An age old problem encountered by beginner guitarists battling with bar chords is which way to finger them.
The most common method of fingering an average bar chord is to stretch your first finger across all six strings and finger the chord with your remaining 2nd, 3rd and 4th fingers.
1st Finger Bar Chord
However, you’ll often see gigging guitarists performing them another way by wrapping their thumbs over the top of the neck and barring the 6th or 5th and 6th strings with their thumb whilst covering the rest of the strings with their remaining digits.
Thumb Wrap Bar Chord
There is a huge difference both in wrist positioning and finger technique between these two methods and any beginner taking on any one of these will realise they are both extremely hard to master. You’ll need to know which method you should learn and practice as a permanent technique and conquer the one that will be most useful to you in the long term future.
As is everything with music, it mainly comes down to the style of music you are going to be playing, the instrument you play, i.e acoustic or electric and how good you intend to get.
Good or Bad Technique ?
Many teachers of rock or classical styles will tell you it is bad practice to wrap your thumb around the top of the neck either when soloing or playing bar chords. With these particular styles, the method is considered bad technique solely because of the limitations it places on the style that is being played. The pioneering players that lead the way in the progression of these particular styles use techniques that often cannot be achieved using the constricting thumb wrap method.
Blues, Funk, Soul and Indie
With different styles such as blues, funk and soul etc. using the thumb wrap to play bar chords actually enhances the players ability to play the riffs and techniques that create that particular style.
You’ll find that many of the world’s most famous blues, funk and soul players like Mississippi John Hurt, Hendrix, Clapton etc. right the way up to modern day guitarists like John Frusciante from the Chili’s have used the technique to great extent in their styles of playing and in doing so have achieved incredible results that could not be reproduced using any other method.
Jimi Hendrix – Machine Gun
Every style in music places different requirements on the player and when covering songs and trying to achieve a certain feel, although you can often achieve a similar sound to the original using the same notes but different fingering techniques, you may never truly mimic that sense of feeling instilled by it’s creator unless you play it in the same way as performed by the original artist.
In other words, you won’t crack a Satriani song by wrapping your thumb over the top of the neck and you’ll never play the Chili’s – Under The Bridge and get all those little hammer on’s and pull offs that ring throughout the song sounding right without using the thumb wrap to give your little finger the freedom it needs to move.
How It Works For Me
In my personal experience and after years of playing rock and thrash metal with the electric guitar and also rock and popular with the acoustic, I find that I don’t need to play bar chords using the finger wrap method that often, and when I do it can be easier for me to play these songs still using my first finger and the full bar method.
Often, when you cover a song by an average band who’s guitarist uses the thumb wrap method, the song won’t necessarily be so difficult that you have to play it in the same style to get that similar sound. It is only on occasions when you are trying to mimic the playing style of a legend that you will have no option but to switch.
I also play a number of songs that comprise completely of thrum wrap chords which gives me good reason to play them and keep in practice.
For me I would say the ratio of songs I play using the two methods is about 80% – 20% in favour of the full 1st finger bar.
For you it could be the complete opposite. I usually only play rock, pop and in the past a lot of thrash metal. If I started to play a lot of blues and funk, I’m pretty sure I’d be saying the exact opposite and most of my playing would encounter thumb wrap chords and melodies on a regular basis.
Another thing about the thumb wrap method, is it’s a damn site easier doing it on an electric guitar rather than an acoustic. If you do play the acoustic and are required to adopt it as you make your way through a song, then don’t let the thicker neck of the guitar stop you from achieving your goals. It may be more difficult, but the more you practice, the easier it will become.
Take a look at the acoustic version of Under the Bridge played by John Frusciante on this post to see this method applied on an acoustic.
More Ways Than One
The cool thing about playing the guitar is once you get past a certain standard and can handle the basics, there are no dead set rules about how you should play something. Every artist plays in a way that feels most comfortable to them, which gives their own material a particular style and feel.
There are certain paths you can take to make life easier as you tackle different areas, but these are designed to be strayed from and experimented with in order to achieve new sounds and techniques.
As long as you don’t pick up too many bad habits that render you incapable of playing to a decent standard and you avoid doing things that are likely to cause damage to your tendons or ligaments, you can pick and choose how you develop your own style.
As you progress as a musician, you will undoubtedly cross into new genres of music which will require you to learn new skills to cope with the new challenges you are given. You will see that learning to play something one way is never enough to see you through to the end of your days as a guitarist. Sooner or later you will learn how to play things not just one way, but many ways.
As your knowledge and experience grows you will no longer dread these new challenges but will actively embrace the thought of learning something new and difficult to make you a better player and more of a guitarist as a whole.
How to Choose and Implement Your Bar Chord Method
My advice would be to start by learning the full 1st finger bar method across the 6 strings. You’ll always need to master this in whatever style of music you play. Then check out your favourite guitarist’s live music videos on You Tube and examine their styles and chord playing techniques.
If it is obvious that thumb wrap chords play a huge part in their playing, then get to work as you will have to adopt these methods to enable you to play in a similar way.
In my case, chord style consists of mainly playing chords barred using the first finger method with the occasional switch to the thumb wrap, but if you predominantly stick to one method, make sure you also practice the other regularly in your your daily workout. This will keep your hands and fingers prepared and give you the ability to switch easily if the need arises.
Let us know how you fret your bar chords in comment in the form below.
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