Here’s what’s awesome about barre chords. You get twelve for the price of one. You can learn one barre chord shape and move it around the neck to get twelve different chords!
That also means you can play chords in any key. So if you come across a song with an F or Bm chord, you can play it using barre chords! Need to play chords with exotic names like Bb7, C# or Abm7? You can play them with barre chords!
The catch? These chords can take some practice to master. It all comes down to two things:
- Proper technique
- A little bit of strength in your hand
Most people have quite a bit of trouble getting their barre chords right. Ask other guitarists and they’ll often tell you ‘just practice more’, which isn’t all that helpful. Yes, barre chords do require practice, but there are a couple of technical tips that can make playing them easier and will help you jump this hurdle.
Just a preview of some of the technique tips in this guide!
Normally, I like to give a step-by-step plan for you to follow, but this is one of those topics that seems to be different for everyone… Everyone has a different fingers, hands and arms, so there’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution to playing barre chords.
So here's what this article will do instead. We'll start with a quick explainer of what barre chords are and why they are so useful (introduction) as well as two things you should know before you start practicing barre chords (section 1). Then I'll show you what is considered the ‘correct’ technique and give you some things to experiment with until you find the approach that works for you (section 2). I’ll also list a couple of exercises that can help you (section 3).
Once you jump the technical hurdle, it's time to learn the most important barre chord shapes and how to move them around the neck (section 4). You might also want to know about the alternative to barre chords: Hendrix-style 'Thumb' Chords (section 5). Lastly, I'll tell you about my course Guitar Chord Bootcamp, which helps you learn to play the most important chord types in any key you like (conclusion).
Feel free to skip to the section that sounds most useful for you!
For example, when you play an open E chord, you’re putting your fingers on the A, D and G string, but not on the low E string, b string or high E string.
Open chords are great, but there’s only a limited number of chords that you can play using open chords. For example, if you come across song that uses a B minor, F sharp minor or E flat chord, you won’t be able to play that song using just open chords.
One solution for this is to use a capo: a device that presses down all the strings at a fret of your choice, so you can play your open chords in any position and any key.Yep, that's a capo.
The other, more flexible solution is to play barre chords! A barre chord is essentially an open chord moved up the fretboard by using your index finger as a capo. You place it flat across the neck like a ‘barre’ in order to press down all strings.
Tip 1. Don’t start with an F barre chord!
Many people arrive at barre chords after learning a bunch of open chords. At some point, they run into songs with an F chord or a B minor chord in it, so those are the first barre chords they try.
This seems like a good idea, but barre chords that are closer to the nut are more difficult to play. The F barre chord is actually one of the most difficult barre chords there is! It requires the most strength to push the strings down, because the position is as close to the nut as it can possibly be. So instead of starting with the hardest possible barre chord there is, I’d recommend working from the slightly easier ones towards that dreaded F chord. So instead try:A five-string minor bar chord (in the seventh position)
This barre chord is easier to play because your barre is stretched across five strings, instead of six. Your barre also only needs to take care of two strings: the A string and the high E string. To play this chord, first fret an open A minor chord without using your index finger! Next, slide your fingers up seven frets and place your barre in the seventh fret.A six string major bar chord (in seventh position)
Next, you'll want to practice a barre that stretches over 6 strings. But instead of the F barre chord, I’d recommend playing a barre chord higher up the neck, at the seventh position for example (which would be a B major chord).
Use the same approach as with the last chord. Play an open E chord, but don’t use your index finger. Then slide those fingers up seven frets and place your barre in the seventh fret.
Tip 2. Make sure the ‘action’ on your guitar isn’t too high
There is a slight chance that your guitar is harder to play than it should be. If you feel like fretting a note is a lot of work, this might mean that your ‘action’ is too high. Action refers to the distance between the fretboard and your strings.
High action means this distance is great and that your strings are high above the fretboard. Setting the action too high makes playing more difficult as it takes more effort to press down a string. Set the action too low and the strings won’t have enough ‘room’ to vibrate and create a buzzing sound as they hit the frets: fretbuzz.
