Don't Be Afraid Of Using Your Forefinger - It's Part Of Learning The Ukulele! | GOT A UKULELE - Learn Ukulele, beginners tips and reviews

5 Jun 2015

Don't Be Afraid Of Using Your Forefinger - It's Part Of Learning The Ukulele!

Ahhh, the humble forefinger. Where would we be without it? Excellent for so many things, picking your nose, scratching your ear, prodding an errant cat. It's also pretty important for playing the ukulele too. Yet some people actively encourage others to avoid it. Why is that?


the importance of learning to barre a ukulele


There is one thing that comes from the armchair advisors of the ukulele world that could give the 'Just play an E7, it's the same as an E chord' brigade a run for their money, and that is those who actively avoid playing any chords that have a barre in them. As bizarre as that sounds, it is sadly true and I spotted a pretty lively discussion on social media recently in which some players were advising a beginner to either avoid songs that used barre chords totally, to play 'cheat chords,' or to (shudder) use a capo instead. Well, the news from Got A Ukulele towers is that I would advise the exact opposite.





Beginners may not like to hear that, but much the same as I advise when it comes to the E chord, I would say 'don't avoid it, put it higher up on your practice schedule'. The reason is simple. By avoiding it or learning to compensate you will be missing out on so much that can be done with the uke.

Contrary to the belief of some, barre chords are not 'impossible' as some people say (and i've had spats with people online who have said exactly that. People who have said 'No Barry, it IS impossible and you are wrong'. No I'm not. With practice, you WILL master the use of the barre and I promise you that it will pay you dividends in spades in many more ways.

Sadly the same people who like to promote the use of 'cheat chords (i.e. chords that are similar and work in some cases but NOT all)  are those who think the E chord is 'impossible' or rather 'just too much damn hassle to learn'. But really, it and they are not. It comes I think from the worrying trend of people actually believing the much spouted phrase that the 'ukulele is easy'. You see, by saying the instrument is easy often enough,  people start to believe it, but they also start to assume that nothing is allowed to be be difficult with the uke, that there must be a 'cheat' for everything, The 'how dare you Mr Tutor tell me to do something that actually requires even the slightest bit of effort' brigade. You can see where I am going with this.

Take another example. I saw a post today from someone suggesting that the answer was to play the Baritone ukulele as it makes the E chord a breeze. It does indeed. In standard Baritone tuning a G chord is fingered the same as an A chord on a regular uke. But of course this suggestion totally misses the fact that in Baritone tuning other chords that are simple in GCEA tuning become harder. It's a crazy notion that again comes down to a desire for things to be easy and an expectation that having bought a ukulele that you too can be a virtuoso over night. You can't!

I'm not sure who is to blame, but the media are high on the agenda. I'm afraid that learning any musical instrument requires something that may horrify some people. A bit of practice and effort. The ukulele owes you nothing and is not something designed to be easy just because people tell you so. Like any instrument, with effort comes some reward.

Now this is not me suggesting you learn some bizarre, minimally used chord that requires the stretch of a silverback gorilla to fret... I am talking about a major chord, of which there are only seven! To avoid the E chord (or the B chord for that matter) is ruling out huge amounts of music and / or forcing you to play in more unnatural keys. But there is something else at risk here. Something as important.

The use of forefinger barre is not something that was just dreamt up to specifically make you struggle with a particular chord. It's just the way some chords work best. But the barre opens up SO much more with the ukulele as it will also take you on the road to learning to transpose chords (i.e. being able to throw the Capo away) and into playing other moveable chords / inversions.  This will teach you how to play all sorts of chords in other positions on the neck. Being able to barre is a huge part of doing that. In fact lots of the really simple chord shapes can be used to play other chords all over the neck IF you barre them.

