Barre chords, as you learned in Part 1 of this series of mini-lessons on the topic, are chords formed 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.
Last time out you worked step by step to form and play your first barre chord. Now comes the fun part because, whether you realize it or not, once you have learned to play any single barre chord, you can actually play twelve different chords. Let’s check it out by examining the full barre A chord you learned at the end of Part 1:
For the sake of discussion, let’s compare this A chord to the typical A chord beginners learn when starting out on guitar (and for a complete set of chords for beginners, check out our Absolute Beginners Lesson on Chords):
Sometimes you’ll hear the basic chords of the guitar referred to as “open position chords.” What this means is that these chords are formed by use of open strings. In other words, some of the notes of the chords are the notes of the open strings.
But let’s reverse that train of thought for a moment. The notes of an A chord are A, C# and E. We can check that out by comparing this chord chart of the open position A and see that the open high E (first string) is E, the second fret of the B string is C#, the second fret of the G string is A, the second fret of the D string is E and the open A string is obviously A.
Now if you were to play this chord but this time by hitting just the strings where your fingers fret the guitar, you’d still be playing an A chord as the notes are E (second fret of the D string), A (second fret of the G) and C# (second fret of the B string). If you were to move all your fingers up one fret so that they are all in the third fret and then play only the strings where your fingers are, you would have moved each note of the chord up a musical half-step and you’d be playing an A# chord, or Bb if you prefer. However, if your strum included the open A string or either of the E strings, this chord would sound incredibly messy. That because you only moved the notes of half your strings up a half-step.
What a barre chord does is create a closed position chord, usually across all six strings. Take a look at the A barre chord again and think about the open position chords you know. You probably see that this barre chord has a striking resemblence to the open position E chord:
This makes total sense when you remember how we went about creating the A barre chord in Part 1 by starting with the E chord. Essentially, you’ve moved the entire chord up five half-steps and compensated for the open strings by placing your index finger as the barre.
Take a moment and think about what you know about open position E chords. The first thing you might consider is that the root note (the note by which the chord is named) is E and is found on either open E string. You probably also know how to play Em (022000), E7 (020100) and Em7 (020000). Keeping that in mind, you now can play four different E shaped barre chords, like this:
As long as you know the names of the notes of the low E string (which are the same as those on the high E string), you can play any of these four E shaped barre chords. You simply line up the “R” (for “root note”) in the chart with the note of your choice. If you barre your finger on the second fret, for instance, these will all be some manner of F# chord (from left to right – F#, F#m, F#7, F#m7). If you form your barre on the eighth fret, they will all be in the C chord family (C, Cm, C7 and Cm7).
So from one basic barre chord, you now have learned 48 chords. Any major, minor, seventh or minor seventh chord is yours to play! Not too bad!
Knowing the notes along your A string doubles the number of barre chords you can play. Starting with the four most basic A shapes – A (x02220), Am (x02210), A7 (x02020) and Am7 (x02010), you reposition your chords so that your index finger is free to barre and you will have the following four barre chords to work with:
Again, all you have to do is line up the “R” of the root note on the correct fret of the A string. Placing your barre on the third fret gives you C, Cm, C7 and Cm7. Moving up to the sixth fret, you’ll find yourself playing Eb, Ebm, Eb7 and E7.
The trickiest part of playing A shape barre chords is the “regular” major chord. Most people have a very hard time fitting three fingers into the same fret to begin with, so you can imagine that trying to do so while barring with your index finger will be an even bigger challenge! Some guitarists manage this chord by using only two fingers (usually the ring and pinky) to fret the non-barred notes. They will collapse the ring finger slightly so it frets the notes on both the D and G strings while the pinky plays the note on the B string.
Other guitarists are able to get their ring finger to buckle slightly backward, allowing it to fret all three strings and still clear the high E string. These are the guitarists that everyone envies!
Most players still manage to muddle through, though. If you use your ring finger to barre across the four high strings and avoid hitting the high E string when strumming, you’ll find that your A major shaped barre chords sound perfectly fine. In fact, playing these chords in this manner usually allows you to not have to barre at all with your index, instead letting it simply fret the root note while the ring finger handes the barring of the rest of the chord.
As with any aspect of playing the guitar, barre chords take a lot of practice and patience. Don’t let yourself be frustrated if your progress isn’t the major leap forward you expected! If you try one or two of them on a daily basis, you’ll eventually be able to play them cleanly and you’ll find that having these additional chord voicings gives you a lot more to work with when playing.