You Are Not a Capo! (UD#60)
from Ukulele in the Dark
with Guido Heistek
Some chord shapes require us to use our finger as a “bar”. This means using one finger to hold down two or more strings. Many beginner students find barring very challenging! And while many more advanced players find it possible, they also find it tiring and awkward. So, I’ve put a little piece together on barring with the index finger that I hope you find helpful, whatever your level.
“Oh no! There’s a Bb in this song!”
The Bb chord is usually the first chord we encounter where we are asked to bar with our index finger. It can a bit of a shock if you’re used to playing songs with C, Am, F and G7! I am going to take a little time to talk about the various ways that my students have played this chord over the years. As we discuss some options, I believe some important concepts about the use of the index finger will come up, and we can build on them.
1. How I usually introduce the Bb chord:
The above photo shows how I usually introduce the Bb chord. Notice how the index finger is being used very differently from the other two fingers. The two top segments of the index finger are flattened out in quite a dynamic extension, while the other two fingers are curved in a bridge-like flex. Having one finger extend while the other two fingers flex is not something we usually do in our daily lives. The only other application of such a movement that I can think of at the moment is making shadow puppets! However, in ukulele and guitar playing it is a very helpful movement to be able to do.
I have had some students who for a variety of reasons can not manage such a strong extension in part of the index finger. Some of my students have less movement in the joints of their fingers because of injury, arthritis or other causes. I had a student who was a retired massage therapist who could not manage this version of the Bb at all! So here is an alternative.
2. The full bar approach:
Here we bar across all four strings. Notice that to do so we extend our whole index finger so that it is straightened. The other two fingers are still in a bridge-like flex. Some students find it more comfortable to do the Bb chord this way.
IMPORTANT NOTE: THIS IS NOT A SIX-NOTE CHORD!
You might be thinking: “What? Of course it’s not a 6-note chord. We only have 4 strings on the ukulele! How can we play a 6 note chord?”
Even though we are extending the index finger across four strings it is helpful to remember that it’s only responsible for fretting two notes: the first fret on the E and A strings. Fretting the notes of the G and C strings is the responsibility of the other two fingers. This is a very important consideration: which notes is the index finger actually responsible for ?
If we use our index finger as a capo, we turn a four note chord into a 6 note chord. A 50% increase! And a waste of energy. A capo indiscriminately holds down every string it is asked to. And you are not a capo! At least your index finger isn’t. REMEMBER your index finger articulates. So, when barring it is possible to apply more pressure on some strings while applying less pressure on others. So as a general rule when using the index finger as a bar, take a moment to consider which notes it is actually responsible for. This will prevent you holding down notes that you don’t actually need.
If you are a more advanced player, please apply this thought to some of the bar chords that you know. Does it make it easier! Many of my students find it does.
Okay, let’s look at one more option. What happens if you can’t bar at all? It happens. It’s not a deal breaker. Here’s what to do.
3. The no-bar solution:
Here is the Bb chord played with only the finger tips. Notice that the index finger is fretting the note on the first fret of the E string while the middle finger is fretting the first fret on the A string. This is consistent with standard guitar and uke fingering practices and I like it but…
….some students prefer to fret it this way. And that’s fine, too:
Yes! We have 4 fingers and there are only four strings on a ukulele. So, in principle, barring should not be necessary.
Why do we bar then? Here are a few reasons:
1. When you get used to it, it can actually be quicker than using 4 fingers.
2. It’s sometimes not possible to grab a chord with 4 fingers, because of the way the notes are spaced.
3. Probably most importantly when it comes to Chord Melody, using a bar frees up fingers for doing other things: adding suspensions, melody notes etc.
Here is an arrangement which has a Bb chord in it. It’s from my new book, the CHORD MELODY BOOK FOR UKULELE. Notice at the beginning of the arrangement how I fret the Bb chord with an index finger bar, so my pinky is freed up to add an extra melody note. Beautiful!