The best way to find out if your action is too high is to have your guitar checked out by a luthier or guitar tech (or maybe your local guitar store has a repair guy or gal). But to get a really rough idea if your guitar is setup properly, here’s what you can do. Take a coin that’s roughly 2 mm (or 5/64″) thick. An American nickel is about 1,95 mm and a 20 Euro cent coin is 2,14 mm. (Google for your local currency.)
Now slide that coin underneath the low E string at the twelfth fret and place it on the frets. If this is a snug fit or has just a little room, your action is low and should be fine. But if there’s lots of room and you can easily fit another coin in there, your action is probably too high.
This video does a good job of showing how to use a coin (but note that this guy is using a 2,38 mm piece of metal, so you’ll probably have a bit more room if you’re using a coin).
If you want to know more about the exact measurements of what’s considered high and low action for electric, acoustic and classical guitar, check out this helpful site!
1. Lower your thumb and place it roughly halfway down the neck
Some of these tips fall into the ‘see if this solves your problem’ column, but thumb placement is not one of them. Be sure to place your thumb on the back of the neck, roughly halfway down, perhaps even lower. If your thumb is too high or if you’ve wrapped it around the neck, it will be impossible to play a barre chord. You either want to line up your thumb with your index finger, or between your index finger and ring finger (i.e. first and second finger).
Lowering your thumb will automatically bring your wrist closer to the floor, which is what we want. (More on wrist position in technique tip 5 below).
2. Use the edge of your index finger
Using the flat face of your index finger might mess up your barre chord for two reasons:
- The flat face is pretty soft and fleshy, which makes it harder to apply pressure and get a clean sounding chord.
- Strings can get caught in the grooved areas where the finger joints are. This makes it hard to press then down properly, which mutes the strings.
The edge of your index finger is bonier and harder, meaning you won’t have to apply as much pressure. To use the edge, place your barre on the fretboard, but instead of pushing down, try to push away, towards the headstock of your guitar. In doing this, you might notice that your elbow position changes too, which brings us to tip #3:
3. Keep your elbow tucked in
To roll your index finger onto its side and push ‘away’ towards the headstock, you need to keep your elbow close to your body. Pushing away is pretty much impossible when you have your elbow floating out in the air, away from your body like a chicken wing. Keeping your arm just hanging next to your body makes this easier and should feel more comfortable too.
4. Place your index finger close to the fret
The spot closest to the fret, is where you need to apply the least amount of pressure to get a clean sound. Combining this with tip #3, what you can do, is place your finger on the fret with the flat face and then roll it onto its edge.That should get the edge of your index finger in exactly the right position. Not on the fret, but very close to it. Part of your index finger might cover the fret, but you're not applying pressure to it.
Also make sure your index finger is paralel with the fret and not placed diagonally, where it’s further away from the fret on the high strings than it is on the low E string.
5. Keep your index finger straight
Sometimes you’ll hear some of the strings you’ve barred, but some will be muted too. If you can’t hear the the G or D string, chances are that you’re index finger isn’t completely straight, but slightly arched. This makes that you’re applying pressure to the outer strings (high E string, B string and low E string), but not to those middle strings. Try to keep your finger completely flat and straight to avoid this.
If you can’t hear the b string or high e string, the problem will be slightly different. You might be keeping your smallest two phalanxes straight (the parts of your finger that are furthest away from the palm of your hand), but slightly bending the joint between your largest and second largest phalanx. If you lower the back joint of your index finger and keep your entire finger straight, this will likely solve the problem. This video provides a great demonstration:
In general, it helps to think that you're pressing the hardest in the middle (thanks to Justin Sandercoe for this tip!). This might seem a bit weird, because you want to press down on all the strings. But I think this works because it's impossible to press with the middle of your finger without keeping it straight.
6. Move your index finger up or down
Sometimes a string can be lined up exactly with a crease in your finger and mute it. Moving your index finger a bit up or down can fix that. If you can’t hear one the top strings, experiment with how much your index finger sticks out above the fretboard.
