About the Author
James Shipway is a UK guitarist, author, and course creator. His acclaimed series of guitar books, including Music Theory for Guitarists, the Complete Method Book, CAGED System for Guitar, Barre Chords for Guitar, and Rock Lick Method for Guitar, are available from Amazon and other online and local bookstores.
To learn more about James’ books and other resources for guitar players visit jamesshipwayguitar.com or jamesshipway.com.
There is no better or simpler way to massively boost the number of chords you can play on the guitar than by understanding and learning how to use barre chords. So, if you're frequently butting up against chords you don't know how to play, barre chords could be the rocket fuel your chord vocabulary so desperately needs. Not convinced? Let me put this into numbers for you.
Barres Chords by the Numbers
The basic guitar 'open' chords most of us start out with (G, C, Em, A, etc.) enable us to play around 15-20 chords.
Now, these chords are invaluable, and we can play a lot of songs with them. But if these are the only shapes you know, then sooner or later, you're going to encounter a lot of chords you can't play. This is because there are many common chords which simply can't be played using an open chord shape.
This is where barre chords come to the rescue.
You see, even with just a bare-bones barre chord knowledge, you can potentially play hundreds of chords.
The result: You will almost always be able to find a way to play the chords you need for almost any rock/pop/country/folk song. That said, many guitarists find barre chords a struggle and wonder:
- Why are barre chords so hard to play?
- Will they get easier?
- Is my hand position correct, or am I making things difficult for myself?
- How do barre chords actually work, and how do I use them?
- Is there an easy and effective way to practice barre chords?
If you've been wrestling with questions like these, or if you've never learned about barre chords and feel like it's time you did, then you're in the right place. This two-part Beat the Barre Chord series will introduce you to some key strategies you can use to master the basics of barre chords.
These cover essential barre chord concepts, physical and technical considerations, as well as proven practice exercises you can use to help you beat those challenging barre chord shapes and easily start using them in the music you play.
Great, grab your guitar, and we'll get started.
Introducing the E Shape Barre Chord
The strategies we're going to examine can be applied to any barre chord shape, but for now, we'll just focus on the common 'E shape' major barre chord.
If you've played any barre chords before, then you've probably already seen this chord. If you're new to barre chord shapes, then this is probably the best one to begin with.
The chord shape is shown in the following diagram.
Fingering is shown using numbers 1-4 in each 'dot' on the diagram.
Play the barre by placing your 1st finger across all the strings, as shown by the curved line.
As we'll see shortly, this shape can be played anywhere on the guitar neck.
Take a minute to memorize the chord shape, playing it at different places on the fretboard.
Tip: Many people start by trying to play this chord at the 1st fret*.
This is actually the most difficult place to play it because the distance between the frets is greater, and you have to reach all the way down to the bottom of the guitar neck.
I suggest you start by playing the shape around the 5th - 8th fret area; you will find it much easier.
(* Terms like 'at the 1st fret' or 'at the 5th fret' describe at which fret our 1st finger is making the barre across all the strings.)
Strategy 1: Nail Your Hand Position
If you're reading this lesson, I'm guessing that you haven't mastered playing barre chords, and playing the E shape barre chord a moment ago was kind of tough.
Don't worry; it's like this for everyone. I remember wondering if I'd ever be able to play a barre chord - my hand felt like it was being asked to do something completely unnatural.
Since then, I've taught barre chords to many hundreds of guitar players, and take it from me, everyone struggles at the beginning.
So, learning to play barre chords takes perseverance, but it's also crucial that we're putting our hand in a position that is going to help us play the chord, instead of making it more difficult than it needs to be.
That's why we're going to examine the barre chord hand position first.
Before we start, it's important to remember that we're all built differently and with different levels of natural strength and flexibility in our hands and fingers. So, don't be afraid to experiment with my recommendations to make them work for you.
Your hand position doesn't need to look exactly like mine, and as long as you follow the general principles I outline here, chances are you'll be successful.
With this in mind, let's look at some common hand position mistakes and how to avoid them.
Hand Position Mistake #1: Bending the Barre
It takes practice for our 1st finger to become comfortable executing the barre, but I promise, over time, you'll build the strength and finger independence necessary. It's not just about strength, though; how and where we position the barre can make a big difference.
A common mistake I see is bending the barre underneath the fingerboard.
This tends to lift the pressure off the strings, resulting in a dead-sounding chord. You also want to avoid bending your knuckle so that the barre lifts up from the fretboard. Both of these mistakes are shown in the following photograph.
The next picture shows a well-executed barre.
Notice how the finger is 'locked' straight and extends beyond the bottom of the fretboard, rather than bending underneath it.
Notice also how only a small bit of the 1st finger extends above the low E string.
Aim to get your barre looking as shown in this picture.
It might take a little practice to achieve, but it's worth it - a poorly executed barre can lead to all sorts of other problems within the chord shape.
BONUS BARRE TIP 1
It's often easier to barre if your 1st finger is slightly on its side (see the first image below).
