by Scott Zimmerman

In this article, we discuss how to master barre chords when you have smaller hands. You can also view our article on how hard to press down on guitar strings here.

Many beginning guitarists with smaller hands struggle to play barre chords. The natural question follows, “Can someone with small hands play barre chords?” Well, the simple answer is – Yes. With some basic knowledge mixed with perseverance and patience, most players can develop this skill regardless of their hand size.

How can I play barre chords with small hands? People with small hands are able to play barre chords effectively if they master and apply effective body mechanics, such as body position, arm, wrist angle, and finger position. Most beginners can learn these mechanics with repeated practice.

Let’s get started and unpack the basic body mechanics to help small hands play barre chords. But first, we need to bust a myth…

Are My Fingers Too Small To Play Barre Chords?

Let’s find out. The average width of most guitar necks falls between 1 ¾” to just under 2”. (You can measure yours to find out.) Do this simple experiment as a confidence builder: Measure your index finger from where the finger meets the large knuckle to the tip. Most likely you will see that your finger is plenty long to get the job done. Let’s move on and take a look at the individual body mechanics used in playing barre chords and some tips and tricks. 

What Is The Best Position For Playing Barre Chords If I Have Small Hands?

Barre chords require more use of hand and arm muscles than single note or open position chord playing. Any time larger muscles and more groups of muscles are used, fatigue and soreness can quickly develop. Keeping that in mind, efficiency in muscle use is key. Only using and activating the arm and hand muscles when necessary, and conversely not using them when unnecessary, keeps the muscles from fatiguing and produces a more enjoyable experience. 

Tips For Small Hands When Playing Barre Chords

Tip #1: Sit on a firm chair

A dining room chair works nicely. A firm chair will give your torso, shoulder, arm and hand the proper base of support. It will also prevent back, neck, and shoulder fatigue.

If you really want to play the guitar well and play barre chords that sound well and are easier to hold, avoiding soft seating, like a couch or lounge chair are important.

Tip #2: Position the guitar correctly

Position the guitar neck at a 45o angle so that the head of your guitar is roughly about eye level. This will give you better leverage when pressing the strings and keep your wrist more naturally aligned with your arm, preventing wrist and arm soreness. 

This position is most easily achieved by using classical positioning where your left foot is raised and the guitar rests on your left leg. You can purchase a footstool or simply put together a couple of 2×4’s or some other household item that does the trick.

What If I Am Not Able To Play In The Classical Position?

If you have a larger body acoustic guitar this may not be possible because of the body size of the guitar. In that case, use the traditional right leg position but elevate your right foot. You won’t have as much of an angle for leverage as in the classical position, but your wrist alignment will be more natural than if you have both feet on the floor.

Another option is to use a guitar strap while sitting. You’ll be able to achieve the proper angle; however, most likely you will be using some of your muscle mechanics to hold the guitar in that position taking away efficiency for playing the barre chords.

Tip #3: Arm position

Position your right arm so that your elbow is close to your side. Typically, as the fingers apply pressure to the strings, the right elbow will start to move away from the body. At that point, muscles in the shoulder, back and neck are being activated that are not needed for playing barre chords. This leads to muscle fatigue and soreness in those areas.

A simple way to find the correct arm position is to extend the left arm down and let it hang loosely from the shoulder. Slowly bring the arm up so that you are holding the guitar neck loosely at the fifth fret. This is the position you will try to maintain when you apply pressure to the strings.

It’s also a good idea to periodically return to this position while practicing to relax the muscles and to check the right arm position.

Tip #4: Play on the side of your finger

Play on the side of your index finger that is closest to your thumb. If you notice there is less soft flesh and more rigidity because the bone of your finger is closer to the surface of your skin. This provides a much more solid contact surface to push the string into the fretboard.

Also notice that by using this part of your finger, your elbow will naturally come in closer to your body and relieve tension on your back, neck, and shoulders.

Tip #5: Adjust for your particular hand

Lastly, no two fingers are alike. Take a look at the side of your index finger. You will see that it is not a straight flat surface. There are slight dips and creases. If one of the strings of a chord falls into a low spot or crease, it will not sound clear. You may need to move the barre up or down slightly to adjust for this.

Furthermore, different barre chords may need slight adjustment for this reason. To find out quickly whether an up or down adjustment is necessary, sound each string separately to hear if they are ringing clearly. If not, try moving the barre up or down so that more or less of the fingertip is crossing the top of the fretboard.

What type of guitar is better for small hands?

If you only have one guitar, that is the best one to work with. Having said that, electric guitars will be the easiest because of the generally narrow neck and lighter tension on the strings. A steel-string acoustic guitar will be harder because the string tension is higher and therefore harder to press.

A nylon string classical will be easier to press the strings because of a slightly lighter tension on the strings and the nylon strings will be gentler on the fingers. However, the neck on a standard nylon string classical is wider than most electrics and steel-string acoustics and will work against overcoming the challenges of playing barre chords with small hands.

Lastly, if you are using a steel-string acoustic, you may want to restring your guitar with a composite string such as “silk and steel”. These strings require lower tension and are therefore easier to press.

Are there any physical exercises that can make playing barre chords easier?

I would recommend against doing any exercises apart from actually practicing. There is a risk of damaging your fingers and hands by doing an exercise unrelated to the specific muscle mechanics you need for playing barre chords.

In the 19th century, a pianist named Schumann damaged his fingers by contriving an exercise to try and make his fingers work more independently on the piano. You don’t want that to happen! Rather, simple stretching and relaxing exercise before you play and while you are practicing will help reduce muscle fatigue and soreness.

Remember, when stretching, less is more. Try not to hyper-extend fingers or arm muscles when you are stretching.

Why Can’t I Get The Notes To Sound Clearly When I Play Barre Chords?

This is a very common issue and perhaps the most frustrating. Everyone wants to enjoy the sounds that a guitar makes and if it doesn’t sound good even if you have the correct playing position and arm position there is not much pay off and enthusiasm for practicing quickly disappears.

If you’re having trouble getting the notes to sound clear, take a look at the tips above. You may have to make adjustments to how you personally play barre chords, just based on the size and dimensions of your hands. Listen carefully to how the chords and notes sound, and practice to continually make things sound better and play easier.

About the author 

Scott Zimmerman

Scott Zimmerman is a professional music instructor with over twenty years of guitar performance and teaching experience. Scott holds a Masters Degree in Music Education from Peabody Conservatory.