For example. Let's take the C chord. One finger right? One of the easiest on the uke (0003). But do you know that chord shape can be moved to give you other chords elsewhere on the neck. Imagine the C chord fingered at the 7th fret. I don't mean 0007 - that would be useless, but using your forefinger to effectively move the nut position down to the 4th fret you would have 4447. And that's another E chord! It's still a C shape but the forefinger is moving the nut for you. And this works with all sorts of chord 'shapes', In fact knowing how to move the shapes for C, A, G, F and D with a barre if necessary will allow you to play pretty much every major, minor and 7th chord in existence in other positions on the neck. Still refusing to learn to barre?

Well I suppose you may read this and continue to feel that this isn't for you and you will do without those developments. Fine, that is your right, but you are seriously missing out based on a fear of something that just needs some effort and practice to master.

I've not met an accomplished guitar or ukulele player who would say they found every chord easy when they were learning. Everyone finds some of them hard. But they practice them, master them, and then look back and wonder what all the fuss was about. It's one of the joys of learning a musical instrument, especially when it starts to 'click'.

So please stop with the 'just play an E7', or the 'use a capo' and learn to love your forefinger! And certainly, please stop telling other beginners to avoid certain chords.. (and shame on the couple of ukulele clubs I know who either avoid songs with E chords in them or transpose them into other keys.. I mean, it's like learning the piano with all the black keys removed)...

Yet another rant from

Got A Ukulele

, but this one probably gets my goat more than any other. One day we may have the ukulele taken more seriously I suppose but that is not going to happen if the players continue to perpetuate the myth that they are 'easy and, worst still,  encourage other beginners to avoid doing anything even slightly difficult..

ps. In case you were wondering - the chord in the image above is a D7 played, yes... with a barre.

pps - and after all that - if you STILL don't want to develop your playing, then that is fine. Ignore all this if you must. But please, an E chord is an E chord. If you want to play an E chord, play an E chord. That involves a barre. Simple as that..




18 comments :

  1. Absolutely agree, the barre is an issue when starting to play but does open up a whole world of possibilities when your first finger has developed the strength to hold the chord. Also it is not a question of "pressing harder" - position and curvature of the digit is really important.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Been playing two years and doing OK...my tutor this week introduced me to movable chord shapes and whilst its almost like starting over again,I can see how much it is going to benefit my playing once its mastered. As it was with barre chords 2years ago

    ReplyDelete
  3. I disagree with so much of this post Barry so I will just stick to the subject, ie. barre chords. Or at least I will try to :-)

    Firstly, I found this video by Stuart Fuchs amazingly helpful in finally cracking barre chords. I would highly recommend it. It shows how to use gravity rather than muscle strength to make barre chords and has a very easy exercise to achieve results quickly:
    Stuart Fuchs Ukulele Lessons: Making Bar Chords Easier

    Secondly, and generalising this point covers a lot of my disagreements with most of the rest of this post: not everyone is physically able to make barre chords.

    A lot of people are coming to the ukulele later in life as their first instrument. Older hands are not always as dexterous, nimble, flexible and conventionally shaped as younger hands.

    Just a couple of weeks ago an "older player", who regularly performs on stage with a small band with no complaints about his playing, explained and showed me how he had finally realised that his many months of struggling with barre chords were so futile. He had realised and showed me how his fingers were too stiff and too crooked to make barre chords. He was happy in a way to discover this, as it meant he could stop flogging that dead horse and concentrate instead on what he COULD do to improve in his playing.

    Some people find that playing helps to improve dexterity, flexibility and coordination. Others find that it exposes limitations that they cannot overcome without resort to "cheaty chords", capos, etc.

    The priority for many older people is learning to play well enough in the shortest possible time to enjoy the activity, rather than aiming to meet some arbitrary standards of "best practice".

    I know that your rants are partly tongue in cheek, but I did feel with this one that it could be very discouraging and disheartening and could make some people feel bad about the ways that they have found to do the best that they can.

    Yes, do spur us on to try harder and expand our playing but also please acknowledge that there is a place for "workarounds".

    Something that helped me to feel less guilty about "cheaty chords", capos, etc. - because I had been made to feel guilty by articles like this one - was being told by several different people at different times, "Watch guitarists! Most of them are very lazy! Thye move their fretting hand and fingers as little as possible! They do songs in chords that are easy for them to play, they fudge chords when it suits and if they are still too difficult to play then they use a capo!"