7. Keep your wrist low and bend it as little as possible
If you press the palm of your hand against the neck, it will be impossible to play a barre chord. Instead, your thumb should be in the middle or on the lower half of the back of the neck (see technique tip 1 above), leaving the palm of your hand directly underneath the guitar neck. There should be some space between your palm and the guitar neck like this:
As you can see, your wrist will also be lower than the guitar neck. In the image above, the player's arm is going up towards the neck. This is the way classical guitarists play: they have the guitar in their lap between their legs (instead of on their right leg) and the neck is pointing up. One of the advantages of playing this way is that they don't have to bend their wrist as much to play barre chords and even more challenging fingerings.
Most non-classical guitarists (myself included) prefer to play with the guitar body resting on their leg. This does make barre chords slightly more challenging, mostly because of your wrist. You need to bend it to play barre chords, but you don't want to bend it too much for two reasons:
- Bending your wrist too much might make it sore after a while, because you’re placing a lot of pressure on what’s called your ‘carpal tunnel’: the connection between your fingers and the muscles in your forearm that control your fingers.
- Because you're placing pressure on the carpal tunnel, it will become harder to use the muscles in your hand. Try this out by keeping your wrist straight and making a fist and then bending your wrist and making a fist. Feels awkward, doesn’t it?
So, to avoid overstraining your wrist, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Keep your shoulder down and your elbow low. This will allow your arm to be pointed slightly upwards (green example), instead of being completely horizontal (red example) or even having to reach down towards the guitar neck.
- Don't move your wrist too far forwards. If your wrist is directly underneath the guitar neck (as it would be in the red example), you’ve cocked it too far forwards.
- Be sure to not only bend your wrist, but also arch your hand.
- This all becomes a bit easier if you tilt your guitar a bit upwards, so the angle you have to make is less sharp. (This is also the reason that classical guitarists have their neck pointed way up.)
When you’re standing up and your guitar is hanging quite low, it will be harder to play barre chords without bending your wrist too much. This is why many guitarists sometimes prefer to play many of these same chords the way Jimi Hendrix used to do. Click here to scroll down and read more about Hendrix style, thumb-over chords!
8. Use some arm strength
If you feel your left hand (and thumb) getting tired quickly, you might want to make it work a little less hard by using some arm strength.
When you’re holding your barre chord, pull backwards with your left arm while you ‘hug’ the body of your guitar between your right arm and your chest. You should be able to provide enough pressure on the strings using only this technique. So as a test, see if you can get a clear sounding barre without your thumb. Here’s an example of a classical guitarist (Douglas Niedt) doing just that:
This usually doesn’t happen overnight. It simply takes some time to make your hand do this. The trick is regular practice so your hand and fingers get used to playing barre chords and build a little strength (and calluses). If you practice this once a month, you’re basically starting from scratch every time, which means barre chords will always be difficult. But practice 5 to 10 minutes for seven days straight and you’ll notice things will become much easier.
1. Slapping the strings with your index finger
Here’s a funny little exercise that's surprisingly effective. I don’t know exactly why, but for some reason going through these steps makes barre chords sound better... The video below explains it well, but in case you’re not in a video watching mood, I'll also give you a summary.
Take any barre chord, say a b major chord at the seventh fret. Play it and see how it sounds.
Now, while keeping your ring, middle and pinky fingers in place, slap the low E string with your index finger four times and play the chord again (pick the strings one by one). Next, slap the higher strings (E, B and G) with your index finger. Play the chord once more, again picking the strings one by one.
Next, slide down your chord one fret and repeat the process until you get to the first fret (or your fingers get sore). For many people, this helps their barre chords to sound cleaner!
2. Program the shape into your fingers
Most of this article is all focused on your index finger: getting that barre right. But of course your other fingers matter too! It might take some practice to get them in the right position and to get the shapes in your muscle memory. Here’s a way to speed up that practice.
Fret an open E chord with your fretting hand WITHOUT using your index finger!
