Reaching for the “Barre”...

Barre chords.  Love ‘em or hate ‘em, your playing will most likely never progress to its’ full potential unless you really know how to properly play them and what they can do.  Let’s just say that any decent rock and roll song worth a broken B-string wouldn’t exist if there were no barre chords, right?!?

So, what exactly is a barre chord, anyways?

A guitar is a modern instrument unique from, say, a piano, because on a guitar you have “open strings” (strings played without using your finger to fret a note) and what is commonly referred to as “open chord shapes”.  These are the fingering shapes most guitarists learn when they start because they are easier to form (debatable, I know…but that’s my take on it) and they tend to sound fuller thanks to the open strings.  See below for a few examples:

The problem with this is that not all chords can be played in an open fingering format…at least not easily where inversions aren’t involved (one reason for that is because the root note of a chord is normally played as the note with the lowest pitch in a chord fingering pattern):

And – get this – there is a least one simple major chord that does not contain any of the open notes (an F# major chord is F# – A#/Bb – C#).  This isn’t a problem on a piano because all that has to be done there is to just play a different set of keys.  On guitar, however, it creates a situation where your approach to the instrument needs to change – because you can’t play any open strings.

I give you…the almighty barre chord… (cheers and applause in the background)

In the simplest form a barre chord is a chord fingering pattern where one or more strings are held down by the same finger.  This allows that pattern to be moved at any location on the neck to create just about any chord in any key (I’m generalizing a bit here, but you’ll see my point as we go along).  For the most part there are two fingerings that get used (in various forms) more than others.

Let’s take a look at what we’ll call “Shape #1” (which is based off the open chord fingering for an A major chord):

To play Shape #1 the best way – without turning your fingers into a pretzel – is to “barre” the notes on the D, G, and B strings at the 3rd fret.  To do this, lay your 3rd finger across all three strings on the neck and apply even pressure (not too much…just enough to get a nice, full note that doesn’t sound dead in any way).  Do the same with your 1st finger but lay it across the A through high E strings.

Here’s where most people have problems – getting those fingers to lay flat enough to get the notes to ring clear as many beginners do not press down hard enough.  The opposite is also true – pressing down too hard not only makes it harder to play, but too much pressure can actually make the chord go out of tune (go sharp).  This is because you’re actually stretching the strings in that little gap created by the height of the frets (this is more common on electric guitars with thinner strings).

Pay attention to how your hand is actually positioned on the neck as well – using your thumb to anchor your hand makes it a lot easier to create the pressure needed to make the barre properly.

Take a note (no pun intended) of what you can do with this though – move your whole hand up two frets where your index finger is now playing a D note (5th string, 3rd fret):


Without changing any fingering positions (just the overall fret position on the neck) you are now playing a D chord!  Pretty awesome!  Being able to do that is different from playing open chords as all of the fingering patterns are different.  Move it up two more frets and you have an E chord…and so on…and so on…

Check out Shape #2, which is based off the open chord fingering for an E chord:

The principle is the same as with Shape #1 except in this case the barre is made with the index finger across the entire neck.  This one can be a little trickier to pull off as it can be hard to get the notes on the high B and E strings to ring out properly; your finger has to be as flat as possible.

Shape #2 also has the root note on the 6th string instead of the 5th string, but the idea is the same: by moving the shape up and down the neck you get access to any major chord you want.

Using barre chords are not limited to major chords, however.  Take a look at the fingering examples below:  pretty much any common chord (minor, minor 7th, etc.) can be formed from a barre chord fingering using either shape #1 or #2 as a starting point.  Take a look at these examples (in the key of C using both Shape 1 and Shape 2):

Players in just about every style of music should have both the proper technique and a good understanding of barre chords in order to take your playing past just strumming some open chords around the campfire.  For example, some genres (such as most rock and roll) are almost completely played with barre chords for the most part.  As with anything, practice is the key here.  Keep at it and in no time, you’ll be able to play barre chords just like the pros do!

Besides, …it looks cool and makes it easier to rock out!

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