Barre chords are an important part of a guitar player’s repertoire and really expand your ability to navigate the fretboard beyond open chord playing. That said, they can be a bit of a pain to get down as they require a good bit of hand strength and dexterity to play well. In this lesson, we’re going to dive into the essential barre chord shapes, some variations for those chords, and tips on playing them that can help lessen the pain and frustration of the learning process.
What are barre chords?
Barre chords are chords where you’re using the index finger (sometimes other fingers as well) to “barre” across multiple strings on the fretboard. If you’re familiar with a capo, essentially your index fingers acts as a capo fretting multiple strings.
For beginners, barre chords can be rather unpleasant to play, particularly the dreaded F barre chord. They require a good bit of hand strength to hold the strings down and play cleanly. They also can be very fatiguing when held for long periods of time or used frequently in chord progressions. But, like most things with guitar, as you practice it’ll get better over time, so you just need to be a little patient with the process and stick with it. There are some tips later in the lesson to help you get started on the right foot.
Basic barre chords
While there are many types of barre chords, in this lesson we’re going to focus on the essential barre chords you’ll see most often: major, minor and 7th chords. The most commonly used barre chords are those with the bass root note on string 5 and string 6.
Barre chord shapes – root on 6th string
With the root note on the 6th string, we get the barre chord shapes below. Each diagram contains the chord intervals as well as the recommended fingering for each chord shape. All of these barre chord shapes are movable up and down the fretboard. In other words, the G major barre chord with the root on the 3rd fret of the 6th string can be moved up two frets to form an A major barre chord and so on. It’s important you know the notes on the guitar fretboard!
Major Barre Chord – root 6th string
The major barre chord with the root on the 6th string requires you to barre across all six strings with your index finger.
Minor Barre Chord – root 6th string
The minor barre chord with the root on the 6th string is played almost exactly the same as the major barre chord. The only difference is the middle finger is removed in order to play the minor 3rd. Again, the index finger barres across all six strings.
Major 7th Barre Chord – root 6th string
The major 7th barre chord is a little more tricky to finger. The index finger barres across all six strings once again, but grabbing the major 7th requires a shuffling of fingers 2, 3 and 4.
Dominant 7th Barre Chord – root 6th string
Replacing the major 7th interval with a minor 7th makes the dominant 7th barre chord much easier to play when compared to the major 7th.
It’s fingered exactly like the major barre chord, except the pinky is removed in order to play the minor 7th interval with the barred index finger.
Minor 7th Barre Chord – root 6th string
If we take the dominant 7th barre chord from above and remove just the middle finger, we get the minor 7th barre chord shape.
Barre chord shapes – root on 5th string
Similar to the barre chords above, we can create movable barre chord shapes based on the root note on the 5th string as well. Again, by moving these barre chord shapes up and down the fretboard we can create any barre chord with the root on the 5th string.
Major Barre Chord – root 5th string
When the root is on the 5th string, you only need to barre five strings with your index finger. In order to play the major barre chord cleanly, I find using the middle, ring, and pinky fingers on strings 4, 3, and 2 respectively works best. Alternatively, you could barre those notes with just the ring finger and omit the root note on the 1st string from the chord.
Minor Barre Chord – root on 5th string
To create the minor barre chord with the root on the 5th string, you lower the major 3rd on the 2nd string a half step to get the minor 3rd. This barre chord is similar in shape to the major barre chord with the root on the 6th string, only moved over one string.
Major 7th Barre Chord – root on 5th string
Like the major 7th barre chord with the root on the 6th string, this version is a bit tricky to finger at first. Shifting the root on the 3rd string to a major 7th interval causes another shuffling of the fingers.
Dominant 7th Barre Chord – root on 5th string
Creating the dominant 7th barre chord shape only requires removing the middle finger from the major 7th barre chord shape above.
Minor 7th Barre Chord – root on 5th string
To create the minor 7th barre chord on the 5th string, we can take the dominant 7th chord form and lower the major 3rd by a half step to a minor 3rd. The minor 3rd would then be played with the middle finger.
The major, minor, and 7th barre chord shapes cover a lot of ground. Obviously, there a ton more, but these are typically most common. If you know your chord formulas, you can easily derive other barre chords from these basic forms.
Barre chord variations
There are some common modifications to these barre chord shapes where the chord isn’t played in full. What you end up with are inverted chords and chord shapes that are much easier to play. This is mostly achieved by removing the bass root note that falls on string 5 or 6.
Below are diagrams for some of the major and minor barre chord variations.
Tips for playing barre chords cleanly
In the beginning, barre chords are tough to play. There’s no way around it. However, there are some things you can do to make the process of playing them a little easier.
When playing open chords, we often wrap our thumbs over the top of the neck. For open chords, this makes sense. It’s comfortable and we can finger the notes cleanly in this position.
However, when playing barre chords, the thumb should be located on the back of the neck, middle to upper center. This allows your fingers enough room to clear the strings properly so there isn’t any inadvertent muting occurring on the lower three strings.
It also provides the hand with proper leverage to press evenly across the strings in order to cleanly fret all strings.
When barring across the strings, you’ll want to make sure you’re pressing close to the fret. The farther from the fret you get, the more difficult it will be to fret cleanly and keep the strings depressed. Fretting right before the fret itself will result in less strain on the hand and a cleaner sound.
Practice in the middle of the fretboard
When first starting with barre chords, it can be beneficial to practice fretting them around the middle of the the neck (frets 5 through 9). This is the sweet spot in terms of string tension and hand/arm position. As you move closer to the nut and/or bridge, you create more stretch on the hand/wrist/arm as well as experience more string tension. Both work against you and make the chords a little more difficult play.
Once you’re able to play the barre chords cleanly in this area of the fretboard, feel free to move up and down the fretboard to take on more challenging positions.
This lesson provides a good starting point for learning common barre chord shapes. They can be a little frustrating as you develop the strength and dexterity to play them well, but they’re essential to learn to help visualize the fretboard. Use the tips for playing them in this lesson to assist with the process and be sure to practice the full chord shapes until you have them down.
If you need some songs to practice these chords on, check out the 52 Easy Guitar Songs for Beginners list for plenty of options.
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