    Also, as I am sure you must have noticed, there is a big difference in expertise between guitarists who have taken up the ukulele and other people who at the same point in life have started out on the ukulele as their first instrument.

    I am one of those "late starters", although by no means as late as many other people I know. Now, I know enough and am confident enough to disagree with you. A few years ago I would have read this article and felt, "What's the point? I will never be good enough." - until someone reminded me again about the lazy guitarists :-)

    Keep up the good work - and I hope you wiped that index finger after poking it up you nose and in your ear before plonking it on your fretboard! :-)

    Best wishes,
    Liz Panton

    ReplyDelete
  4. Spot on! I'm a beginner and at least half of each of my practice sessions is spent on barre chords. Because of this I already know a position on the neck and a shape for a Maj, a Min and a 7th chord in any key. There are other shapes I know, but it feels good to have such useful knowledge at such an early stage. Am I competent at barre chords yet? Not by a long way but unless I work at it I never will be and while I work at it I'm learning a lot about my instrument.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Liz, if you don't mind me saying so - I am a little staggered you disagree. In fact I think it's hard to disagree with (or at least it should be). The point of the post was to try to stop other people telling beginners to a) avoid songs with moderately difficult chords in them b)telling them to use an E7 as it's 'just the same' (when it isn't) and c) to avoid barre positions altogether. Surely that is a really dangerous thing to be doing.

    Not sure I agree that the chord is impossible. I have taught people who claimed that, but then they found with practice it clicked and now look back and wonder what the fuss is all about.

    Certainly not my intention to make people who are learning feel guilty, but it WAS my intention for those who dish out crazy advice like 'Just play an E7 it's the same as an E' to be made feeling guilty.

    It's nothing to do with 'best practice' and it certainly isn't 'arbitrary'. It's just that there are right and wrong ways and I think the assumption that the ukulele is 'easy' has a lot to do with the problem.

    But to repeat - the aim here was to try to shame those who have been playing a month and then vociferously tell other beginners incorrect information.

    ReplyDelete
  6. But yes Liz - I accept there may be those for whom a barre chord may be painful, but you must understand that this is a very general blog with a wide audience. The general point that there are pseudo teachers out there telling ukulele players of 'all ages' not to bother with barre chords because a cheat is the way forward is not advice that I know any ukulele teacher would support.

    ReplyDelete
  7. As a guitar player who's taken up the ukulele about 18 months ago, I'm in agreement with you Barry. The ability to play barre chords opens up both instruments so much more! Looking back to learning barre chords on the guitar, it is difficult, and a real mental and physical barrier in your progression on the instrument. It's also easy to try and avoid, but you get out what you put in. Getting to grips with barre chords is most definitely worth it! If it was easy, it probably wouldn't be worth doing so much. Once you've got them down, you'll never look back. Coming to the ukulele from a guitar back ground, my first instinct is to barre wherever possible, as once you've acquired the skill it makes playing a lot easier. Having said all that, it was a fair bit of work to learn barre chords in the first place (try it on a steel string acoustic guitar, ouch!) and I can understand how people can feel discouraged. To anyone who is avoiding barre chords, I would say keep at it, you'll get there and it will all be worth it!

    Really enjoying your blog btw, it's been very helpful in learning the ukulele :-)

    ReplyDelete
  8. (Sorry this reply is so long that I have to post it in separate bits!)

    . . . Well, I didn’t say that I disagreed with everything that you said, Barry :-)

    Of course, barre chords are not “impossible” - I certainly agree with you on that one.

    However, given that this article is a “rant”, it would be surprising if everyone who read it agreed with absolutely everything you said.

    Heck! I now find that there are even more things that I disagree with! :-)

    For example, “If you want to play an E chord, play an E chord. That involves a barre. Simple as that..”

    No, playing an E chord does not necessarily involve playing a barre.

    The way I play the chord sequence [A] [D] [E] [D] [A] [E] might be different to the way you play it. I play it without a barre on the [E].

