Like it or not, learning the guitar (or learning almost anything for that matter) involves periods of what some people consider frustration. Speaking from experience, “frustration” is a word that almost invariably causes people to react badly. After all, who wants to be frustrated, especially when making music is supposed to be about having fun.
But frustration is simply a word and one shouldn’t let any connotations associated with it detract from your learning. And before you say that you can’t handle frustration well, ask yourself this, “Can you walk?” That would not be possible if you were incapable of handling frustration. Again, as with most things, it’s all a matter of perspective.
And this perspective is important because, as a guitarist, you’re going to have to deal with varying levels of frustration at different stages in the learning process. Nowhere is this more evident than with barre chords, which give beginners no end of vexation – not just in learning them but (much more importantly) in learning to incorporate them into one’s playing, to be able to make smooth transitions from open position chords to barre chords and back again.
This lesson uses the song “Sister Golden Hair” (by the group America – yes, the same folks who brought you “Horse With No Name“) to help you learn to both deal with barre chords and to get a lot of practice in shifting back and forth between barre chords and open position chords. For some of you, it’s not going to be the easiest lesson you’ve dealt with. But if you are patient and practice with persistence, it will help you get a lot better at barre chords very quickly.
Before we get started, I highly suggest that you take a quick moment to read (or re-read) our two Guitar Noise “mini-lessons” on barre chords. “Part 1“ deals with the mechanics involved in playing barre chords and also gives you simple, step-by-step instructions to get you started. In “Part 2“ you’ll learn about the essential barre chord shapes, which is important because you’ll be using the following barre chords for this song:
Notice that there are two different shapes for the B barre chord. The first is in an “A” shape, meaning that it’s like the open position A chord but shifted two frets up the neck. The second B is an E shaped barre chord played at the seventh fret.
It should also be noted here that you’ll have lots of opportunities in this lesson to use various open position chords, too! In addition to E and Esus4, you can also use an open position A to substitute for the barre chord version. Likewise, an open position B7 (x21202) can serve as a substitute for either barre chord version of B. And it should go without saying that these substitutions will definitely sound different than the chords used in the original recording!
Structurally, “Sister Golden Hair” has an Inroducion and then two verses – one that begins with the line “Well I tried to make it Sunday” and ends with the line “when a woman sure can be a friend of mine.” The second verse begins with the line “Well I keep on thinking ’bout you Sister Golden Hair surprise” and ends with the line “but it doesn’t mean you ain’t been on my mind.” Some people will refer to the second verse as the chorus but I prefer to think of the chorus as the part that begins “Will you meet me in the middle will you meet me in the air” (which these same “others” will refer to as the “bridge”). It’s truly your call. After the chorus the introdution is then repeated, as is the second verse and the chorus and then there is a short outro. Since the intoduction is the trickiest part, we’ll start our work there.
INTRODUCTION – Rhythm, Anticipation, and Chord Choices
One would think, by this point, that you’d be tired of my talks on “strumming patterns” (and be sure to read The Pattern Trap if you’ve not done so). but “Sister Golden Hair” is great example as to why obsessing on finding a “strumming pattern” is pointless. Listen to just the introduction and you’ll hear almost ten similar yet slightly different strums taking place in each of the intro’s ten measures.
So let’s put aside any worries about barre chords for the moment and work out some rhythm templates, if you will, that can work for this particular song. Here are a few done with an open position E chord that you may find helpful:
Each of these four rhythm templates will work well with the entire song, but you’re truly not going to want to use a single one of these for the entire song. The first two go very nicely with the introduction while you may find the second two easier to play during the verses and the chorus, particularly if you’re singing while playing.
Practice each of these two-measure rhythms until you feel comfortable. Then try mixing them up, playing one after the other in order or swapping out the second and third set or even pairing up the first measure of one example with the second measure of another. The main thing is to be able to keep the rhythm steady. Ultimately you’re going to be changing chords while keeping rhythm so the first thing you want to make sure of is that you can hold the beat steadily and evenly.
Once you feel fairly confident about your rhythm, try changing chords each measure. For now, just to keep things simple, try using E for the first measure and A for the second. Be sure to use your standard open string positions and not any barre chords just yet!
