Playing barre chords may be one of the trickiest techniques for beginners to master, but they are necessary to become a complete rhythm guitarist. Mastering them will allow you to play any major or minor chord, and eventually making it possible for you to sight-read chord charts.
So, how do we master barre chords? By following these techniques, with a little patience, a lot of practice, and a positive attitude, you’ll be able to master your barre chords in no time!
Let us begin by defining barre chords, then we’ll look at the specific techniques needed to play them. Finally, I will leave you with some alternatives that you can use prior to mastering these chords.
What are barre chords?
Barre chords are essentially “moveable” chords. The shapes of barre chords stay exactly the same, but the placement of your hand on the guitar neck depends on what chord you’re playing. Let’s use some images to help us out with this explanation.
All of our barre chords come from the E and A chords. They are essentially based off of the fingering shapes of four chords: E major, E minor, A major, and A minor. Pay special attention to the fact that the root notes of the E chords are on the sixth (lowest) string, and the root notes of the A chords are on the fifth string.
Now, what I mean by “moveable” is that if we move the entire shape of the E major chord up one fret, we will have an F major chord. This includes the notes on the open strings.
Notice how the F major chord looks exactly like the E major chord, except every note is moved up one fret. Again, the note on the sixth string is the root note, so if you’d like to play F-sharp major, all you have to do is move the shape up so that the note you’re pressing on the sixth string is F-sharp.
The same concept applies to A shape chords. If you move the shape of the A major chord up to the second fret (where the B note lies on the fifth string), you will get a B major chord.
A helpful way to think about barre chords is that your index finger basically plays the role of a capo.
By now, you may start to see the potential of barre chords. Just think about it: with only four shapes and knowledge of what the notes are on the fifth and sixth strings, you can play any major or minor chord across the fretboard. They also allow you to sight read chord charts a lot faster. This is why the barre chords are one of those “game changing” techniques.
1. “E” shape barre chords (root notes on 6th string)
Let’s begin with barre chords that use the E chord shapes. Remember that the root notes for these chords are on the sixth string. We’ll go through the technique needed for a good sounding F major barre chord.
- Begin by placing your index finger on the strings directly above the first fretwire. Don’t press down yet.
- Tilt your index finger towards the nut, then press down on the strings. If your finger is pressing on the fretwire, move it so it’s no longer pressing on the fretwire.
- The key is to press down on the strings with the outer edge of your index finger (not all the way on the side, but just slightly off centered).
- Place the other three fingers where they need to go.
- Remember to place your fingers near the fretwires to play effortlessly.
- Your thumb should be at the middle of the neck, right about where your index finger is. Think of how a vice holds things in place.
- Contrary to what you’d expect, the pressure down on the strings should not be produced by you squeezing the thumb and fingers together. Instead, imagine using the muscles in your back to slightly pull the neck towards you. Your thumb is only there to hold your hand in place, and should only be lightly squeezing. Very little force is necessary for this.
- The idea behind this is simple. Which muscle is bigger and stronger? Which muscle tires out first?
- A common problem with this chord is the first and second strings don’t ring cleanly. These two strings should be pressed down by the second knuckle of your index finger.
The F minor chord uses more or less the same technique as the F major, with only a difference in one note.
- In order to press down on the third string with your index finger as well, you will have to bend your index finger (towards the fretboard) right where the third string is.
- Play just the third string a couple of times to feel the exact spot.
- You can place your middle finger above the index finger to help it bend a little more.
2. “A” Shape barre chords (root notes on 5th string)
Let us now look at the barre chords that use the A chord shapes. Remember that the root notes for these chords are on the fifth string. I will use B major to explain the techniques needed for these chords.
There are two ways to play the B major barre chord:
The first version relies on your ring finger to press down the fourth, third, and second strings. The second version has a separate finger for each string. Let’s discuss the first version first.
- This is my personal preference for a B major chord because it requires only two fingers, which frees up my other fingers to do cool chord licks.
- It does take a little more time than the other version because the technique requires your ring finger to press down on three strings
- Notice how you don’t actually have to barre anything with your index finger. It will only be pressing down on the fifth string.
