Oi, You’re Barred!! – An Introduction To Barre Chords
Whenever I’m teaching guitar to beginners, one of the first real stumbling blocks for most students seems to come when they first encounter barre chords. After learning the basic open chords and practicing changing fluently between them, as well as, perhaps, learning a few simple riffs or single note picking exercises, along come barre chords. Most students will have been making good progress up to this point and then ‘Bam!’ – For some it can be like hitting a brick wall. Unfortunately, for many students, this is enough to either stop them from progressing further, or even cause them to quit playing all together.
Barre chords pose a technical challenge for the beginner for a number of reasons: lack of adequate finger strength, the requirement of precise finger placement, and a necessary understanding of the fretboard which may not have been developed yet. Some of the most common questions I get asked by beginners regarding barre chords are ‘Do I really need to learn them? Are they really necessary?’ and ‘Is it worth putting in the effort?’. Well, whist of course there is some effort required in learning how to use barre chords correctly, being able to play and understand them opens up a HUGE array of new playing possibilities in a relatively short space of time, so the answer to all those questions is a definite ‘YES! You really do need to learn them!’ and in this article I’m going to explain why, and show you that they needn’t be the headache that so many beginners find them. They just require a bit of perseverance.
So what exactly are barre chords? Well, they’re really not too difficult to understand. Basically they are just moveable chord shapes that can be easily transposed over the whole neck, enabling you to play many different chords with just one chord shape. The reason you can do this is because, unlike with open chords, barre chords do not contain any open strings – as you move the chord around the neck all of the notes move in relation to each other. With an open chord you use your fingers to fret certain notes, while other notes are played on the open strings. If we take E major as an example, your first finger plays a G# (first fret, G string), your second finger plays a B (2nd fret, A string), and your third finger plays an E (2nd fret, D string). The other notes in the chords (low E, B, and high E) are played by the open strings.
If you were to move this chord shape around the neck, by keeping the three fretting fingers in the same shape but changing positions to, say, the 5th fret, the 7th fret, or the 8th fret, the three open strings will continue to play the same open notes (E,B,E) so you will no longer be playing a major chord (although you can get some very nice sounding chords indeed by experimenting with this idea – I suggest you give it a try). The whole point of barre chords is that if you play a major chord, for example, and move it around the neck, you will always be playing a major chord, just built on a different root note, whether G, B, Db, F#, or whatever, the same shape will always be the same type of chord: major, minor 7th, dominant 7th#5, etc.
In order to achieve this you have to move ALL of the notes in the chord together, even the ones produced by the open strings. How do you move the notes of the open strings? By using your first finger to ‘bar’ them, effectively moving the nut by replacing it with your finger. Just like using a capo, but your finger is barring the strings instead.
So why should you bother to learn barre chords? What use are they? Well, firstly, if you stick with only open chords you’ll find that you are limited in where you can play chords. Most of the standard open chord shapes are way down on the first three frets, so if you are playing something higher up the neck and then want to play a chord it’s a bit of a jump to get back down to them. Also, some of the shapes are really quite fiddly to play – C minor or G minor for instance – and, due to their low register and close intervals, they can often sound rather dull and muddy.
Barre chords enable you to take a few simple chord shapes and move them all over the neck to create virtually any chord. Whereas with open chords you need to learn one chord shape for A, one chord shape for C, and another for D, with barre chords you can learn one major chord shape and, just by moving it around, you can play EVERY major chord. Of course there are different shapes for minor chords, and 7th chords and so on, but they’re only slightly different, and once you know the shape, you can play it in all 12 keys. And there is more than one chord shape for each type of chord, based on the five open chord shapes, which means no matter where you are on the neck, from the 1st fret to the 24th, you should always be able to find a voicing for ANY chord, whether C minor or Eb major, F#min6 or Dmaj7sus4, within one or two frets of where you are playing. I hope you can see the enormous possibilities that understanding this can open up for you.
