Raising the ‘Barre’: Demystifying Barre Chords

Posted on June 11, 2021

So you’ve been learning some chords and really starting to get a handle on this whole “playing guitar” thing. Congratulations—you’ve already progressed farther than many people ever will.

It’s time to take things to the next level. If you really want to advance your playing then it may be time to take on learning all about barre chords. Yes, we know… just the mention of them has struck fear in the hearts of many (if not most) guitarists. But have no fear—we’re here to help you break through to the other side.

Let’s take a look at how to play barre chords and how they work to enhance your playing vocabulary.

Exactly what is a barre chord, and why should I learn them?

If you take a look at any basic “cowboy” chord, you’ll notice that each finger of your fretting hand holds down only one string at a time. For example, here’s an open C chord:
C Chord
Barre chords shapes are different in that one of your fingers is used to hold down (or ‘barre’) multiple strings at the same time. This is done by laying the proper finger (based on the particular shape you’re working with) across the neck.

That’s the basic gist of things, but let’s expand on that more to explain how things work functionally. Take a look at the two charts below – they show the two most common fingerings for barre chords, and we also have them set up to play a C chord as well:
In the first example, your first finger is used to fret the notes on the low E, the B, and the high E string. Taking a look at the second chart, it’s a bit of a double whammy—not only are you using your first finger to fret the A and high E strings, your third finger is used to fret all of the notes on the D, G, and B strings.

All of that is fine and dandy, but there’s something else that’s really cool about barre chords over cowboy chords—and it’s a primary reason why knowing how to play them is so helpful to your advancement as a player. Since you aren’t playing any open strings, you can move the same fingering positions up and down the neck to play different chords. What do we mean by that? Take a look at these two barre chord shapes for a major D chord:
Do you notice anything similar to the C barre chord shapes we looked at? The two shapes are exactly the same. This means that you literally can play any major chord in any key using these two barre chord fingerings, and that’s a really big deal. Why? Several reasons. First off, you don’t need to learn completely different fingering patterns like you do with cowboy chords. Secondly, there are many major chords that you just can’t play with any type of open chord fingering. Examples of such chords are Bb, Eb, F, and Ab. But you can play them with these barre chord patterns.

Mastering bar chords

We’ll be honest—yes, barre chords are tough to play at first. As with everything though, practice makes progress. Not only that, but we have some tips for you that will make learning barre chords much easier and faster.

Position yourself

Before you tackle any barre chords, it’s important to understand how your hand needs to grip the neck. Playing barre chords is a little different than when you’re playing most basic chords or single note lines. Typically the best way is to place your thumb a little lower on the back of the neck, as this will help to give you the leverage needed to barre properly.

Take it one finger and one note at a time

When you’re first learning these patterns, it helps to take your time to make sure your fingers are laying on the neck properly. Just as with fretting single strings, your barre finger (most likely the index finger) should be slightly behind the frets instead of right on top of them. Once you have your fingers placed, play each individual note to make sure that it’s ringing out full and clear.

Under pressure

A mistake many beginners make when learning barre chords is not using the correct finger pressure. Using too much can lead to notes actually sounding sharp due to the extra tension, and you’ll introduce a lot of unnecessary fatigue into your hands and forearm.

On the flip side, too little pressure will mute the strings to where they won’t ring out at all. Once you get the hang of things this can be used as a technique to add some flair to your playing, but at this point you should concentrate on using the right amount of pressure, every time you play.

Getting shifty

An exercise that’ll really help you when learning how to play barre chords is to shift between different positions. Try using one finger pattern and moving to different spots on the neck. Taking that to a different level altogether is to practice changing positions and fingering patterns at the same time. For example, you could play a major C chord on the 3rd fret of the A string, shift to playing a major F chord with the root on the 1st fret of the low E string, then sliding up to end on a major G chord with the root on the 3rd fret of the low E.

Patience is key

Make no mistake about it—barre chords can be difficult to learn. The key is to not let yourself get frustrated. When you’re having a hard time, take a break from it for a while. There are some things on guitar that you just won’t be able to do unless you know how to play them—there really is no way to avoid it. Keep that end goal in mind, and remember, ‘no pain, no gain’.

Make learning barre chords fun

Sometimes just dealing with the technical stuff (especially with things like barre chords that can be challenging at first) can be flat-out boring. Our suggestion? Make your practicing fun. Why not take a song that you’ve learned with open chords and learn how to play it with barre chords instead? It’s a great way to learn a new technique and keep things interesting at the same time.

Tying it all up and ‘raising the barre’

Barre chords are a serious hurdle for advancing guitarists. But, if you put in the effort, you’ll find yourself able to tackle all sorts of new songs and playing styles. Take the time to really practice them well, and you’ll be able to play bar chords like a pro in no time. Once you have bar chords nailed down, you’ll be opening your playing up to a whole new world.

To sum things up, here are a few points to keep in mind when learning how to play barre chords.

  • Make sure that you place your index finger properly over all the correct strings. Don’t press directly on top of the fret, but just a bit above it.
  • When forming the barre chord shapes, place your thumb a bit lower on the back of the neck as you usually would with regular cowboy chords.
  • Apply the right amount of pressure on the string: too much and the notes will sound too sharp, too little and the strings will be muted. Applying too much pressure on the strings can also leave your fingers and wrist strained.
  • Play the strings after fingering the correct barre chord shape and make sure that all strings ring out as they should. Adjust your fingering if you hear that the chord sounds a bit off, for example if some strings are muted.
  • To play different barre chords, you can keep the same chord shape and just move up and down the guitar fretboard.

Good luck and keep practicing.

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