Many new guitarists are apprehensive about learning bar chords. But once you master the physicality of actually playing them, you’ll find that bar chords actually make playing easier. With bar chords, you can use the exact same shape to play different chords, depending on your location on the neck. So how do you start?
What Are Guitar Barre Chords?
The bar chords guitar players need to learn usually bar either all six strings or five strings. A “bar” is just using your first finger to fret all or some of the strings on the guitar. That finger works a lot like a capo, as it makes it easier for you to play using familiar shapes.
These chords also make it easier to memorize chord shapes. Each type of bar chord (the type barring six strings and the type barring five) uses one shape for major chords, one shape for minor chords, one shape for minor seventh chords, etc. So once you understand the concept of root notes, you’ll be able to figure out how to play most chords on the fretboard, even if you haven’t studied and memorized specific chord shapes yet.
The Most Important Bar Chords You Need to Know – The Basic Bar Chords
It’s a good idea to start with the basics anytime you’re learning something new on guitar. But what are the basic bar chords?
It’s a good idea to get a sense of a couple shapes where six strings are barred and a couple when five strings are barred. For many players, the F major bar chord is the first they learn. If you’ve learned to play an “open” F chord, you’ve already done a partial bar of the first and second string. For this shape, you now need to bar your forefinger over the entire first fret. You then use your other fingers to create what is essentially the shape of an open E major chord. Put your index finger on the third string at the second fret, and place your third and fourth fingers on the fifth and fourth strings (respectively) at the third fret.
This shape has its root note on the low E string of the barred fret. The chord just described has its root note at F, so it’s F major. To start getting a sense of root notes and how they work in playing bar chords, slide this shape down so you’re barring the third fret. Now it’s a G major chord!
It’s also important to know how to play the minor forms of chords with this shape. Go back to the F major shape described above. All you need to do is remove your middle finger, and you have F minor. You might notice that, relative to the bar, you’re fretting what is essentially an E minor chord.
Sometimes, playing a chord this way is not practical. If you wanted to play a D major, you would need to do your standard major bar shape all the way at the 10th fret! That’s why there’s also a bar chord shape where the root note is on the fifth (A) string. With these chords, mute or don’t play the sixth string.
The major form of this bar uses what looks like the chord shape for an open A major. Let’s look at a D major. At the fifth fret, bar your forefinger over all the strings but the low E. Then place your second, third, and fourth fingers on the third, fourth, and fifth strings (respectively) at the seventh fret.
Lastly, we’ll look at the minor form of this chord. The minor form involves an A minor (open) chord shape behind the bar. To play a D minor this way, revisit the D major chord just mentioned. Remove your second finger and place it on the second string at the sixth fret.
Playing Techniques on How to Play Bar Chords
Playing barre chords is a little different from playing open chords. And now that you have an introduction to some of the most important bar chords to learn first, it’s a good idea to take a look at some of the playing techniques that will make bar chords a little easier.
Keep your elbow close
This might sound odd, but keeping your elbow closer to your body makes it easier for your index finger to roll forward, which in turn makes barring the chords more easily.
If you’re playing five-string bar chords, you need to reliably mute the low E string. In most cases, touching it with the tip of your forefinger is the best way to go.
It’s usually not a great idea to bend your wrist excessively while playing guitar. But pushing your wrist slightly more forward (so your hand is angled a bit toward the fretboard) will make playing considerably easier.
Tips for Playing the Bar Chords
Learning to play barre chords can be a real challenge. Going forward, it can help to hear some tips from players who have been there:
Develop Finger Strength
Some players might tell you that the only way to strengthen your fingers in order to play bar chords is to just practice more bar chords. But there are other things you can do, too. One of the best ways to internalize just how much pressure you need is to bar each fret down the neck. Start by using your first finger to bar the first fret (you don’t need to fret any additional notes) and strum down, making sure the sound is clear. Continue to do this down to the 12th fret.
Hand and Finger Placement
If you want to barre guitar chords successfully, it’s especially important to make sure your hands and fingers have the optimal placement. One of the most important things to do is angle your first finger so the side closest to the thumb frets the strings. This position gives your hand the range of motion it needs to fret the rest of the notes in a given chord. The outer surface of the forefinger is tougher than the softer “pad,” so it should cause less hand fatigue over time, too.
Make sure to keep an eye on your wrist placement, too — it’s easy to focus so much on barring that your posture suffers. Do your best to keep your wrist as straight as possible. And as for your other fingers, remember to bend them so you’re fretting each string with the tip of your finger instead of the pad.
Especially if you have smaller hands, the stretch you need to bar chords closer to the headstock can be tough. It’s a good idea to practice your chord shapes closer to the body of the guitar where the frets are closer together.
Another useful tip is to avoid pushing too hard. Lots of new players seem to think that the harder they push the strings to the fretboard, the better the chord will sound. But all this does is cause finger fatigue and discomfort. If you want to check to see if each note in a barre chord is clear, be sure to pick or pluck each string instead of strumming them all at once.
Still have some questions? Here are some things that newer guitarists often ask.
It’s nearly impossible to count every single bar chord out there. But there are five main shapes of bar chords — C, A, G, E, and D. These make up what’s called the “CAGED system.” The two chord shapes we visited early were the E shape and the A shape.
So out of all these, what is the hardest barre chord? That all depends on your preferences. But the chords closest to the headstock tend to be harder because your hand needs to stretch so far.
You might have wondered “can you avoid barre chords?” at some point or the other. You technically could avoid bar chords, but that’s only really practical if you just need open chords. If you want to be a well-rounded guitarist, or even if you just want to be able to play more songs, learning bar chords is necessary.
The easiest way to hold a bar chord is with just enough pressure. It takes practice to figure out how much pressure you need in order to make a chord sound clearly. Anything more than that is wasted energy.
Letting your index finger roll to the side also makes it easier. The stronger, firmer outer edge of your finger can form a more reliable bar than the palm side of the finger can.
Why are bar chords so hard to play? It’s often because there are so many things you need to coordinate — namely, using one finger to create an effective “bar” across five or six strings.
But as you practice, playing bar chords guitar will certainly be less challenging. And don’t feel as though you need to practice these chords every day for an hour or so in order to have them get easier — even with practicing every day for 10 or 15 minutes, playing bar chords will soon become second nature.
The short answer here is no. The bar chords guitar players learn let your index finger function like a capo. But unlike a capo, a bar chord shape can move up and down the neck in a single song. A capo can be used to change a song’s key while letting you still play familiar, open chord shapes.
We hope that some of your worry over bar chords has been assuaged. These chords take some time and effort to master, but it’s well worth it — with some barre chords in your arsenal, you’ll be well-equipped to play just about every song that comes your way.