As I mentioned above, there are five shapes for each chord type (major, minor, 7th, etc.) and these are based on the open chord shapes: C,A,G,E, and D. Some of these shapes are more practical than others however. The E and A shapes are the most common, and are relatively easy to play, in major, minor, and 7th variants. Many guitarists get by just fine knowing only these two shapes and, while it’s true that these will cover most of what you’ll ever need to play, I’d definitely recommend making the extra effort to learn the others. After E and A, the next two most common are the C and D shapes (although the C minor shape is very tricky, and the D shape, both major and minor, can also be a bit fiddly). Then there is the G shape which is very rarely used, and difficult to play although, again, it’s worth knowing if only as a reference, and it can be used for some nice chordal embellishments. As you can see there are really not that many shapes to learn – the E and A shapes (major and minor) will cover most things, so that 4 shapes. The C and D major shapes are definitely worth learning, as is the D minor shape, so that’s 7 shapes. Even if you include the really difficult ones, that only takes it up to 10 chord shapes. Just by learning these 10 shapes you can play EVERY major and minor chord, ANYWHERE on the fretboard. Pretty amazing right?? Add in the variants for 7ths, 6ths, and other extension (which are easy once you understand how they are constructed) and all of a sudden you’ve got a HUGE variety of chords at your disposal. Well worth the effort.
So how do you go about actually learning these barre chords? Well first you need to be familiar with the open chord shapes they are based on, or at least the most common ones mentioned above – that is C,A, E, and D major, and A and E minor. And maybe D minor too.
Now, because you’re going to be using your first finger as a bar, you’ll probably have to adjust your fingering to suit. Let’s take a look at an actual example to explain this.
Let’s take the open E major chord. Most people would play this by fretting the G string on the first fret with the first finger, the A string on the second fret with your second finger, and the D string on also on the second fret with your third finger, while leaving the low E, B, and high E strings open, and strumming all six strings. In order to start moving this chord shape around the neck we need to free up the first finger to use as a bar. To do this simply switch each fretted note to the next available finger – so the G string is now fretted at the first fret with the second finger, the A string at the second fret with your third finger, and the D string at the second fret with your fourth finger. The first finger is now free to bar the open strings.
Now we’re ready to start moving around the fretboard. Let’s start by moving up just one fret. Slide the three fretting fingers up to the next fret. Now you need to move the open strings up one fret as well. You do this by placing the first finger across all six strings. You should be pressing down firmly with the fleshy part of the finger, close to the fret, applying even pressure across all the strings. This will no doubt feel quite uncomfortable at first as you need to build up enough strength in your hand, as well as toughen up the skin on your finger itself. This will come with practice. Once you have the bar in position try playing the chord to hear how it sounds. This is now an F major chord. If you move it up another fret it becomes F# major. One more and it’s G major. You can now move it to any fret and it will be the major chord built on the root note which, for this shape, is the note on the low E string, fretted by the barring first finger. Now you can do the same for all the other barre chord shapes.
When learning barre chords for the first time there are two common problems that may arise. The first is that the ‘open’ (barred) notes are not sounding correctly. This is caused by not applying enough pressure with the barring finger. This is really just a strength issue – you just need to keep practicing until you build up the required strength and endurance. It will take a bit of time. Try doing lots of different finger exercises and practice other things as well as just barre chords. This will help you to gain strength in your hand and you’ll find, over time, that it becomes easier to keep applying the required pressure on the strings making each note sound clearly, without causing any discomfort to your hand.
The other common problem people have is accidentally muting strings, causing those notes to sound dead, or not to ring out at all. This problem is not unique to barre chords, it can happen with other chords too, but something about having to keep the first finger straight while applying even pressure across all six strings seems to make it an issue more common to barre chords than most other chord types. This is just a finger positioning issue. You need to have a really good look at your fingers when playing and make sure they aren’t touching any strings they shouldn’t be. Only the tips of the fingers should be making contact with the strings in most cases (obviously not in the case of the barring finger), so keep them curled up away from the fretboard and away from the other strings. Remember to keep your hand as relaxed as possible when playing barre chords.
You’ll almost certainly find that the hardest place to play barre chords is down near the nut; the F major chord we looked at earlier is one most people have trouble with at first. This is partly because there is less ‘play’ on the strings here, so more pressure is required, and also the frets are wider apart, so your fingers need to stretch more. As you move up the neck you’ll find that they get much more comfortable to play, until you get past the 12th fret where it starts to get a bit cramped. Of course you should practice playing barre chords in all registers in order to become proficient.
So, having read through this article, I hope you can now appreciate the fact that barre chords are an essential part of any guitarist’s tool kit. Once you have them under your belt you’ll never look back, and you’ll find yourself using them all the time, and wondering how you ever managed without them. Like most things on the guitar mastering them is really just a case of practice, practice, practice. Stick with it and the effort will pay off and you’ll have a whole new world of guitar playing possibilities open up for you.