I started taking guitar classes last fall. In the beginner classes, you start learning the basic open chords and commit those to memory. For the most part, I have all of them remembered with the exception of one or two I very rarely use. As I progressed to the next class, different strumming patterns are introduced as well as riffs. At the school where I take classes, they have 7 classes that make up their core guitar program. You start in guitar 1 and then enhance your skills in the next class with guitar 1 repertoire. This repeats itself for guitar 2 and guitar 3. The seventh and final class of the program is guitar forever (or four).
A few weeks ago, I started taking guitar 3, which would be the fifth class in the program. I had heard a lot about this class. During the last class of each session, there is a student showcase where the classes perform a song that showcases the lessons they have learned. I have written about these already from my own experience performing in the student showcase. However, whenever the instructor for guitar 3 introduces the class, they always make note of the “dreaded barre chord.” I now understand what they meant.
We started to learn the shape for barre chords immediately upon starting the first class of the guitar 3 session. The first song in our packet of songs to learn throughout the course was the Ringo Starr penned Beatles classis “With a Little Help from My Friends.” This song contained a Bm barre chord.
What makes barre chords difficult to learn are two things. First, because of how the index finger is used, I have to remember that I need to use different fingers when making my chord. I have spent 4 sessions already learning open chords and have some muscle memory regarding what fingers to use. For example, to make an Am open chord, I typically used my index, middle, and ring fingers. Since the Bm barre chord contains an Am chord, I now have to tell my brain to instead use my middle, ring, and pinky fingers. As a beginner, switching up the fingers can be a little tricky.
However, the reason why barre chords are so difficult is because you have to clamp you index finger across all six strings tightly and use your thumb to apply pressure underneath the fret board. This hand shape uses muscles that are never used for anything else other than this purpose. As a result, it kind of hurts. My instructor showed us some hand exercises we can use to help build the hand strength, but the key is to just practice. While I have been practicing, I’m still not great at quickly switching to a barre chord or even putting enough pressure on the string so as not to get the thud sound. I try not to get discouraged because I am told it can take a long time to get used to it, but is worth it in the end.
While I am really struggling with barre chords now, one thing I have never really had a problem with is learning riffs. I still remember all the riffs learned from songs taught in the preceding four classes. While I may not be able to remember the rest of the song in terms of what key or chord sequence for strumming, I don’t ever forget the riff. In fact, I learn the riffs rather quickly.
Last night, we moved onto the next song in our packet which was Paul Simon’s catchy hit “Kodachrome.” I absolutely adore this song, but I looked at the sheet with mild annoyance of the multiple barre chords that the song calls for. We went through the song a few times and I struggled where I knew I would, but we also did take time to learn the opening riff. Within minutes, I had it down perfectly. The riff is a neat little boogie number that ascends form the lower E string to the D string, and then descends again before repeating. For me, this riff is what makes this Simon class truly great.
The song sounds jovial and fun, but there is some dark humor with the lyrics. When Simon reflects on his time in high school or all of the girls who ignored him, there is a tinge of animosity in there. However, he has his Nikon camera and that is his whole world. With every picture he takes, he can make the whole world a sunny day. He seems to suggest that we interpret our photographs with rose-colored glasses and project more positive memories that may not actually reflect the time when the picture was taken. The song is cleverly written with a tongue-in-cheek commentary on nostalgia and it’s manipulative hold on our memories.
Despite the cynical message behind the lyrics, “Kodachrome” is a very fun song that makes me happy listening to it. And there is some irony there. I am distracted by the boogie riff and up-tempo styling and not focusing on what Simon is saying. But, that’s ok. I’m more than happy to add it’s signature riff to my repertoire. Now if only I can finally get these barre chords down.