    Apologies that this is not the “correct”, i.e. Latin, way to label fingers - but it works:

    I = Index finger
    M = Middle finger
    R = Ring Finger
    P = Pinkie (little finger)

    A: 2-1-0-0 (M-I-0-0)
    D: 2-2-2-0 (M-R-P-0)
    E: 4-4-4-2 (M-R-P-I)

    - and so on.

    You will notice that the middle finger (M) stays on the same string throughout the chord sequence. Also that the middle, ring and pinkie fingers (M) (R) and (P) stay on the same strings during the transitions between [D] and [E].

    The middle finger functions as a “guide finger” throughout the chord sequence: it never needs to leave the string, although you could take it off if you wanted to.

    To me, not using a barre on [E] makes it easier to slide from [D] to [E] and from [E] to [D].

    You might prefer to barre - but it is not at all necessary to barre the [E] if you do not want to.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Secondly, in your reply to my comment, you say, “not to bother with barre chords . . . is not advice that I know any ukulele teacher would support.”

    This goes back to my original reason for commenting, i.e. that not everyone can make barre chords. I did not say, by the way, that some people find it “painful” to make barre chords (the word you used in your reply to me) - I said “unable”. “Impossible” is different to “able to but find it painful”.

    I do not want to put words into her mouth or suggest that we were discussing barre chords specifically, but I had an interesting conversation with Zahra Lowzley (aka “The Ukulele Tutor”) that is relevant here. Zahra explained that she enjoyed tutoring people who presented with “hand problems” - limited movement, missing fingers, Dupuytren's contracture, etc. - helping them to find ways to play that might be “unconventional” but would work for them.

    I imagine that in some cases this might possibly involve using “cheaty” chords? (I was going to cite Django Reinhardt as an example of someone who used “unconventional fretting” but that is a bit of a red herring as he could still make barre chords.)

    I do take your point that, “this is a very general blog with a wide audience” also that “The general point is that there are pseudo teachers out there telling ukulele players of 'all ages' not to bother with barre chords“.

    However, your starting point was, “some players were advising a beginner to either avoid songs that used barre chords totally, to play 'cheat chords,' or to (shudder) use a capo instead.”

    The key word for me here is, “beginner”. Maybe we have different definitions of “beginner”? I continue to believe that I was given very good advice as a “beginner”, i.e. in the first months of playing without the benefit of any formal tuition.

    As a beginner, I was very lucky to play with and be advised by some very accomplished professional multi-instrumentalists, people who had many years experience of making their living by composing, performing and recording music. Not “armchair ukulele experts” who were beginners themselves.

    The advice they gave me was not to worry too much about what I was doing with my fretting hand but instead to feel and listen to the rhythm of a song and try to get the rhythms into my playing. I was encouraged to use “cheat chords”, “air chords” and muted chords if it helped me to feel and keep the rhythm. They showed me barre chords and power chords and all sorts of fancy stuff that was well out of my skill range, explaining that these were things I should learn to do once I had got the basics under my belt, ie. keeping the rhythm while making smooth chord changes between “simple” chords.

    ReplyDelete
  10. And finally! :-)

    I said that I would try to stick to the topic of barre chords but it is hard because I just do not believe that being able to play barre chords is particularly relevant to “beginners” - which is who you say you are talking about.

    I think you are aiming at the wrong target where beginners are concerned.

    So, this is where I stray from the topic of barre chords but please bear with me, because I think it is relevant and it is another reason why I disagree with much of this article. (I did not mention it in my first comment because I was trying to stick to the topic of barre chords.)

    Have you already done a rant about beginners being encouraged - even by “proper tutors” - to “thunk thunk thunk” downstrokes like a zombie metronome in order to be able to concentrate on increasing the number and “difficulty” of chords that they can play? - If not, please do, because I will probably agree with every word :-)

    I have been looking without success for a video that I saw not too long ago of the “performance” at the end of a “beginners” intensive ukulele course that was run by qualified music teachers. (Maybe they have removed it from the internet!)