The chord changes during the introduction involve playing anticipations, meaning that the chord change (still using E to A in our examples for the time being) is going to come on the offbeat between Beat 4 of one measure and Beat 1 of the next. If you are keeping your strumming even, strumming down on each beat and up on each off beat (and you can find out how to do so in our lesson about Sock Puppets, believe it or not!) the change to A will occur on an upstroke, as will every E change that follows:
Take some time to get these anticipations into your strumming. You will find, especially during the verses, that you may make some of the chord changes as anticipations. That’s totally okay! With this song, they will add an organic sense of immediacy to your strumming.
Once you’re ready you’re just about set to try the whole introduction. But before you do, take a moment to first look at it :
In this example I’m using the first rhythm template from “Example 1″ (or perhaps I should say “trying to use” as I don’t get it perfectly right each measure!) for a reason – it gives me a half-a-beat to make my chord changes! You can also hear that it’s being played painfully slowly. Why? Because that’s pretty much how everyone starts out when working on playing and changing barre chords!
Before you even begin attempting to play this, do yourself a favor and try out the following exercise: Make an open position Am chord, but do so without using your index finger to fret any notes. That means your middle finger is on the first fret of the B string, your pinky is on the second fret of the G and your ring finger is on the second fret of the D. Set? Good! Now, shift from this Am chord to an open position E chord, again, using only these fingers and not your index finger. The object is to try to move your fingers from one chord to the other as a unit, making them leave the Am and reform on the E at as close to the same time as possible. Because this is a chord change that you already make quite often, it’s simply a matter of getting used to using these fingers to do so.
Now you’re going to put that exercise to practical use. Begin with the C#m chord, barring your index finger across the fourth fret and using your other fingers to form an Am shape as you did earlier. Don’t worry (for the moment, at least) about the actual strumming rhythm. Instead, strum three beats of C#m and then shift to A by raising all four fingers, shifting them up one fret and realigning the middle, ring and pinky fingers into the E position as you do so. Set a tempo as slowly as necessary to ensure that your chord is ready to be played when you strum downward on the fourth beat.
Obviously, this all may need a bit of practice! However, if you go through these exercises in order and be deliberate about practicing them, you should find that you’re able to make this change rather handily after a reasonably short while. Once you can, then it’s time to try doing so while strumming in the rhythm of one of the templates.
Believe it or not, after you’ve managed the shift from the C#m barre chord to the A barre chord (and after you feel a bit confident about doing so), just about everything else about this whole song will seem rather tame. Going from the A barre chord to an open position E is very simple, however I would advise that you resist the temptation to not use your index finger to form the open position E. The reasoning behind this is that you’ve also got an Esus4 (022200) to deal with and you’ll find the easiest way to make that is to play a “normal” E and then add your pinky to the second fret of the G string.
Changing from the open position E to the G#m barre chord will take a bit more practice, but you should discover that the time and energy you’ve put into changing chords so far will help you make this shift fairly easily. As you did earlier, try to have all your fingers release from the open position E as a single unit and, as you slide your index finger up to barre at the fourth fret, reposition your pinky and ring finger to form an Em shape on the sixth fret. And now your hard work is essentially done!
Moving from the G#m at the end of the second line to the C#m at the end of the third line should prove to be reasonably simple. If you feel it necessary, you can practice making changes between the open position Em to the open position Am, making certain not to use your index finger for either chord. Again, it probably won’t take you all that long to get used to this particular chord change and then it will just be a matter of doing so while barring your index finger on the fourth fret to change from G#m to C#m.
When you then change from C#m to B (at the end of the first measure in the third line) you will find yourself with a number of choices. As mentioned earlier, you could go with an open position B7. That won’t sound at all like the original recording but you can get away with it. You can also use the A-shaped B chord, barring your index finger on the second fret and forming an A chord in the fourth fret. Should you choose to do so, you might want to keep in mind this tip from “Barre Chords, Part 2:”
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.
One other option is to go with the E shaped barre chord for B, which is done at the seventh fret. This is what actually happens in the original recording of the song, which you can actually hear if you listen to it carefully (despite all the transcriptions that may indicate otherwise!). Making this chord change is essentially the same as making the C#m to A that opens the introduction. Then you simply shift the entire chord shape from the seventh fret to the fifth to go from B to A.
Also remember that both the open position A chord and the open position B chord are viable substitutes for the barre chord versions of A and B. In fact, quite a few guitarists prefer to use the open position A, particularly at the very end of the introduction, because it allows them to embellish the chord (and therefore the strumming) a bit by switching from the open position A (x02220) to Asus4 (x02230) and back. They also occasionally will toss in an Asus2 (x02200) to spice things up a bit.
