Introduction to barre chords for beginners how to play barre chords

Welcome to this introduction to barre chords guitar lesson. This lesson is intended for guitarists who are looking to learn how to play barre chords on guitar. The lesson will start at the very beginning from the viewpoint of a guitarist who has never attempted a barre chord before and by the end of the lesson, anyone reading this will have a full understanding of barre chords and how to use them in their guitar playing going forward.

We will start by defining what a barre chord is, we will look at how to correctly play barre chords, we will develop a vocabulary of core and important barre chords that will serve as a solid foundation that you can build on, and we will also look at how to practice barre chords. We will discuss the hurdles that you will face and how to overcome them, and we will also look at how to start using barre chords to create music.

If you’re a guitarist who is contemplating whether to proceed or not, consider the following. Barre chords are a fundamental part of rhythm guitar playing. They’re hard at first but you’ll find it much harder trying to get by without them in the long term. You simply must play through the pain and annoyance that is about to come because doing so will make your guitar journey a lot easier long term and your music will be much better. Perhaps most importantly though, barre chords sound amazing and they open up a whole new world of rhythm guitar. Let’s get started.

introduction to barre chords for beginners featured image

What is a barre chord?

The definition of what a barre chord is, isn’t particularly complicated. A barre (which can also be spelled bar) chord is any chord that uses 1 finger to press down on multiple strings on the same fret on the guitar. That’s all there is to it.

Even If you’ve never actively looked up barre chords before, the chances are that you’ve seen one because one of the first chords that guitarists tend to learn is a barre chord. It’s a small barre chord, but a barre chord, nevertheless. That chord is the standard F major chord.

Can you spot the barre in that above chord? The “barre” part of the chord is at the first fret. Your index or first finger is pressing down on fret 1 on both the B and E strings making this chord a barre chord.

It’s no coincidence that many guitarists find that F major chord the trickiest of the starter chords. Barre chords are generally speaking, harder to play than open chords because of the demands on 1 finger and on top of this, the barre in a barre chord can demand the player to press down on anything from 2 strings as seen in the above example, right up to all 6 strings at once depending on the shape, making the challenge more difficult still.

Fear not. This lesson will get you there and we will start that process by looking at the correct way of performing a barre chord. Correct technique will make this process a lot easier for you.

How to play a barre chord on guitar correctly

Let’s take a look at how to play a barre chord correctly. To do this, we will look at a common barre chord shape which utilises a 6-string barre. Here is an example of an A major barre chord. Try it on for size.

This chord is made with 4 fingers but 3 of the 4 don’t require any new instructions. The 3 fingers that aren’t involved in the barre part of the chord are performed in exactly the same way as they would be if there was no barre at all. What we need to do is learn how to correctly form the barre.

The first secret to a successful barre isn’t anything to do with the index finger which is pressing down on the frets. Yes, the index finger is going to lay across all 6 strings (in the case) but that’s only part of the equation. We also need to think about what we’re doing with our thumb.

Our thumb is going to do a couple of things for us. It’s going to aid with the grip and it’s going to allow the index finger to straighten to form the actual barre correctly.

While playing barre chords, you’ll want to position your thumb so that it’s pushing down on the back of the next. Here’s an image of my thumb position while fretting the A major barre chord that we’ve seen above.

Thumb position for 6 string barre chord

introduction to barre chords for beginners thumb position for barre chords

My thumb is roughly in the middle of the chord and roughly opposite the index finger. It’s vital that you get the thumb position correct. If you don’t, the barre on the other side will simply not work as well.

The above chord was a 6 string barre chord and therefore, the position of the thumb was approximately in the middle of the neck. As we learned earlier, a barre chord may not necessarily cover all 6 strings. Barre chords commonly cover 5 strings or 4 strings for example. If a barre chord covered the 4 bottom strings, the position of the thumb would be lower than you see in the above image because the centre of the chord is lower down.

So, what about the actual barre itself? Well, you want to have your barre up close to the fret in question but there are more things that you can do on top of that to make things easier which we will look at next.

You’ll notice that the side of your index finger is harder than the palm. We can use this to our advantage. If you tilt your finger roughly 45 degrees toward the headstock when forming your barre, you’ll find that the barre feels easier. This is because you’re using the harder part of your finger rather than the softer part. You don’t want to tilt it too far but a slight lean toward the harder part of the finger will be effective.

Another thing that I’d like you to do is be mindful of the wrist of your fretting hand. You will want to ensure that your wrist isn’t bent to a 45-degree angle or more. That will a) make playing harder and b) potentially cause a lot of pain and you don’t want that. You should try to keep your wrist to hand straighter rather than bent. You won’t be able to keep the wrist straight perfectly all the time, but be sure that you don’t bend it unnecessarily.

