Barre Chords (Part 1 – Forming and Playing)
A barre chord is a chord that is played by placing a finger (almost always the index finger) across a number of strings on the same fret in order to play the notes on those strings at that fret. When you cover all six strings with your finger, it’s called a full barre. Anything less than six strings, whether it’s two, three, four or five, is called a half barre.
Playing barre chords can be a difficult technique for beginners. You haven’t been playing all that long and it requires finger strength, not to mention agility and coordination to create a barre chord that can be played cleanly. It will take some players quite a bit of practice and repetition to get comfortable and confident with barre chords.
Your guitar can also be a big factor in how easily you learn this technique. If your guitar has high action (the distance between the strings and the fingerboard) you may find it hard (and sometimes close to impossible) to create a good barre with your index finger. A lot of guitarists find it helps to first learn barre chords on an electric guitar, whose action is usually lower and the strings lighter than an acoustic. Success with barre chords on an electric can give you the confidence to work through the pains of performing them on an acoustic.
Before you even start making a barre chord, check your posture. Make sure you’re sitting or standing straight and that your fretting hand is about chest high and that your index finger can easily reach across all six strings.
Then take a moment to look at the palm side of your index finger. Ideally, that’s going to lay flat across all six strings, fretting each note so it rings out clean and clear. But (and forgive this old joke I use in my adult group classes) unless you were in some very bizarre dry cleaning accident earlier in your life, chances are like that your finger isn’t flat. It’s got creases and joint lines, all sorts of convenient places where a string can hide away. You might think that success at barre chords comes from strength and pressure, but you truly want to concentrate more on finding the best placement for your fingers.
Starting Out Nice and Easy
And one of the best ways to do that is to start out very simply and work your way up to full barre chords. You probably already play basic beginner F chords, and that’s a big first step. If not, start out by playing an Fmaj7 chord:
Playing this chord, your ring finger should be on the third fret of the D string, your middle finger on the second fret of the A string and your index finger on the first fret of the B string. Once you’re in place, slightly adjust the position of your index finger so that you can flatten it out to cover the first fret of both the high E and B strings, like this:
The F chord gives every beginning guitarist trouble the first few (or few hundred!) times, so don’t get worked up about it not coming out right. If you weren’t as successful as you wanted to be, try working backward through fingering the chord. Start by placing your index finger on the first fret of the high E string and make sure it’s flat against the fretboard instead of being on its tip like normal. Now pluck the high E string with your pick or strumming hand to make certain you’ve got a good clean note.
If you’re good, then shift your index finger so that it now covers both the high E and B strings at the first fret. Again, pluck both strings individually (one at a time) to test whether you’ve got good clear ringing notes. Keep your index finger parallel to the fret – a good guide is the feel of the edge of the fret along the side of your finger. If you place your index finger at an angle (many beginners tend to have it at a slant pointing toward the body of the guitar) you’re going to have a more difficult time placing your other fingers on the neck.
When you’re satisfied with your coverage of the first two strings, place your middle finger to the second fret of the G string and again test all three strings for clean sounding notes. Make certain that this finger, unlike the index finger, stands on its tip and doesn’t accidentally deaden any adjacent strings.
Finally, place your ring finger to the third fret of the D string. This one has to be on its tip, too. Strum the four high strings (from the D string down to the floor) and congratulation yourself on playing a basic beginner’s F chord. Two strings down, four to go!
We Three Strings
From the F chord we move to a “cheaters” Gm chord, much like the one you may have used in our “Nowhere Man“ lesson at one poing. Technically it’s a “Gm/D,” but we’re not really worried about it as a slash chord just now! Here’s what it looks like:
Keeping your index finger parallel to the fret, place it at the third fret across the first three strings (the high E, B and G). Again, you might find it works best when you can feel the edge of the fret along the guitar body side of the finger. Avoid the temptation to jam your hand into the side of the neck on the floor side. Doing so will ultimate hurt your ability to use your other fingers when forming your barre chords. Instead, position your index finger so just enough of the tip handles the note on the G string.
Evaluate whether or not you’re getting good clean notes by strumming each of the three strings you’re barring. If you hear any “tunks” or dead notes, make minor adjustments to your index finger in order to keep any of the three high strings from being directly under a joint or crease. Finally, play a downstroke across all four strings, starting with the open D string. If this chord rings true, you’re halfway there!
Barring All Six Strings
Shift your index finger up two frets and lay it across the four highest strings, leaving the A string open, like this:
This is an Am7 chord and you want to test yourself again by starting with the open A string and strumming each string individually as an arpeggio and listening to whether or not you’ve got each string giving you a clean, clear note. Make what adjustments you have to and don’t be afraid to go back to playing just three strings (or even two) if you have to.
When you’re happy with your progress, adjust your index finger so it covers the five highest strings at the fifth fret – that’s all the strings except for the low E. Strum each string and evaluate your progress. If you’re good, then give all six strings a try. Remember to not jam your hand into the neck – use just enough to the index finger to fret the low E string. If you’re good, then relax and shake out your fretting hand and take a breather. You’re almost done!
Adding the Other Fingers
After you’ve rested your hand for a bit, make a regular open position E chord but do so in a way that keeps your index finger free. This means using your middle finger will be where your index finger usually is – on the first fret of the G string. Likewise, your pinky is now handling the second fret of the D and your ring finger should be sitting at the second fret of the A string. Play the chord a little while, both with strumming and arpeggios in order help your fingers get acclimated to their new positions. Plus it’s always good to keep track of whether or not you’re getting clean and clear notes across all six strings.
Now reposition your entire hand five frets up the neck so your middle finger sits at the sixth fret of the G string, your pinky is on the seventh fret of the D string and ring fingers rests on the seventh fret of the A string. Once again, strum all six strings again to make sure your fingers are in good position and that you’re getting clear, ringing notes. This exotic sounding chord, by the way, is Aadd9 and makes a wonderful substitution for many regular A chords. You can also play it with the A string totally open.
But right now it’s merely the penultimate step to playing your first full barre chord! Keeping your other fingers in place, drop your index finger across all six strings at the fifth fret to form your barre. Silly as it sounds, avoid squeezing too tightly. Use your positioning (that’s what you’ve been practicing up to this point!) and just enough pressure to sound the notes on the low and high E strings and the B string.
Don’t expect to get it right the first time. If it’s truly not working, try reversing how you place your fingers, just like we did with the beginner’s F chord earlier. Start with the barre and then get your middle, pinky and ring fingers into place. If you’re trying that method, be certain to get just enough of the index finger to make the barre and don’t jam your hand up against the neck. Doing so will make it close to impossible to get your other fingers into place.
Above all, remember that when it comes to playing barre chords, a lot of practice and repetition are just as important as developing a good sense of touch. Applying a vice-like grip with your thumb and index finger is nowhere as important as making certain you’re positioning your index finger in the best possible sweet spot. It’s all about “location, location, location,” as the cliché goes!
For most guitarists, barre chords seem to be another one of those techniques that are initially impossible until, almost by magic, you wake up and you can effortlessly barre your index finger across the six string of your guitar. It’s not a miracle as much as it is your fingers finally understanding what the first few hundred attempts were supposed to be like. Keep at it. And one day all the practice and effort that you put into playing barre chords will click into place. Then you’ll have to start worrying about switching between different barre chords and also between barre chords and open position chords!