall, though, it seems you are most likely to get practical results by listening to fellow musicians about the technical dodges they have developed to work around this sort of problem, rather than by some medical correction of the problem. That reasoning changes if the loss of range becomes progressively worse, which would indicate a contracture that might clearly benefit from a medical intervention.


Matt McGrattan 08.06.10 at 7:18 am

It’s worth bearing in mind that good left-hand technique varies a lot between styles of music. Classical guitar and most jazz doesn’t make much use of barre-chords, most rock and pop makes heavy use of them, but, as lots of people have already pointed out, that top E string isn’t the important note in any A-shape barre chord anyway, so if you can’t make it ring out at first, it’s not the end of the world.

One piece of advice, if you do intend to play guitar amplified, and especially if you plan to play it with much gain at all, then it’s worth practising plugged in as much as you can, because one key thing that’ll make you sound like someone who can actually play is left-hand muting [fretting hand, I mean]. The classical (or some jazz) approach where you aim to get every note ringing cleanly — so you can play counterpoint, and so on — is pretty the bang opposite of what you want to be able to do if you are plugged into an amp with the gain cranked, as you’ll sound awful. The left hand position ends up being quite different; much flatter and with less arch to the fingertips, say.


John Holbo 08.06.10 at 8:03 am

Thanks glen, that’s useful. I think I may have made the degree of difference between my two ring fingers, and between them and the others, sound like more than they are. Anyway, the two ring fingers are almost twins – the fretting one just a hair stiffer – so if the old injury is to blame, it isn’t to blame for much. And the difference between the ring and other fingers is just that few degree of flex the others enjoy past straight. I doubt a specialist would even credit me with abnormality, let alone disease. (I never noticed that my ring finger was inflexible until I tried to make a barre chord.) But I am very grateful for the advice about the dangers of stretching. That’s what I am most concerned about. I think I will proceed with caution, avoiding any exercise that is the least bit painful.

Thanks for the other comments, too.


des von bladet 08.06.10 at 12:32 pm

In Soviet 7.5″ camber, the fingerboard bends away from *you*.


Jack Slack 08.06.10 at 2:55 pm

As a self-taught musician who wasted years re-inventing various wheels, I strongly advise you to get lessons at the beginning.


John Holbo 08.06.10 at 3:18 pm

Well, I’m actually signed up for an online lesson service I’m also watching a lot of YouTube instructional videos, with emphasis on basic good habits. So I’m trying to be good about it. (Does only watching videos qualify as self-taught? Sort of, I suppose.)


Wilco 08.06.10 at 3:28 pm

I prefer to play the A barred with my pointer finger. That way I can use my ring finger and pinky for notes on the 3rd,4th, and 5th frets – mostly on the B and High E. Might be worth a try . . .


Alden 08.06.10 at 3:55 pm

We suffer the same affliction – mine won’t bend back at all either. I try to find ways of avoiding barred A-shapes but if I have to, I barre flat across with index and ring parallel. You don’t get a lot of leverage that way but that will improve as your strength increases over time. Or else I use the finger-tip form mentioned at the top of the thread.

For campfire-song strumming, just stick with the key of G and you’ll never have to worry about it at all.


Nora Streed 08.06.10 at 6:08 pm

I have had similar problems — I’ve recently picked up a guitar again and my decrepit middle-aged hands are very small in addition to not very flexible. However my ability to make difficult chord-shapes and so on keeps improving very slowly the more I play. I tried getting an electric guitar, which helped some, but then I thought that I might benefit still further from practicing on a smaller guitar. So I bought a 3/4-size guitar that I use to work on particularly difficult things – it’s been amazing to feel my hands sort of stretch out and get stronger and more limber or whatever. And when I switch back to the regular guitars I can do things that I thought were not physically possible. I also do stretching exercises with little resistance bands (the kind that the bunches of broccoli are fastened with :) .


michael e sullivan 08.06.10 at 9:00 pm

If you haven’t played before, you don’t necessarily know what to look for. I wouldn’t trust online lessons, unless they involve the instructor watching you play through a webcam with enough resolution so that they can see your finger muscles for both hands. Just watching somebody else is not enough. It’s something of course, and if you were trying to learn a style, or if you already knew how to play a similar instrument very well (to the point of being able to perform and teach, say ukelele or mandolin), you might get enough from text, pictures or video. But not for starting out, IMO.


michael e sullivan 08.06.10 at 9:11 pm

I just browsed jamplay, and the site looks very cool, but I think it’s much more useful for somebody who already knows how to play and wants to learn a specific style. Like I’m thinking of signing up to see their bluegrass, blues and metal guy’s takes. In terms of developing your initial form, it may be okay to work with a site like that for much of the time, but I would strongly recommend finding an in-person instructor at some point fairly soon to make sure you are getting everything. Also, I would go for somebody who knows/plays classical or jazz among their styles, even if those aren’t your interest, because people who have studied those tend to be much more rigorous about technique than teachers who aren’t familiar with them.


