The Art of the Barre

Let’s face it: for the beginning guitarist, barre chords are hard. The idea that one finger has to hold down multiple strings when it has a hard enough time trying to hold down one seems like an impossible task. However, when we see the mystery of these shapes unfold, we can start to see enormous potential. This article will help us remember some popular shapes for barre chords, and show how we can move those shapes around the neck to learn an incredible amount of chords in a short amount of time. When it comes down to it, we all just need more time, right?

Barre? Bar? What?

guitar_behind_bars2

See, guitar is an interesting instrument. Unlike on a keyboard, many chords that don’t include open strings are movable shapes. Barre chords allow a particular shape to be moved to many different frets, allowing you to play many types of chords depending on what shape you use and what fret you are at.

Barre chords (sometimes written as bar chords) are chords on the guitar which feature one or more fingers holding down more than one string at the same time. This causes a problem, as we are taught to press down on the strings with the tips our fingers. We are taught that so that no part of our finger touch adjacent strings that we don’t mean to (deadening the sound). This is a reason why people with giant hands say they can’t play guitar (don’t tell Jimi Hendrix or Allan Holdsworth). But with barre chords, having big hands is a plus! You want at least one finger to touch adjacent strings!

To do this, you can’t use your fingertips on three or more strings. You have to use a different part of your finger. Generally, you would be using the the length of the finger, behind the pad to play barre chords, while other fingers might be using the fingertips. Besides the strength needed to hold down multiple notes at once*, the fingers are doing different things, and this is one of the hangups people have about playing barre chords. It is hard enough to just play the right shape, right? How are you supposed to remember how to hold each finger? Why does anyone need to know this stuff? Isn’t a C or G shape with a capo enough? Lots of questions here, which I can help answer.

*It really doesn’t take a lot of strength to hold down many strings at the same fret. The trick is to hold them down as close to the metal fret as possible. Too close (touching) to the fret, and the sound is buzzy and dead. Too far away and you have to press a lot harder to get a clean sound.

Placing Your Fingers

I was taught, by a few teachers, that my the bottom of my index finger should be the part of the finger touching the strings for these chords:

image1

Maybe it is because of my tiny doll-like hands, or maybe it is because I have strange curves in my index fingers, but this never worked for me. It caused pain, and from the time I was shown what a barre chord was until I could actually play them, about four years passed. I’m slow like that. I did find out that if I turn my index finger towards the headstock, the notes just popped out:

image2

I was no longer in pain, either. Try both shapes, you might find one works better than the other. Also, in both pictures, notice that the finger is parallel to the fret. The thumb is behind the neck (usually somewhere where the pad of the thumb is centered along the back of the neck). You are making a claw shape with your hand, but without tension. If you are squeezing your thumb and index finger together so much that it hurts, you are working too hard. Relax, and aim for a clean clear sound across all six strings. Once you get all six strings, we can start adding other fingers.

Shapes of Things Before Our Eyes

Barre chords are awesome for a lot of reasons, but one reason is that if you learn a specific shape, you can just put that shape at a particular fret and get a certain chord. For now, we will split these chords into two camps. One will have the root of the chord (the letter we name the chord) on the big E string, and the other will have the root of the chord on the A string. Different shapes will specify the quality (major, minor, 7th, etc) of the chord. So by slightly adjusting the shape, you can play many types of chords. In my chart, I put the chord shapes with the root of the chord on the E string at the top.

shapes3

These are written like standard chord boxes: Vertical lines are strings, and horizontal lines are frets. Dots tell you where to place your finger, and the numbers below are which finger you use. X’s mean don’t play that string.

Now the shapes themselves don’t tell you where to put the chord. To do that, we need a chart:

rootnotes

Using the chart, if I wanted to play a Bm7, with the root note on the E string, I look at the top row of shapes and select the Minor 7th shape, and according to the chart above, B is on the 7th fret. I place my index finger across the seventh fret and let my other fingers line up under it. If I want to play an Eb7 with the root note on the A string, I look at the second line of chords, and the second chart. I find the 7th chord shape, and place it with my index finger on the sixth fret. For more on 7th chords, check out this article.

A note about the Major 7th chord with the root note on the E string…

This is not a barre chord at all, since no finger holds down more than 1 string. However, I included the shape, because it sounds cool. Also, the back of your first finger should mute the A string, and the back of your second finger should mute the E string.

Can I Rock Now?

Well, that has more to do with attitude than  notes, but sure, why not? These aren’t the only barre chords (there are many more), but it gives us about 120 to start with. Some guitarists avoid barre chords, and use a capo. Some guitarists only use barre chords and just move shapes around the neck. It is all good, and neither is right or wrong. I use them when I need them, but my monkey hands get tired using them for a whole song.

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What are your favorite barre chord shapes? What kinds of chords gave (and give) you trouble?

 

Join the Conversation

10 Comments

  1. I struggle with full barre chords and prefer to play rootless barre chords. It
    sounds fine. It is known that the ear-mind combination can deduce the root of a chord by hearing all the other notes. (Cf “This is your Brain on Music”, by Daniel Levitin. ) When I want to add some bass energy to the sound, I’ll strum under
    the rootless ones with power chords on a second channel, and that’s my
    music.
    I really enjoyed this article which teaches barre chord thinking very well. Thanks.

    1. Thanks! I use rootless ones too- it becomes less critical when you have a bass player or piano as they are most likely playing the root.

  2. yeah nice bit of kit, i have always struggled with them but i do love the raunchy sounds achieved

  3. I used to love barre cords, but as I’ve gotten older (66) I find them hard to hold. So I use a mix of cord styles and/or alternate tunings, open D mostly. I refuse to let the ravages of arthritis, carpel tunnel keep me from playing. I also tune a tone low and capo on the 2nd fret. I have small hands and this allows me to reach some chords that would otherwise be impossible for me, like some jazz cords. Play on!

  4. I often play “barre”-less chords. I play the chord but instead of the barre I throw my thumb over the low E string and mute the high E string with the finger closest to it. It works especially well for me playing an F chord

  5. When I began, the only way I could play a barre chord was by wrenching the body of the guitar closer to me – effectively pressing the guitar into my finger. Now, one year on, I can slide these up and down the neck no problem. Practice, practice, practice!

  6. When I teach young students we use the diagrams for the full barre, but they play different parts of it. They understand that these chords are an important “road map” to understanding the musical layout of the instrument.

  7. A posture tip: while sitting or standing, raise your fretting hand to playing position without your guitar, then adjust your strap so the neck sits lightly and comfortably in hand. The forearm of the opposite hand is your counter-balance. This allows the fingers of the relaxed fretting hand to be free to move about the fingerboard with limited stress on it’s wrist and forearm. There should be no difference in this “feel” when either standing or sitting.

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