    There was a large group of people who were definitely playing more than C, F and G - but who were also playing with an unvarying “thunk thunk thunk” downstroke through every song.

    A beginner friend of mine went on that course. Before she went, she fumbled chord changes but managed a pretty decent approximation of the rhythm and pace of lots of songs in a variety of musical styles.

    Until I saw that video I could not understand how on earth her playing had deteriorated so much in such a short time. Admittedly, she showed much more precision with her fretting hand and could play “harder” chords. However, she was also a worse player. All her natural musicality and rhythm had been driven out by the course tutors’ insistence that the students adopt a “thunk thunk thunk” metronome downstroke.

    This was done, I assume, to tame random rhythms in order to focus on teaching them to to play a range of songs with “harder chords”. What a result! A whole load of people able to play “hard chords” on the ukulele to a metronome - without hearing them singing along you would be hard pushed to recognise any of the songs that they were playing.

    PLEASE do an “anti-thunk” rant soon! :-)

    Best wishes,
    Liz Panton

    ReplyDelete
  11. Again - reference to the E chord was just illustrative of the use of a barre - I could have used the D. Dare I suggest that the E chord 4442 is not only a damn sight easier with a barre but also allows moveable chords positions too. Again - if you are struggling with the fingers, as I said I agree with you, but you seem to have ignored the fact that this blog is read by a wide range of people.

    The post was a rant against those who try to 'teach' cheats for all, not against those who struggle to finger the chords.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I think what I am most interested in though Liz - are you in 'agreement' or 'disagreement' with the main point - i.e. - people telling beginners to actively avoid barre chords? (regardless of the chord) - Surely you see my point there

    ReplyDelete
  13. I remember learning to play an F on guitar a long time ago (for anyone that doesn't know this is usually the first barre chord you encounter when learning guitar). I remember it being pretty tough going and taking a while to become second nature. Was it worth it? 100%.

    Shortcuts or alternatives are ok now and again but ultimately if you want to become a better player you've got to face a few challenges.

    Great post Baz!

    ReplyDelete
  14. Hi Barry,

    Apologies but the other two parts of my last reply did not post so I am trying again . . . they maybe answer your question to me about whether or not I agree with the idea of encouraging beginners to avoid barre chords.

    (By the way, I am not suggesting that a non-barre E played 4442 is a "workaround" for someone who has problems playing barre chords. I am suggesting instead that it is a perfectly reasonable way for anyone to play an E chord, if they choose to do so and if it works better that way for them in the context of the chords that precede and follow it.)

    This was part 2 of my reply - there is a part 3 as well :-)

    Secondly, in your reply to my comment, you say, “not to bother with barre chords . . . is not advice that I know any ukulele teacher would support.”

    This goes back to my original reason for commenting, i.e. that not everyone can make barre chords. I did not say, by the way, that some people find it “painful” to make barre chords (the word you used in your reply to me) - I said “unable”. “Impossible” is different to “able to but find it painful”.

    I do not want to put words into her mouth or suggest that we were discussing barre chords specifically, but I had an interesting conversation with Zahra Lowzley (aka “The Ukulele Tutor”) that is relevant here. Zahra explained that she enjoyed tutoring people who presented with “hand problems” - limited movement, missing fingers, Dupuytren's contracture, etc. - helping them to find ways to play that might be “unconventional” but would work for them.

    I imagine that in some cases this might possibly involve using “cheaty” chords? (I was going to cite Django Reinhardt as an example of someone who used “unconventional fretting” but that is a bit of a red herring as he could still make barre chords.)

    I do take your point that, “this is a very general blog with a wide audience” also that “The general point is that there are pseudo teachers out there telling ukulele players of 'all ages' not to bother with barre chords“.

    However, your starting point was, “some players were advising a beginner to either avoid songs that used barre chords totally, to play 'cheat chords,' or to (shudder) use a capo instead.”

    The key word for me here is, “beginner”. Maybe we have different definitions of “beginner”? I continue to believe that I was given very good advice as a “beginner”, i.e. in the first months of playing without the benefit of any formal tuition.