This is especially true when playing down around the 1st-3rd frets. Experiment a little with this idea.
BONUS BARRE TIP 2
Think about pushing your wrist slightly 'forward' away from your body (see the second image below).
This simple act can help you get your barre finger locked and straight and resist the urge to bend it underneath the guitar neck.
This is a powerful tip - try it.
Hand Position Mistake #2: Thumb Position
The thumb needs to give the barre stability. Think of pushing the 1st finger barre against your thumb, 'squeezing' the guitar neck between the two digits. If the thumb is over the top of the neck or too low down on the back of the neck, then this becomes tricky.
As a guideline, aim to place your thumb in the middle of the neck just behind the barre. From above, the thumb and barre should almost line up.
We also need to keep our thumb 'braced' to support the barre. To do this, think of pushing your thumbprint against the back of the neck, towards the barre. This will help stop your thumb from collapsing and going flat along the back of the neck.
Hand Position Mistake #3: Collapsing Fingers
The effort required to press down the barre can affect our other fingers, resulting in a far-from-perfect bare chord sound. Check that your fingers are not collapsing flat onto the strings or bending backwards as shown in the following images.
Instead, aim to keep your fingers on their tips and pressing the strings ‘into’ the guitar neck. It wants to feel like you are ‘pinning’ the strings to the fingerboard. In general, your fingers should look tidy and together - if they’re sticking out at all sorts of weird angles then they’re likely not working as well as they could be.
Hand Position: A Summary
Before we leave the topic of hand position, take a look at the following images to see a well-played barre chord.
- The barre is straight and flat
- My thumb is behind the neck
- My fingers are on their tips instead of collapsing
- Overall the shape looks compact and tidy
In case you’re wondering, no, I didn’t do all these things when I first started trying to play barre chords, I didn’t even know about them. This gives you an advantage I didn’t have: now you at least know what you’re aiming for when it comes to hand position. So, even if you can’t do all these right now, you can gradually train yourself until you can. Then you’ll be amazed at how chord shapes which once felt impossible suddenly become quite manageable.
Strategy #1: Training Task
- Make the chord shape at the 5th fret but don’t press the strings down just yet.
- How does your hand position look? Can you improve it at all by repositioning your thumb or fingers?
- Rehearse the correct hand position for a moment, without pressing the chord down
- Now, press the chord shape down and give it a strum. How does that sound and feel?
Repeat this exercise over and over, making adjustments to your hand position as you go. This is how you’ll train yourself to automatically adopt a good hand position every time you play this and other barre chord shapes. Don’t push yourself too hard, if your hand begins to feel tired or strained take a short break.
Strategy 2: Nail the Root and Notes
Understanding how root notes work is critical if you want to become fluent at using barre chords, so let’s look at this next.
For readers who don’t know what the root note is, let me explain it as simply as I can.
The root note is simply the note a chord is built upon. For example a C chord is built on the note C, so we would describe C as the root.
With a G chord the root note is G.
For a D chord the root note is D
….and so on.
There’s more I could say about root notes, but for now let’s focus on the practical way we use this information when it comes to barre chords. We’ll use the E shape major barre chord for demonstration purposes.The following diagram shows the chord shape again. The root note is on the low E string, shown as a white circle and labelled ‘R’. Next to this is a diagram showing all the notes as they appear along the low E string of the guitar.
Because the chord shape has its root note on the low E string, we use the notes along this string to work out where to play the barre chord shape to get whichever chord we want to play.
To play an F major chord, find F on the low E string. Look at the previous diagram and you’ll see it’s at the 1st fret. Match the root note in the barre chord shape up with F at the 1st fret, and the result is an F major chord. Normally we’d drop the ‘major’ appendage and just call the chord ‘F’.
To play a Bb major chord, find Bb on the low E string. The diagram shows it at the 6th fret. Play the barre chord shape at the 6th fret with the root note placed on Bb, and we get a Bb major or ‘Bb’ chord.
To play a D major chord, find D on the low E string (10th fret). Play the chord shape at the 10th fret and we get D major or ‘D’.
All three of these examples are shown in the following image.
So, by moving the shape to the relevant fret we can easily use it to play any major chord. Later I’ll also show you how this knowledge can be used to easily play dozens of other chords as well.
Hopefully you can now see the importance of knowing the notes along the low E string, and this brings us nicely to our next practice task.
Strategy #2: Training Task
- Learn where to find F, G, A and B on the low E string. Mix them up and test yourself.
- Now learn where to find C, D and E
- Now test yourself on all these notes. Mix them up and practice finding them. Focus on any weak notes the most
- Now learn where the sharp (#) and flat (b) notes are
- Add all the notes together and test yourself
Spend 5-10 minutes each day on this task for about a week. This should be enough for you to really nail this essential piece of knowledge.
Fun Fact: Dozens of essential scales, modes, arpeggios and chord shapes also use these same notes on the low E string as their root notes. This exercise truly can have a massive impact on your skills as a guitarist.