If you apply the above, here is what the front side of the same barre chord from earlier will look like. Notice how the first finger isn’t perfectly straight.

Forming a barre

introduction to barre chords for beginners forming a barre

Notice that the second, third, and fourth fingers are also doing their jobs by fretting the other notes of the chord. Another barre chord tip is to not just focus on the actual barre and focus on the chord as a whole. A lot of the work in a barre chord is done by the fingers that aren’t involved in the barre and the overall sound of the barre chord depends on those fingers doing their jobs correctly, not just the index finger and thumb, so ensuring proper technique with those fingers is vital.

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In the above example, the second, third and fourth fingers should be following the same technical guidance that they would be if they were fretting an open/non-barre chord. People who’re struggling with barre chords sometimes blame the barre part of the chord when actually, it’s the other fingers. Be mindful of the whole chord. Is every finger doing what it’s supposed to do?

The above advice is all that you need to perform a barre chord correctly. This information is not a magic bullet though. This isn’t a set of guitar secrets that will help you master barre chords in seconds. Sadly, no such information exists. This will definitely be difficult at first, but it will come with practice.

There’s that P word that we all love. You’re going to need it though.

Barre chords are very hard at first

As mentioned earlier, barre chords are a big part of rhythm guitar and they will improve your rhythm guitar playing by about a million percent. But you know what? Breaking down that barre chord barrier is not easy at all. It’s actually one of the hardest hurdles for new guitarists to overcome.

When you first start to play barre chords, you’ll notice the following things. You will notice that they hurt. Sadly, there’s no way around this. You’ll have to play through the pain, just like you did when you first start playing notes on the guitar on that first day. You’ll also notice that you become fatigued rather quickly. Again, there’s not much you can do about it. These are things that will leave you over time. When you get to a point where the pain is hard to deal with or the fatigue is on top of you, stop. Come back to the barre chords tomorrow. They’ll still be waiting for you. Don’t worry though, this is normal. Barre chords aren’t the quickest thing on the guitar to master.

You’ll also notice a lot of clunky muted sounds. In other words, the chords aren’t ringing out fully. Again, this is completely normal for a guitarist who is new to the barre chord concept.

Always remember that those mutes are coming from one of two places. They’re either coming from the strings fretted by only the barre or, they’re coming from the individually fretted notes. Next, we’ll look at an exercise that will help you begin to eliminate those muted sounds. You’ll need a metronome.

Big barre practice exercise

Let’s look at an exercise that will help to fine tune those barre chords and get them ringing out like a bell. First, get your metronome and set it to a nice moderate or even slow tempo. Somewhere between 100 and 120 beats per minute will be fine. If you’re unsure on how to use a metronome correctly, please read up on that and then return.

We’re then going to take that same A major barre chord from earlier and play it up at the 12th fret. This makes the chord an E major (more on that later).

To start with, simply downward strum the full chord on the first beat, allowing it to ring out for that beat and also the following beat. After that, I’d like you to pick each string from top to bottom on each beat of the metronome. This will take you through beats 3 and 4 of the first bar and also through the entirety of the next bar.

The exercise will look something like this.

Did the full chord ring out when you strummed it? Great. Did all the individual strings ring out when you picked them? Great. Of course, what you will probably find is that something along the way didn’t ring out how you would have hoped.

This is fine and I expected it to happen, but the good news is, the exercise should have helped you identify exactly where the problem was. If for example, the high E note didn’t ring out, this means that there’s work to be done on your barre. Perhaps you’re not fully pressing down on that string or perhaps you simply need to apply more pressure or perhaps you need to adjust the position of your thumb. Maybe the note on the G string didn’t ring out. Well, that maybe an issue with the second finger rather than the barre but also consider the fact that poor barre technique can cause issues with the notes that aren’t a part of the actual barre. The important thing is to find where exactly the issues are and then you go from there.

Address whatever issue you find and repeat the exercise. Once you play through the two bars successfully once, move the entire chord shape down to the 11th fret at repeat the process. You can then repeat this until you reach the first fret.

This exercise will provide you with experience of playing a barre chord across a big chunk of the fretboard which is important because you’ll find that you need to make small adjustments depending on where your chord sits on the neck.

Your first 4 barre chords

The above exercise is a great way to get started. It will get you playing a barre chord all over the guitar and it will help you move from a clunky, half muted and rather unimpressive sound to a nice clean and crisp sound. It takes patience and determination, but it will work.

Next, we’re going to build on our barre chord knowledge by introducing 3 new barre chords shapes that you can practice with and eventually, you can use them to create music. You can use these shapes in the above exercise too in order to fine tune them.

The above shapes are the first 4 barre chord shapes that any guitarist should learn. You have 2 major barre chords (one of which you already know) and 2 minor barre chord shapes. As you can see, two of these chords use the full 6 strings and 2 use 5 strings.

