The Pain and Bane of the Barre Chord
Most fretted string instruments like the guitar have barre chords, and they are a true pain in the hand. However they help you get a better grasp on the different guitar chords to be found across the fretboard. It is not easy to play barre chords as a beginner guitar player, but it is never too late to start practicing them more. Just be careful not to overdo it in practice and strain the index finger or pinky.
What Is a Barre Chord?
Each fret on your guitar is a semitone difference, like how each piano key is the same half tone apart. If we could magically move the white nut slowly up the frets we could use the same chord patterns to increase our keys. That magic solution is most often the index finger covering all the strings to recreate the position of the nut. A barre chord is simply a movable chord.
The hardest barre chord to make is often the F major or any chord that is right after the nut as there is lots of string tension there. If your guitar has bad action, high strings, or a bent neck, these will all affect your barre chord playing. Barre chords are almost impossible on high action guitars. Usually they are easier to play on an electric guitar compared to an acoustic or other plucked strings.
The index finger is not always doing the “barring” and sometimes only some of the strings are covered with others being muted. Funk uses a lot of partial barre chords on the higher frets and treble strings to get that high pitched staccato sound.
Can I Just Use a Capo?
Yes and no, capos are great for playing in other keys and helping to study the idea of barre chords. If you have trouble with your index finger strength at first, a capo can be substituted as you study the notes.
Play an open A minor and the notes you will see on the tuner are a mix of A, C, and E. Now take a capo and place it two frets up and play the same Am position, the notes will now be B, D, and F# or a B minor. Remove the capo and use your index finger to replace it and now you must depend on the pinky to help make that A minor chord shape.
Therefore barre chords are often avoided because they take a lot of getting used to and can hurt. But knowing a movable chord system is very helpful for playing other keys, and for being able to play low and high inversions of a chord. Playing open guitar chords with or without a capo all the time can get boring, move up and down the fretboard with different chord positions.
The CAGED System
In some cases the CAGED chords are often sold as a key that unlocks all guitar knowledge. While there are more barre chords, the CAGED system is a great place to start. Some are hard and involve the pinky, while others are much easier. You can always use a guitar chord finder as a reference.
If we start with an open C major we can move it up one fret to a C# or two frets for another D major. It’s not easy and requires some flexible bending among the middle, ring, and pinky fingers.
This one can be hard or easy depending on your finger type. It’s already tough to shove three fingers into the space to make the A major chord, so adding an index barre in really makes it tough. However if you learn to bend the ring finger right, you can use the top joint to fret all three strings. The A minor chord is a lot easier to move around the fretboard as you have more space.
This is another finger stretcher, but it can be used with just the bass strings rather easily. If you are looking for a nice bass line try moving the lower G position around and looking for progressions that sound nice.
Except for the F major by the nut, the E major chord is the easiest to move about. E minor is also easy, making this position a great way to barre chords that are switching between majors and minors.
This position is a good example of multiple fingers barring strings. The index can be across the whole fret while the ring can cross the three bottom treble strings and the pinky stretching for the final D position. This chord can also be partially barred on just the four bottom strings.
Try playing an open chord progression of G-C-D-G, now use the barre chords of 355433 (G) to 335553 (C) and jump to 557775 (D) for a higher feel and slightly different vibe.
Experiment with different chord progressions but try them at different positions or inversions. A guitar chord chart can help you grasp the concept.
Make sure to do more than just strum these new barre chords, whether they are played as an arpeggio or plucked fast can make all the difference in the genre and style they belong in.
Other Barre Chords
Almost any chord can be a barre chord, the point is that you are moving the tones up the frets to land on a new chord. An A7 chord is easier to barre than an A major or A minor. And we can of course make our barre chords more complicated. If a chord is too hard to move all the strings we just do a partial barre. An open C7 movement is too hard so we just cut out the outer two E strings and move the inside shape.
The E7#9 is associated with Hendrix and other funk acts, and it is another great example of a closed movable barre chord as the high and low E are muted. Other movable chords are the major 9 with the muted E string and the 13th which involves a long pinky jump on the high E string. If you want to play funk music you must be comfortable with playing barre chords for a long time. A studio session will leave a player with a sore hand!
Barre chords can be made anywhere on the guitar, they rise in pitch one fret or semitone at a time. Just be sure to mute any strings that do not belong in the newly formed chord. Once you have a mastery of the basic chord shapes your guitar playing will grow exponentially, even on easy guitar songs, because now you know where the chords are across the fretboard. Allowing for quick ideas of progressions, riffs, licks, and solos that are the hallmark of the best guitar players!
Shawn Leonhardt is a writer for Guitar Tricks and 30 Day Singer.