In Part 2 of Beat the Barre Chord we’ll see some barre chord shapes which have their root note on a different string. The process is still the same though, so understanding the E shape chord will help you grasp these as well.
Strategy 3: Practice Every Major Chord with One Shape
Now that you fully understand how this barre chord works, let’s look at an awesome method you can use to master using it.
You may have heard of the circle of fifths (sometimes called the cycle of fifths). This can function as a powerful practice tool when it comes to barre chords.
The circle of fifths consists of all 12 musical notes written out in a certain order. By going around the circle, starting the chord on each note in turn, you can quickly learn to play the barre chord starting from every possible root note. This is an effective and time efficient practice strategy - let’s give it a go now.
Strategy #3: Training Task
Use the following diagram of the circle of fifths for this exercise:
- Begin on C at the top of the circle of fifths. Using the barre chord shape, play C major (8th fret, right?).
- Move one step to the right, to G. Play G major using the chord shape
- Move to the next note, D. Play a D chord
- Continue around the circle playing each chord you come to. Some will be up at the higher frets and maybe not that useful - play them anyway
Get the chords sounding as good as you can, but don’t worry if they’re not perfect - doing this exercise build your hand strength and flexibility - meaning your barre chords will gradually feel easier and sound better over time. Of course, make sure you’re following all the hand position guidelines from earlier to build good habits.
Try the exercise a few times. Then, assess which chords you were weaker on and spend a few minutes improving them before returning to the full exercise. With a little practice you’ll soon be able to whizz around the circle, playing every major chord there is with the same chord shape - how cool is that?
Bonus Tip: Keep any strumming really basic for this exercise, maybe just strum each chord once. This way you can focus purely on finding those chords.
Strategy 4: Modify the Chord Shape
You can play every major chord there is using the E shape barre chord. So the next time you see chords like B, F# or Ab which can’t be played with an open chord shape, it won’t be a problem.
But this is just the beginning, you see, by changing the chord shape slightly you can easily play dozens of other chords as well.For example, if you remove your 2nd finger from the G string you get a barre chord shape you can use to play minor chords.
The root note is still on the low E string, so by playing the modified shape at the same places on the fretboard as the major barre chord you now get every minor chord too. This means you can play chords like Gm, Fm, Bbm, for which there are no open chord shapes available.Return to the major shape and remove your 4th (‘pinky’) finger and you get a shape you can use to play dominant 7th chords (normally just labelled as ‘7’).
Now you can play chords like F7, F#7 and Bb7.
Hopefully you get the idea, we’re simply changing the major barre chord shape whilst still playing it from the same root note locations on the low E string. By doing this you can suddenly play loads of chords you may not have been able to play before.Below are 5 of the most useful barre chord shapes you need to know. You can see the major, minor and 7 shapes we’ve already talked about, plus shapes for playing minor 7th (m7) and 7th suspended 4th (7sus4) chords.
Take 5-10 minutes to become familiar with all these shapes. Don’t think of the variations as ‘new’ chord shapes - think of them as modified versions of the major shape we began with. This makes them easier to learn and remember.
When you’re ready, try the training task given.
Strategy #4: Training Task
- Play the major barre chord shape at any location on the fretboard
- Change it to minor
- Go back to playing a major chord again. Now, change it to 7
- Make the shape major again. Now, turn it into a m7 chord
- Make the shape major again. Now, turn it into a 7sus4 chord
- Continue testing yourself in this way for 5-10 minutes. Feel free to decide the order of the shapes yourself.
Strategy 5: Turbo-Charge Your Chord Library
The five barre chords I just showed you can be played from 12 possible root notes on the low E string. This means you can use them to play 60 chords (5 shapes x 12 root notes) - enough to massively boost the chord knowledge of most guitar players.
The next step is to nail using all of these shapes and all 12 root notes. To do this we’ll use our old friend the circle of fifths.
Let’s get started.
Strategy #5: Training Task
- Start on C at the top of the circle of fifths
- Play major barre chords around the circle (as we did in Strategy #3)
- Now, repeat the exercise but play the chords as minor
- Repeat, playing the chords as dominant 7th (7) chords
- Now play them as m7 chords
- Finally, play them as 7sus4 chords
Use this diagram to help:
Practice this exercise for a while. When you’ve got it down, give yourself a pat on the back and celebrate your new, much bigger chord library.
That’s all for Beat the Barre Chord Part 1…
I hope you’ve enjoyed this lesson and that it’s provided you with some straight-forward approaches you feel like you can use to nail the basics of barre chords.
In Beat the Barre Chord, Part 2 we’ll expand on what we’ve covered in this lesson by looking at:
How to change between barre chords (easily)
Barre chord shapes with their root on the A string
Combining barre chords shapes
And much more.
Until then, enjoy practicing the material in this article. Remember, go at your own pace and be patient - nobody learns to play barre chords overnight. It’s really worth being thorough with what I’ve shown you, grasping the barre chord fundamentals in this lesson will truly pay off.
Good luck and see you in Part 2.