Bar chords, or barre chords as they’re sometimes known are generally every beginners biggest adversary. They’re frustrating because most beginners don’t possess the dexterity needed to pull off bar chords. Unlike open chords, where you can pretty much commit them to memory in a few hours, bar chords take a little more persistence. In this post on how to play bar chords on the guitar we’ll run through the basics, explore how to play bar chords and provide you with a few hacks to make things easier. Ready to take the inevitable step and learn to play bar chords?
What is a Bar Chord
A simple way to think about a bar chord is that it’s an open chord moved further up the neck. When you fret an open chord, the nut anchors the note for you. When you fret a bar chord your index finger becomes the nut. Let’s start with an open E shape. What if I was to tell you that you can play any major chord using the E shape and barring with your index finger? Well you can!
There are a number of shapes you can use to play both major and minor chords all the way up the fret-board. The good thing is that they’re all based on open shapes, which you’ve already learnt to play. They’re all easy to identify too. The root note is handled by the index finger.
For example if you move the open E shape up a fret and bar the first fret with your index finger you’ll find that you’re barring the F note on the low E string. That’s an F major chord. Move it up two more frets and you have a G major chord.
You can also play bar chords on the A string using a variety of shapes. The key difference here is that you use the tip of your index finger to mute the low E string. We’ll come onto that in a little more detail later. Bar chords are commonly used to switch between playing chords and riffs. Hendrix drew part of his distinct style from hitting a bar code and then quickly slipping into the appropriate scale around the chord. Let’s talk a little more about how to play bar chords.
How to Play Bar Chords
The most important thing is technique here. It’s going to feel uncomfortable when you first start fretting bar chords, but you want to give yourself a solid foundation to work from. Before you touch the fret-board position your thumb on the lower portion of the neck as pictured. That’ll help to keep the pressure in the right place when you fret the notes.
Make sure that you thumb is directly behind where your index finger is going to be on the fret-board. Keep the elbow of your fretting arm close to your body to improve support. If you feel you need more support, squeeze the body of the guitar against you with your strumming arm.
Right. Now let’s fret our first bar chord. I’m going to suggest that you start with an A major bar chord positioned on the fifth fret rather than an F major chord positioned on the first fret. It’ll be slightly easier to play the A major chord because the string tension is less at the fifth fret.
We’re going to be using the shape of the E major open chord for this bar chord. However where you’d usually fret with your first, middle and ring finger, you need to modify it slightly. Use your middle finger to fret the second fret on the G string, your ring finger to fret the third fret on the D string and finally use your little finger to fret the third fret on the A string. Finally lay your index finger over the whole of the first fret. Now move that shape up the fret-board so that your index finger lays across the fifth fret.
That’s the shape you’re after. Now the tricky part. You need to exert enough pressure with your index finger so that the low E, B and high E strings ring out. Remember to make sure that your thumb on your fretting hand is directly behind your index finger and the thumb is pressed against the lower portion of the neck. Another tip here is to slightly roll your index finger towards the nut of the guitar. This will give you a better contact with the fret-board.
You want to make sure that your middle, ring and little fingers are all bent enough so that none of the strings are muted. It’ll feel awkward and maybe a little painful on the wrist at first, but that’ll pass as your hand gets stronger. Practice holding the shape of the chord and playing each string individually. When each one rings out and isn’t muted you can strum the whole chord.
At this point it’s worth alternating between the bar chord A major and the open A major position so that you can hear the difference in tone. It’ll also help with training your brain to form the bar chord shapes. Believe it or not after some practice your fingers will be able to form the shape of a bar chord from muscle memory.
You can move that shape anywhere up the fret-board to play any major chord. Want to play a minor chord? No problem, simply remove your middle finger. You’ll recognize this as an E minor shape. When played with a bar on the fifth fret this becomes an A minor chord.
Let’s expand on this a little more. As previously mentioned you can form bar chords with their root on the A string too. Again we use open chord shapes along with the bar of the index finger to create these shapes. This time we’ll use the third fret. Below is the shape of a C major bar chord.
If you ignore the bar for a moment, what do you see? Hopefully you see the shape of an A major chord. Let’s dissect the diagram a little more. You’ve probably encountered the X on the low E string before. That means the string should be muted. The diagram indicates that you should bar the third fret starting at the A string and covering the high E string. Given that you need to fret three further notes, this is best achieved with your index finger again.
If you’re used to muting with your thumb this can introduce a new challenge. As we have seen, you need your thumb anchored to the lower part of the neck to achieve sufficient pressure on the fret-board, so how do you mute the low E string? The best way is to use the tip of your index finger. Rest it against the low E string whilst barring the third fret and it’ll stop it from ringing out.
Use your middle, ring and little finger to form the rest of the chord. Again pluck each string to check that it rings out and isn’t muted, except the low E string of course! If you don’t want to use your middle, ring and little finger to fret the other notes, you can actually just lay your ring finger over the D, G and B strings. The challenge with this method is that it’s harder to clear the high E string so that it rings out. Experiment and see what works for you but I’d recommend starting by using your middle, ring and little fingers to fret the notes on the D, G and B strings.
As with the bar chord rooted on the low E string it’s also possible to play minor bar chords. Here’s the C minor bar chord shape rooted on the A string.
What do you notice about the shape of the chord from the diagram above? Ignore the bar and hopefully you see the shape of an A minor chord. All that’s changed from the major chord is that the note fretted on the B string has moved down one fret. This shouldn’t be too challenging because it’s the same shape as E major, moved down a string. Using this shape you can play any minor chord rooted on the A string.
Now, I did promise you a hack. There is an alternative way to play a bar chord, however guitar teachers won’t like it. It’s actually the way I first learnt to play F major because I’m self taught. It does get the result, however you’ll eventually need the strength and dexterity gained from playing bar chords traditionally as you progress. Now I’ve set the scene, here’s the hack.
Instead of barring with your index finger, use your thumb to play the low E string. When playing the open E major shape then use your index finger to cover the B and high E strings only. When playing the A major open shape you use your thumb to block the low E string. It’s considerably easier to play in this way, but it’s not a true bar chord.
Sure you get the same note, but you’re not actually barring. Good for use if you’re going to be playing open mic, need an F major chord but haven’t quite got barring down. However, you’re going to have better strength and dexterity if you commit to playing bar chords properly now.
If you want to build a little strength without fretting bar chords, you can do so by positioning your thumb at the lower part of the neck and playing open chords. When fretting bar chords your aim is to have them ring out clearly with no buzz.
Inevitably there will be some buzz when you first start, but persevere and eventually your dexterity will build to a level where you can cleanly play any variation of a bar chord. Then, you’ll make other beginners sick when you effortlessly switch between open and bar chord shapes nonchalantly.
Bar chords are one of those things that beginner guitarist hear about and often fear. Quite a few experienced guitarists will tell tales about how difficult they found it to learn how to play bar chords.
Sure, there’s a little bit of pain involved as you build strength and adapt to playing the sometimes awkward shapes. But the payoff you get for persevering is massive. It opens up exponential possibilities being able to play chords all over the fret-board. There’s also the indirect benefit you gain from increased hand strength and dexterity.
They key things here are good technique and patience. If you can stick with the practice it’ll make you a much better guitarist. How long will it take? Well that’s something individual to everybody, but if you keep practicing you will get there. I hope you’ve found this post useful.
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