VERSES, CHORUSES and OUTRO
The cool thing about “Sister Golden Hair” is that once you’ve managed the Introduction, you’ve pretty much done all the hard work. Except for one chord change from A to F#m to C#m in the verse and the E to F#m to G#m to A progression that ends the chorus, there isn’t anything new to worry about. So let’s take a look and listen to the verse section, shall we?
Please note again (and always) that the rhythm notation here is still merely a template. You will hear slight variations throughout the actual MP3 file that accompanies this example. You’ll also hear that some of the chords are done as anticipations.
The trickiest part of the verse lies in the fifth and sixth lines, and it’s not all that tricky! Changing from A to F#m merely involves shifting your index finger from barring at the fifth fret to barring at the second fret. Meanwhile you will also remove your middle finger from the G string in order to change from the major barre chord shape to the minor.
The subsequent change from F#m to C#m is a little more involved as you not only need to shift your barre from the second fret to the fourth fret, but you also need to shift your ring finger and pinky from their fourth fret positions on the A string (ring finger) and the D string (pinky) to the sixth fret of the D string (ring finger) and G string (pinky) and also add your index finger to the fifth fret of the B string. Practice this slowly (and without strumming) several times in order to get your fingers acclimated to this change of chords. When you feel you’re up to giving it a try, do so while strumming at a painfully slow tempo and then work your way up to speed.
Technically speaking, you’ve not done the C#m to G#m switch before, but it’s just the reverse of going from G#m to C#m. It’s completely possible that you may find it easier since you’re removing the middle finger from the chord as opposed to placing it back onto the fretboard. The true challenge in this change is that each chord is given two beats. In the MP3 file for this example, you’ll hear me play these two chords as two sets of quarter notes. Doing so helps to focus on the short duration of each chord and can make the change a little easier to play. It also accents the four beats over which these two chords are played and that can help make the overall accompaniment a bit more interesting.
Speaking of making the accompaniment more interesting, in the upcoming “companion piece” for this lesson you’ll learn some cool rhythmic strumming to highlight making the switch from the A chord that follows this G#m down to the last F#m of the verse. You’ll also get to examine many other little ways to zest up your arrangement of this song.
For now, though, let’s look at the chorus:
Essentially the chorus is a B to A to E progression that gets repeated twice, followed by an F#m to G#m to A progression wherein each chord is played once and held. That brings us back to a repeat of the introduction.
Even if you’re more partial to the A-shaped B barre chord (maybe because you used it in the introduction), you will probably find the E shaped B barre chord (799877) a little friendlier here because you can then keep all of the chords of the chorus in the same shape. And as long as you play the open position E without using your index finger, then you’ll find the final chord sequence fairly easy to get used to.
The outro starts out the same as the chorus. It’s actually the same B to A to E progression but here it’s played four times instead of twice:
You can end with a regular open position E chord, but I’d like to suggest a little twist – play it up past the twelfth fret but as an “open position” chord, that is, leaving the high and low E strings as well as the B string open. Your index finger will be on the thirteenth fret of the G string, your ring finger on the fourteen fret of the D string and your middle finger on the fourteenth fret of the A string. It’s still an E chord, it will just sound somewhat higher.
And that’s pretty much all there is to getting the basics of the song. Here’s a cheat sheet for you to go by:
Let me add two things: first, just because you know in your head what to do concerning barre chords doesn’t mean that it’s going to happen with your fingers the first few (or few hundred!) times out. Be patient. With each attempt at playing barre chords your fingers will get better. You’re asking a lot of them so give them the benefit of the doubt. Some guitarists learn quickly and some take (seemingly) ages. If you get frustrated, try using open position A and B7 chords to ease things up a bit, or make use of any of the “non-barre” ideas in our companion piece to this lesson (which will be online by June 15).
As always, I hope that you’ve enjoyed this song lesson and I hope that you’ve found it both fun and helpful. Please feel free to post any questions or suggestions here in our comments section, or on the Guitar Noise Forum. And you can always email me directly at email@example.com if you’d like.
Until our next lesson, play well and play often.
And, again as always,
“Sister Golden Hair” is a 1975 single from the band America, and their second song to reach number one on the Billboard Charts. The title of the song was inspired by all three band members’ mothers – who all had blonde hair.