Practice the fingering of all 4 of these chords and memorise them. You will be using them a lot in the years to come.

Moving barre chords

Remember earlier when I stated that moving that A major barre chord up to the 12th fret made it an E major chord? Well it’s about time I explained that. This is the part that opens up the power of these chords.

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The above 4 barre chord shapes that you’ve just seen are much more than an A major chord and a D major chord and a D minor chord and A minor chord. These shapes can simply be moved up or down on the fretboard to produce any major or minor chord that you want or need. Now that you know these simple shapes, you can play any major or minor chord you want in seconds without any thought at all. We do this via the root note.

What’s a root note?

I’m not going to go music theory heavy here because this isn’t really a music theory lesson so I shall keep this basic. Chords are made up from groups of notes. What determines these notes isn’t important for the purposes of this lesson but know that the notes of a chord are based around 1 important note. This note is the root note.

The root note is the most important and therefore, the chord is named after it. This means that the root note of our A major chord is A. The root note of the E major barre chord up at the 12th fret which started our exercise is an E. I hope you don’t need more examples.

Every chord has a root note and finding that root note is simple as long as you have an understanding of the notes on the fretboard. If you don’t, please go and research that, then come back.

Using the root to move the chords

If you have a basic understanding of your fretboard notes, you may have noticed that the root note of our 6-string major barre chord shape sits at the very top. Therefore, if you move that shape to the 12th fret like we did earlier, you have an E major chord instead of an A major chord because the 12th fret on the E string(s) Is an E. Move the shape down to the 10th fret and you have a D major chord. Move it down to the 7th and you have a B major chord. Play it down at fret 3 and you have a G major chord. That one shape gives us different major chords depending on where it’s played, all without any adjustments to the shape.

We can do the same with the other barre chord shapes that we looked at above. Every chord that I show you in this lesson has its root right at the top of the chord. This means that moving that 5-string major barre chord shape down to the 3rd fret gives us a C major chord. If you were to move the 5-string minor barre chord up to the 10th fret, you’d have a G minor chord. Furthermore, the 6-string minor shape works the same too. Move it from the 5th fret to the 6th and you have a B flat minor chord.

These four shapes provide you with a great foundation. You can use these “movable” shapes to play any major or minor chord you desire. We will build on your barre chord shapes later but first, let’s take another step forward in performing barre chords.

Chord changes with barre chords part 1

So far, we have defined what a barre chord is, and we’ve established how to perform one correctly. We’ve also learned some barre chord shapes and we’ve learned an exercise that we can use to fine tune the performance of those shapes. Exercises are great, but, they’re generally quite limited. Our exercise helps us to develop and strengthen our technique, but we can’t do much with it.

Next, we’re going to take the first step toward using barre chords to actually play music. We’re going to do this by taking the shapes we’ve learned so far and incorporating chord changes.

The below exercise uses a very simple rhythm which is all downward strums directly on beats 1 and 3. It’s a basic chord progression of I VI IV V in the key of D major which uses some of the shapes from above.

Please continue to use the metronome. Remember, slow and steady wins the race. You don’t have to follow the rhythm exactly. Consider it a guide. If you find the rhythm easy, feel free to develop it. Once you reach that final A chord, loop the progression by going back to the D major.

Also remember that we want to hear all those notes ringing out. Furthermore, don’t stick to the chord progression of D / Bm / G / A.  You can move this chord progression anywhere. You’d still have a I VI IV V progression, but it will be in a different key. For example, if you shift everything down by 2 frets, you’d have the chords C / Am / F / G.

Once you’ve got the hang of that, move on to the next part.

Chord changes with barre chords part 2

We’re getting there now. This next part is going to introduce 2 new elements of barre chord performance. We’re going to introduce a strumming pattern and we’re also going to introduce open chords so that we have a mix of both open and barre chords. It’s important to practice changing from open chords to barre chords and vice versa because this feels different to changing from 1 barre chord to another barre chord.

The chord progression below is still a I VI IV V progression, but this time, we’re using an open E major chord and an open A major chord with our barre chords of B major and C sharp minor. The strumming pattern is D D DU but once again, you can alter the strumming if you like for example, all downward strums in that very last bar sounds good (DDDD 1 strum on each beat). The rhythm in the TAB states that the first strum lasts for two beats, the second strum lasts one beat and the final two strums (down up) are played over the final beat (half the beat per strum).

Expanding your barre chord vocabulary

Let’s take a little break from exercises for a little while now because next, we’re going to learn some more barre chord shapes. The shapes that we’ve learned above combined with these new shapes equate to a very solid base on which you can build. Oceans of music has been composed with the chords you’re learning in this lesson.

All of the chord charts from this lesson came from the Eat Sleep Guitar Repeat Guitar Chord Library.

