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What are barre chords?

What are barre chords? They are chords with a bar. What is a bar? In most cases it’s your index finger. Check this out: 

In this picture, as in all bars, the index finger lays down flat. That’s what bars do.

As for the other fingers, they simply hold shapes that you already know from open E and A chords. Simple as well.

So here’s the general template for holding one of these guys:

  • 1) Lay your index finger down across the strings.
  • 2) Use your other fingers to hold an E or A chord shape that you already know.
  • 3) Done!

Laying that aside, the main thing you need to know is that barre chords are the ultimate movable chord. That simply means they are chords you can shift up or down any number of frets while keeping consistent space between pitches.

As an example, If I hold a G major barre chord and slide the whole thing up two frets, I am now holding an A major:

|-3---5----|
|-3---5----|
|-4---6----|
|-5---7----|
|-5---7----|
|-3---5----|

This is possible because by barring with my index finger I eliminate all open strings. This means that if I shift a barre chord up by two frets, every note within the chord moves the exact same distance: two frets.As a result of that, since G to A on the fretboard is a distance of two frets, I can take a G barre chord, shift it up two frets, and be holding an A barre chord.

This consistency is the strength of barre chords. By learning just a few basic shapes, which I’ll cover in two seconds, I am able to play any of the most commonly used chords in music.

What are barre chords?

Not bad, huh?


The Mechanics of Barre Chords


Now that you know a bit about what barre chords are, let’s go into the howof actually playing them.

At their base, all barre chords consist of something like this, where the index finger bars all the way across the seventh fret:

|-7----|
|-7----|
|-7----|
|-7----|
|-7----|
|-7----|

Your other fingers will be involved, too, but you’ll need the index finger laying behind everything as a foundation.

First issue: finger strength. It takes a lot to hold something like this correctly, so try this to work those muscles a bit:

|-7--7--7--7--7----|
|-7--7--7--7--7----|
|----7--7--7--7----|
|-------7--7--7----|
|----------7--7----|
|-------------7----|

Start barring with the index finger and keep adding strings until you’re able to barre all six and play them cleanly. To make it easier to hold, slide to a higher fret. To make it more difficult, slide to a lower one.

Try and work up to barring all six strings, but don’t get stuck on it. Work on the actual chords in the meantime. The good news is that in actual songs you’ll never run into something this difficult. The flip side of that is, if this is as hard as it gets, and you get this down, the actual barre chords should be no problem.

A few tips to keep in mind:

  • Your thumb is vital if you want to achieve the proper amount of pressure required to hold barre chords. Your fingers need to push against the fretboard with quite a bit of force to hold the notes properly, and your thumb pushing up on the back of the neck provides the anchor for them to do so.
    • Check out the picture at the very top of the page for a good example of thumb placement.
  • Roll your index finger slightly toward the outside. This shifts the barre so the bonier edge of your finger does the holding. This is better than having the fleshier underside do it, where the string sometimes sinks into the skin instead of finding something firm to push against.
  • Hug the fret with your index finger. Get really, really close to it, but not directly on top of it. The farther away you press, the harder it is.
  • Look at the underside of your index finger. See the grooves where your joints are? If a string happens to fall directly into one of those it will often eat the string’s vibration and either cause the note to die much quicker than usual or not ring at all. If you encounter this:
    • Shift your finger across the strings slightly until the joints are no longer directly on top of strings.

That should get you going. So about those actual barre chords…


The Basic Barre Chord Shapes


There are tons of barre chord shapes. That said, I’m not particularly interested in making you read an encyclopedia(nor in writing one), so I’m only going to cover the most important two:

  • 1) Root six, or E shapes, and
  • 2) Root five, or A shapes.

These are by far the most common/important. Anything beyond these is great, but you must learn these first.

Root Six (E) Barre Chords

The ‘six’ in root six refers to the sixth string, which is the low E.

As a result, root six barre chords derive their fingerings from the shapes of the open E chords. You’ll see the pattern pretty quickly.