- Place your ring finger across the fourth fret of strings four, three, and two.
- Press the strings by raising the second knuckle of the ring finger slightly higher than the rest of the finger, so you can apply more pressure down on the fretboard.
- Adjust the placement of your ring finger until the first string is muted. If you raise the second knuckle slightly, the string is probably already muted.
- Mute the sixth string by lightly touching it with your index finger. Some people press down on it instead, but I don’t quite like the sound of that because it makes the chord sound a little muddy, and the root note is no longer the lowest note being played.
- Remember to pull back with your back muscle instead of squeezing with your index finger and thumb.
The technique for a B minor chord is very similar to the F major chord. Even the shape looks similar.
- Notice its exact same shape as the F major chord, except the root note is now on the fifth string, and the entire shape is moved down one string.
- As usual, pay attention to where the root note is, which allows you to shift your barre chords up and down the fretboard.
3. Quick switching between barre chords
Once you’ve played around with these four chords, you’ll want to try some chord changes between your barre chords. When you do so, remember to always release pressure off the strings during chord changes. In some situations, you might want to keep the pressure on, but for now, practice taking the pressure off first. Additionally, if the chord you’re switching to has the same shape as the chord you’re switching from, keep your fingers in that shape as you slide up or down.
4. Remembering your root notes
After you’ve worked on getting your barre chords nice and clean and being able to switch smoothly between them, the only thing that’s left is to memorize all the notes on the fifth and sixth strings. It may sound like quite a bit of work, but it can be done in a day or so.
One thing to remember is that you really only have to memorize the notes up to the 12th fret, because the notes onwards are repetitions of those from the open string to 11th fret. For example, the note on the first fret is the same note as the note on the 13th fret, except the 13th fret is an octave higher. If your fretboard has inlays for fret markers, they show you where the octave notes are. For example, most guitars have a marker on the third and 15th fret. Those two notes are the same note but an octave apart. The same thing can be said for the fifth and 17th fret.
I use a simple exercise to memorize the notes on the fifth and sixth strings. We’re just going to remember where the natural (no sharps and flats) notes are.
- Ascend up the sixth string and only play the natural notes while saying them out loud.
- Descend down the sixth string and play only the natural notes while saying them out loud.
- Do the exact same thing for the fifth string.
- Make sure you’re playing the correct notes while doing this exercise.
Sixth string natural notes:
- E on open string
- F on 1st
- G on 3rd
- A on 5th
- B on 7th
- C on 8th
- D on 10th
- E on 12th
Fifth string natural notes:
- A on open string
- B on 2nd
- C on 3rd
- D on 5th
- E on 7th
- F on 8th
- G on 10th
- A on 12th
There are easy alternatives to the F major, F minor, and B minor chords, but you should use them only when you are still learning the barre chords, not because you’ve given up on learning them. I can’t stress enough the importance and usefulness of the barre chords.
Remember that you’ll be able to play almost any song after you’ve learned your barre chords, so practice them well and aim to master them.
That being said, here are some easy alternatives:
A couple of things to note:
- Pay attention to what strings need to be muted throughout all three alternatives. The sixth string can be muted with the tip of your ring finger for F major and F minor chords.
- The F minor alternative still requires you to barre with your index finger, just that it’s now only across three strings. Use the same techniques for regular barre chords
- The B minor alternative is actually a B minor7 chord. The tonalities of these two chords are very similar.
Food for thought
- How to use our article:
As a lot of information has been presented in this article, you should break this article down into three or four sections. Work on each section until you’ve mastered each technique, then move on to the next section. If you felt that you needed more time and practice on a previous technique, go back to the relevant section and practice again.
Remember to use the side of your index finger when you play barre chords. Instead of just squeezing your thumb and index fingers together, (which will leave you with a sore hand), use a little bit of your back muscles to pull back on the strings,
- Patience and Practice:
Learning and mastering your barre chords will be a true test of your patience. A lot of guitar playing techniques do not come easily or quickly, and mastering barre chords is the first of such techniques. Remember that it’s always the techniques you spend the most time on that turn out to be game changing techniques!
Stay tuned for more content on barre chord exercises and mastering your barre chords!
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