We’ve looked at quite a lot of shapes in this lesson so don’t worry if it takes a while to get them under your fingers. Some are more difficult than others but on the flip side, you may notice that some of the chords are simply modifications of others. You often only need to make slight adjustments for example, the 6-string minor 7 chord shape is performed exactly the same as the standard 6 string minor barre chord but without the 4th finger. You may have also noticed that these barre chords look much like their open chord siblings only with an added bar.

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Try out these shapes all over the fretboard and test your competence with our first exercise and don’t forget, all these chords are movable so try them in different places.

Chord changes with barre chords part 3

I’m going to give you one more exercise in this lesson. This is another chord progression and just like the first chord changing test, this one is all barre chords so you can move it around. In fact, I encourage you to do so. Moving the progression up and down the fretboard will ensure that your barre chords are equally good all over the guitar.

Strumming is out the window in this one. We’re going to pick the notes individually. The chords are now performed as arpeggios. You can do this with a pick or if you like, you can finger pick them. This can be an effective way of practicing barre chords and finger picking at the same time. This isn’t a finger picking lesson though so if you don’t know the finger picking basics, you’ll have to research the best practices for that separately.

Our progression is I III II I IV V and the chords are specifically D major 7 / F sharp minor 7 / E minor 7 / D major 7 again / G major / A dominant 7. As for the rhythm, I’ve kept it simple. One note per beat. Loop it and prepare for fatigue.

These exercises may prove challenging

I’m fully expecting that any guitarist who is new to barre chords is going to find the practical side of this lesson difficult. Barre chords are hard at first. It really is as simple as that. Every guitarist went through the same struggles. We all couldn’t get all the notes to ring out and all of our hands hurt. It sucks but guess what, you’ll get through it if you persevere. Stick at it, don’t give up.

Bonus tip for playing barre chords

We’re coming to the end of the lesson and I couldn’t find anywhere else to insert this technical tip naturally. You’d think that it would fit in the “how to correctly play a barre chord” section, but I couldn’t get it to flow properly.

Basically, you can use the forearm of your strumming arm as extra leverage at times. All you need to do is push down with it on the front of your guitar. This will force the other end of the guitar into your fretting hand more which makes the pressing down part easier. Give it a try.

Your next steps with barre chords

We’ve now reached a point in this barre chords introductory lesson where we’ve covered all of the basics. You now have a solid set of barre chord shapes to use and you also know how to correctly perform them, how to practice them, and how to move them to create different chords.

But what should you do next? Now that you have an understanding of the above, you should take that information and skill and use it to make music. That’s the goal at the end of the day, right?

There are two ways to do this right away. You can start to create your own chord progressions with the above shapes, and you can also learn songs that feature barre chords.

Let’s address those points in that order. Coming up with your own barre chord-based progressions is easy. Want to play a I V VI IV progression for example? All you need to do is figure out what your chords should be in your key of choice and then use the relevant barre chord shape with the root notes in the correct location. It’s that simple. In the key of C major, that could look something like this. C major / G major / A minor / F major. Try to come up with mini chord progressions that utilise the different shapes. Don’t just use the same two shapes over and over. Practice with them all.

As for songs, well, lots of songs use barre chords. The one that I normally use for introducing guitarists to barre chords in songs is the Pretty Woman by Roy Orbison guitar lesson. This song has a nice simple strumming pattern and a nice moderate tempo. It’s mostly made up of open chords, but there’s an F sharp minor 6 string barre chord in there too. Oh, and it has a killer riff.

Barre chords introductory lesson – Bonus blues

 Just before you set out on your barre chord adventure, allow me to show you this blues-based bonus barre chord information. This will be ideal for any guitarist who enjoys blues music.

The barre chords that we’ve looked at in this lesson are ideal for a lot of blues rhythm guitar scenarios. Often, but not exclusively, blues rhythm guitar that’s played with a clean tone.

Below, you will see 2 sets of the 12 bar blues which use chords that we’ve learned in this lesson. We have a slow minor 12 bar blues and a slow dominant 12 bar blues.

This first set of 12 bars is our slow minor blues. Nice and easy rhythm that utilises our minor 7 barre chords.

Next, we have something similar to the above only this time, we’re using dominant 7 chords instead of minor 7 chords. There’s a slight alteration in the progression too.

Playing 12 bar blues progressions like the ones you see above is another great way and a very musical way of practicing barre chords. Give it a try. It will help to build up your endurance and familiarity.

Remember, barre chords are hard.

I know I’ve mentioned this in the lesson already, but I really want to make sure that I’ve got the point across. Barre chords are very difficult at first. Please please please do not be discouraged if you can’t get the hang of these chords quickly. You simply must keep at it and show determination. In the end, you’ll be rewarded with an amazing tool that will rocket your rhythm guitar playing into the stratosphere.

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