Since I began teaching banjo some three plus decades ago, I’ve had the pleasure of helping hundreds of banjo students attain a level of facility on the instrument. Along the way, I’ve noticed a common issue that most students wrestle with at one time or another along their banjo journey. This particular issue seems to rear its ugly head somewhere around the second month of lessons. The issue in question, you ask? (I suppose if you’ve already read the title of this article, you know the answer by now…
…Yes! The dreaded bar chord!
For beginning banjo students, the bar chord can prove to be a tricky maneuver and, all too often, an obstacle that can quickly become discouraging. In this article, I’ll address the most common issues students encounter with this chord and provide some workable tips that the beginner can readily apply to their practice.
From my experience, the most common issue that crops up when students attempt the bar chord is an inability to keep their index finger down across all four strings. This can stem from an incorrect positioning of the index finger over the strings as well as an inability to maintain a forceful enough grip on the banjo neck to hold the bar chord in place for any length of time. Both of these problems can be remedied easily, I’ve found.
To make each string of your bar chord sound as clear and resonant as possible, take your index finger and lay it flat across all four strings. Now rotate or roll the finger a tiny bit so that the fleshy underside is slightly facing the bridge. This will give you a more powerful grip. You can add force to your grip by taking your middle finger and pressing it into the knuckles (top) of your index finger. I tend to do this with my ring finger as well, pressing it firmly against, or down, onto the knuckles of my middle finger. The added pressure on the index finger will create a firmer grip on the fretboard, creating a cleaner sounding bar chord.
Make sure the fleshy part of the back of your thumb is pressing squarely against the back of the neck. Under no circumstances should any part of your palm be anywhere near the back of the neck (this rule, of course, applies to ANY fretwork you do on the banjo). Holding the neck like this will allow you to grip the bar chord with more strength. Think of it like this – you’re pushing your thumb with as much force as possible into the back of the neck while at the same time pressing your index finger as hard as you can into the fretboard.
It will also help to pull your elbow in just a little bit towards your belly button. This motion will help you turn your index finger on its side. I heard one teacher say it’s helpful to imagine a sandbag tied to your elbow, gently pulling it down towards the floor (hey, the imagery works for me).
To improve your strength when making the bar, my advice would be to practice a roll of your choice while keeping your index finger in the barred position over the four strings. Integrate this into your practice for about two weeks until you notice your bar chords are sounding clearer and less muffled.
And there you have it! Now get practicing!