If I hold an open E major chord (do yourself a favor right now and hold it with your ring, pinky and middle fingers, starting on A, in that order):

E|-0----|
B|-0----|
G|-1----|
D|-2----|
A|-2----|
E|-0----|

slide all fretted notes up one fret and apply a bar with the index finger, I am holding an F major bar:

E|-1----|
B|-1----|
G|-2----|
D|-3----|
A|-3----|
E|-1----|

As long as I hold that shape I can slide it all the way up and down the fretboard, and everywhere I go I will have a root six major chord. The name of that major chord will depend on the note I’m holding on the sixth (low E) string. That’s why they call it a root six chord. Make sense?

This holds true for the other root six shapes as well: 

If you back these shapes down until you eliminate the bar, you will notice they exactly match the original open e major, minor, seventh, minor seventh, etc.

These are the first ones to learn. Get them down well and you will be repaid many times over. When you’ve got those continue on to…

Root Five (a) Barre Chords

You may wonder why you would ever need to learn another shape if you can play any major, minor, seventh, or suspended chord with root six barre chords. Short answer: it helps you move around less.

If I hold any particular root six shape, I will have to go through twelve frets before the notes repeat.

Watch this now; it’s important.

If I play an open position E major chord:

|-0----|
|-0----|
|-1----|
|-2----|
|-2----|
|-0----|

I can bar that and slide all the way up to the twelfth fret before I hit another E major:

|-12----|
|-12----|
|-13----|
|-14----|
|-14----|
|-12----|

This means that all the other chords I might want to play are between these two points. If I want to play a C, I’ve got to bar at the eighth fret. If I want a D I have to bar all the way up at the tenth fret. That’s too much movement.

This is where the root five (A) bar comes in. By combining root five chords with what I already know of the root six chords, I am able to play any chord without barring past the seventh fret. This keeps me from jumping around the fretboard like some crazy kid on a trampoline.

As for their construction…

The idea should be familiar to you by now. Since this is a root five, the chord will be named by the note played on the fifth string. Since that string is an A, the shapes will follow from the open-position A chords.

The big difference, other than the shapes: do not play notes on the low E string for these chords. Your lowest note will be on the A string. These are root five chords, so stick with playing five strings.

Other than that the ideas are the same as with root six chords.

The most commonly used shapes are: 

Pretty straightforward, really. The only one I’d make a special note of is the regular major chord. The fingering can be a bit awkward at first. The tricky bit here is the three notes right behind each other and how to hold them. Some people choose to fret these individually with their middle, ring, and pinky fingers. That’s fine, but I usually go for a double bar by laying my ring finger across those three strings while holding the main bar with my index finger.

Yes, I realize this is evil, but I also think it’s the best way to handle it. It keeps your pinky free, which can be useful when you try going from a major to suspended, or to the alternate seventh shape. Also, don’t worry if you accidentally mute the high E string while playing these. If you can get the middle four strings to ring out, the tonality of the chord will be established, and that’s good enough.


Fun And Useful Things To Try


Here’s what you do…

  • Play around with the whole idea. Have fun. For example, pull up a fretboard notes diagram and practice forming the different root five and root six shapes.
    • Play a root six F major, then a root five F major. Listen to the difference in sounds. Do this for other chords as well. This will help you memorize the different notes and locations of the chords.
  • Play a song you know using only barre chords.
  • Play through all the different chord types (major, minor, etc.) to hear the difference between them.
  • Try mixing in some percussive strumming. These chords are perfect for this as there are no open strings, so a simple lift of the fingers plus a regular strum will allow you to get that cool percussive (hck-hck-hck) sound.
  • Try sliding into a chord either from above or below. This can be a very interesting way to start a phrase.
  • Play just the bottom three notes in any bar. Sounds quite a bit like a power chord, doesn’t it?

Whatever you do, keep these barre chords handy. You will become a better guitar player once you start using them.

Good luck!