    As a beginner, I was very lucky to play with and be advised by some very accomplished professional multi-instrumentalists, people who had many years experience of making their living by composing, performing and recording music. Not “armchair ukulele experts” who were beginners themselves.

    The advice they gave me was not to worry too much about what I was doing with my fretting hand but instead to feel and listen to the rhythm of a song and try to get the rhythms into my playing. I was encouraged to use “cheat chords”, “air chords” and muted chords if it helped me to feel and keep the rhythm. They showed me barre chords and power chords and all sorts of fancy stuff that was well out of my skill range, explaining that these were things I should learn to do once I had got the basics under my belt, ie. keeping the rhythm while making smooth chord changes between “simple” chords.

    Best wishes,
    Liz
    . . . to be continued :-)

    ReplyDelete
  15. I do have to respectfully disagree with your anti-capo stance. If you're new to the uke then yes I whole heartedly discourage using a capo to cheat on chords. Learn to play chords in several different voicings to help develop you own unique style.

    That being said, sometimes a capo is just necessity. I'm currently rehearsing with a small group consisting of acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, percussion, reed organ, and uke courtesy of me. We're doing some originals and some off beat covers. One of our covers is Lindsey Buckingham's Trouble. Simple little song that you can create some beautiful textures around. Initially we had a little trouble figuring out the song from the record until we realized that Lindsey must have tuned up a 1/2 step. Once we figured it out it was relatively easy to figure it out. The guitarist simply slapped a capo on and was good to go. Initially I was able to play along without a capo but I found what I was playing a little boring.

    A few days later I was playing along with the record and figured out something much more interesting to play. I was going all over the neck but I thought it sounded good. Then I had to start figuring out my vocal harmony part. I am not a strong singer and particularly not a strong harmony singer. Between trying to sing my not-very-difficult-but-difficult-for-me harmony part and play my pretty-but-all-over-the-neck-chords, both aspects were suffering. So after 3 days of working at this without using a capo there wasn't much improvement in either area.

    On the way to practice with the drummer that evening I told him about how I was struggling. He then asked why don't I just use a capo? I replied, " I don't know. I guess because it seems that it's not generally accepted with ukes." He said that I needed to stop thinking as a uke player and start thinking as a musician and performer. "You always tell us that we have to do what's best for the song. Isn't the best thing for the song is being able to perform it in a way that the audience will enjoy it?" So I put a guitar capo on the first fret, realized how brainless it would then be to play my pretty part (fingerpicking a few 6th & 7th chords in case you were wondering) which would allow me to focus on my vocal harmony. Sure enough, my harmony singing improved immediately because I could focus more on that and go semi-autopilot on the my uke playing.

    I don't understand the anti-capo argument outside of not using it if you're a beginner. As musicians, not uke players but MUSICIANS, we must always do what's best for the song and not our egos. Regardless if it's a capo that's needed, or tuning your A down to G, or having to belch on cue, we must put our egos aside for the sake of the song. The song is what your audience is going to remember not whether or not you use a capo.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Thing is, this blog is aimed directly at beginners, and the post was about using the finger not ostensibly the use of a capo. I am not anti capo, just don't see the point when chords can so easily be transposed or moved up the neck. you could even tune up for a song - would take 10 seconds.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Sorry for the off topic comment... Barry have you checked your site on different browsers. I understand you wanting advertising on it and even drawing attention to it, but in Firefox, at least (using windows 10 if that matters), the pages are scrolling to the ad videos EVERY 15 seconds. It's making reading the good articles very annoying.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Oh dear - thanks for letting me know - will look into it

    ReplyDelete

Leave me a comment!

Do you enjoy this blog? Donate to help keeping it going!

If you enjoy this blog, donations are welcomed to allow me to invest more time in bringing you ukulele articles. Aside from the Google ads, I don't get paid to write this blog. Call it a labour of love! And, no, I don't get to keep the ukuleles that are loaned to to review...