Luther Blissett 08.07.10 at 3:13 am

An addendum to my comments from last night: when I was playing today, I noticed that my A-barre forms don’t involve much bending of the top part of my ring finger. I tend to stretch out my palm away from the fretboard and my ring finger comes at the strings from a slight angle, while the finger itself remains fairly straight.

I think this is because of my own finger injury from a few years back. I snapped the tendon that connects that top part of the finger from the rest. So even when I’m not bending my ring finger, that top part is permanently bent inward toward my palm a few degrees.

In any case, that might be an option for you. On my electric, this lets me still ring out the high E string, but on my acoustic, it’s usually dampened.

As far as lessons go, I’m of two minds. I taught myself a good deal before I started lessons. The main thing I learned from lessons, but never took to heart until it was too late, was the position of my left hand fingers. The key is to learn to keep all your fingers hovering just above the strings when you’re playing lead lines — but because of bad habits, I tend to pull them away from the strings when I’m not using them. This severely gets in the way of my speed with single-note lines.


John Holbo 08.07.10 at 8:19 am

I like jamplay very much. I made a post about this before. I particularly like that I can watch three different people teach me the same thing. Actually I particularly like a lot of things about it. It’s good value for money.

Re: good resistance training. I just got back from vacation and, while on vacation, I picked up a cheap used lefty Fender acoustic that turned out to have a warped neck, so the intonation was off and the action insanely high. Making lemonade from this lemon, I practiced scales for an hour every day and, when I got back to Singapore, playing my electric was insanely easy. And I just got the Fender fixed for not too much money and it’s great! And I can now play actual tunes on it.

I’ve been really working on the A-barres the last two days, inspired by my own post. I’ve been doing it with the pinky for a few months and had sort of fallen out of the habit of even trying with the ring, which seemed so much harder. But now I want it, and I realize that the way to do it is as Luther and others have suggested. Stretching to turn the ring finger on its side. I can’t do it yet, but I can tell it’s within the range of physical possiblity.


Matt McIrvin 08.07.10 at 11:56 pm

I do it the way Honest John suggested. But, to tell the truth, my messing around with guitar is mostly an excuse to geek out about music theory; I’m sure my technique is miserable.


John Holbo 08.08.10 at 4:33 am

Hey Luther, it’s funny that you should mention the specific problem of keeping fingers near the strings because – because I saw it in a video! – I’ve been trying to work hard to do that (avoid the problem, that is, not develop it). But it’s hard.


polyorchnid octopunch 08.09.10 at 12:07 pm

Well, John, now that I know you live in Singapore, all I can say is… for the low low price of a return ticket from Toronto to Singapore you can have a lesson from me! :D

Anyway, more generally… I’m self taught to a large extent, though that never stopped me from picking other player’s brains. A general note about learning how to fret; one wants to push as hard as one needs to and no harder. Once exercise I used to do is to play one note at a time, varying the pressure with the fretting finger until it buzzed, and then putting a little more on. The goal is to get a very good handle on how much pressure you really need. This is also true for barring fingers… the goal is to push just hard enough with a barre so that all the strings you’re barring will ring, but no harder. In this case, you’re not trying to play chords… you’re just barring some strings with one of your fingers and playing each string one at a time to get a handle on the cleanliness of the note, followed by pushing a little softer (if the notes are all clean) or a little harder (if one or more of them buzz) until you get it exactly right.

It’s also a good idea to do this on a variety of guitars, because different guitars will take different amounts of force to get a clean note… and one of the things you want to push into your muscle memory is the virtuous feedback loop of feeling the force of the strings pushing up vs. the force of your fingers pushing down and just “knowing” how much force you need to apply to get a clean note.


Motorhead 08.11.10 at 6:40 pm

django style you play barre chords just with index, mute as needed, add 3rd6th/7ths/9ths and alterations with ringy or pinkster….and solos with two fingers

whoa. then maybe in 5-6 years yll get to like avalon or yr first Duke E number.

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