Playing Ukulele Bar Chords

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Are you eager to find out how to play ukulele barre chords, or ukulele bar chords as many players call them? Read on to find out everything.

First things first: what is a ukulele bar chord (or barre chord)?

A barre (or ukulele bar chord) is a chord where you use one (or more fingers) to press down (= fret, bar) multiple strings on the ukulele fretboard. This is usually done with the index finger, but there are situations where you have to use other fingers. So barre chords mean that there are no open strings: none at all, ever.

Why do ukulele bar chords exist?

Barre chords enable the ukulele player to play other tones on the ukulele besides the open strings. They also allow you to play higher up the fretboard.

Take the A major chord, for example. In the diagrams below from the UkuTabs Chord Library you’ll probably immediately recognise version 1 as the A chord. However, you can also play it barred, as in version 2. Most of the time, the diagram for version 2 will be shown the way it is in the middle illustration, but sometimes the barred version is emphasised as in the third diagram.

A ukelele chord on fretboard
A ukelele chord barred on fretboard
A ukelele barred on fretboard alternative notation

Barre chords can offer a variation in tones and make a piece of music more interesting. Another reason to use them is that barre chords can easily be moved along the neck whilst keeping the hand in the same position. That makes it easy to play similar chords.

A final reason is that using barre chords allows you to “throw away” your capo. Now, do not take this literally, but barre chords do offer you a way to play songs that need a capo without a capo. For example, take a song that is played with a capo on the first fret and has an A major chord in it. You could simply do away with the capo and play a Bb (A#) chord (see diagram below and compare with A chord diagram above).

Bb or A# ukelele chord on fretboard

So how do I play these bar chords you are talking about?

Well, it isn’t that difficult, but it requires a good technique and, as always, a lot of practice. Once you get the hang of it, it’ll open up a whole spectrum of new songs you’ll be able to play. What is more, you’ll be able to play easily in different keys without needing a capo!

In this first section, I’ll use the Bb (A#) chord as our basic barre chord as it is one that is frequently used in songs. You can see the chord diagram a few paragraphs up.

So where do you place your fingers? How do you play a ukulele bar chord. This is the first method:

  1. Thumb placement

    Place your thumb centrally on the back of the fretboard so that it sticks out a little bit. This will help you to apply more pressure.

  2. Other fingers placement

    Place the other fingers for the chord in the right place, except your index (barring) finger. For Bb you would place your middle finger on the C string, second fret and your ring finger on the G string, third fret.

  3. Bar with index finger

    Finally, place your index finger on the fret that needs to be barred. For Bb, this means placing your index finger on all the strings of the first fret. This is the least stressful and stretched position for your fingers. If you do it the other way around, you may find you’ll have to stretch your other fingers quite a lot. Make sure that you keep your index finger straight.

picture of A or Bb ukulele chord playing barred

Second way to play the ukulele bar chords

Following the three steps above is a good way to learn how to position your fingers. Of course, after a while, you’ll be able to place all your fingers instantaneously when you see a barre chord diagram.

There is a second way to play chords like Bb, though. You can see this method in the image below. Here you simply use your index finger to “bar” the E and A strings on the first fret, instead of all four strings. This might be easier for some people and some chords, but I do suggest that you learn both methods (preferably the first one).

picture of A or Bb ukulele chord playing barred alternative version

Need some useful tips?

Try moving things! Test your barre chord by picking each string individually. Do you hear an annoying buzz? Try moving your arm or finger. I usually hold my “fretting arm” close to my body, but this might not work for everybody. Move your arm (elbow) around and see what position suits you best. Also try rotating your index (barring) finger a little bit so that you fret by using the side of your finger a little bit more.

With the ukulele, you can place your thumb basically wherever you want and you can even wrap it right around the neck. This is not the case when playing barre chords: you’ll need to simply place your thumb against the back so that your fretting fingers can reach further. This is important because you only want to fret the string you are intending to fret and not make other strings buzz by accidentally touching them.

Not enough strength to press all the strings? Try putting another finger on top of your index finger to provide extra pressure.

Stretching those fingers to play the ukulele bar chords properly

The main issue with barre chords is that they require quite flexible fingers. A basic exercise to stretch your fingers is simply to stretch them as hard as you can for a few seconds and then make a fist. Repeat this a few times every day and you’ll definitely see some improvement soon!

You can easily make up your own ukulele finger stretching exercises, but here is one example. Each measure has four notes, one for each finger, and you can basically start on any fret. There is only one catch to make this a stretching exercise: you need to keep your index finger on the same fret when placing your other three fingers. Pick each string after placing your finger to hear if it is placed correctly.

Finger placement example

xA|-------------------------------|-------------------------------|
xE|-------------------------------|-------------------------------|
xC|-------------------------------|--index--middle--ring--pinkie--|
xG|--index--middle--ring--pinkie--|-------------------------------|

EXERCISES

Basic ukulele finger stretching exercise:

xA|---------|---------|---------|-1-2-3-4-||
xE|---------|---------|-1-2-3-4-|---------||
xC|---------|-1-2-3-4-|---------|---------||
xG|-1-2-3-4-|---------|---------|---------||

Advanced ukulele finger stretching exercise:

xA|---------|---------|---------|-1-3-4-5-||
xE|---------|---------|-1-3-4-5-|---------||
xC|---------|-1-3-4-5-|---------|---------||
xG|-1-3-4-5-|---------|---------|---------||

Extreme ukulele finger stretching exercise:

xA|---------|---------|---------|-1-4-5-6-||
xE|---------|---------|-1-4-5-6-|---------||
xC|---------|-1-4-5-6-|---------|---------||
xG|-1-4-5-6-|---------|---------|---------||

As you can see, you can easily invent your own exercises. The ones above should be a good starting point. You can also barre a fret, for example, and then place your other fingers on the other strings and pick them.

Need more input?

Feel free to contact me whenever you need more information about how to play the ukulele bar chords.

Are you also interested to know how to play the horrific e-chord?

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