Next, play the chord once to see if it sounds right. If so, press the chord into the fretboard as hard as you can for 20 seconds. (But don’t hurt yourself of course.) After the 20 seconds, let go and give your hand a rest. After that, repeat the process once or twice.
By pressing the chord this hard, you’re telling the muscles in your hand that this particular shape is important and that they should remember it. That makes it more effective than playing the chord, letting it go, playing the chord, letting it go etc. If you like, you can repeat this process with the open A minor chord!
3. Track your progress exercise
I hate it when you practice something without any noticeable results... This can be a problem for barre chords, because it either sounds good or it doesn’t. Here’s an exercise to solve that problem and to get some insight in how you’re progressing.
Barre all the six strings with your index finger at the fifth fret. Check the strings one by one to see how many sound clean and which are muted. If you’re getting 3 out of 6 strings to sound clean, that’s a good starting point! Now move up a fret and check your score again. Repeat this process until you get to the 10th fret. Then start at the 5th fret again, but now move down a fret.
With practice, you should notice your score improving and 4, 5, and eventually 6 of the strings to sound clean!
You can play the chords to pretty much any song you like.
So how exactly does this work? The short answer is you need to learn the most important barre chord shapes as well as how to move these shapes across the fretboard to play chords it any key.
In this section I'll show you the 11 most important shapes and how to best remember them. We’ll take a look at how to play barre chords in the two most important ways.
- With the lowest note on the low E string
- With the lowest note on the A string
But first, let's take a quick look at how moving around these barre chord shapes works. (Feel free to skip it if you already know.)
How to move barre chord shapes around the neck
To understand barre chord shapes, we need to start by taking a look at an open chord. Take this E open chord:
Now take a look at this G chord:
Notice any similarities? If you look closely, the shape is exactly the same. Except in the case of G barre chord, you’re barring your finger across all the strings, whereas that isn’t necessary in the case of the open E chord. So, a barre chord is nothing but an open chord moved to other parts of the guitar neck.
So how do you know whether a chord is a G, a B or C#? You can find the answer by looking at the lowest note in the chord. That’s where you’ll find the root note: the letter we use to name the chord.
In the case of our open E chord, the lowest note is the open E string. When you move this open E chord shape to other parts of the neck, you can still find the root of the chord on the low E string, but now you're fretting it with your index finger. Here's our G barre chord again, where the red dot indicates the root note:
The same logic applies to an A major barre chord. We play the lowest note (the root note) on the open A string:
We can move this exact shape around the neck, for example to play a B flat chord.
In the rest of this section, we’ll take a look at which of these ‘movable’ shapes you should know.
Four essential E-shaped barre chords
A simple way to remember the barre chord shapes with the root on the low E string is to start with a major barre chord and remove one or two fingers. So let's start with our major barre chord shape:
Now, when you remove your middle finger, you’ll play a minor chord:
Take away your pinky and you’ll play a dominant chord:
And when you remove both your middle finger and pinky and you’ll play a minor seven chord:
Five essential A-shaped barre chords
For the barre chord shapes with the root on the A string, we’ll again start with the major chord shape. This major shape can be played in two different ways. The first option is to use your middle, ring and pinky:
However, some people find it a little awkward to fit all their fingers in the same fret. So instead, you can try placing a second barre with your ring finger:
You might notice that it’s difficult to make the high e string ring properly, because your ring finger is muting it. Don’t worry about that. Even without that note, your chord is still complete. (Geeky music theory warning: It even sounds a little better to me, because the third of the chord is now the top note, instead of the fifth.)
We’ll take this major chord and start playing some of the notes one or two frets lower to play other chord types. For example, by making the g string one fret lower, you’ll be playing a major seven chord:
Lower that g string two frets and you’ll get a dominant chord:
When we lower the b string one fret, that gets us a minor chord:
And lowering both the b string one fret and the g string two frets gets us a minor seven chord;
The power of learning these shapes and knowing how to use them is pretty awesome. Once you get comfortable with these shapes and how to play them in any key, you’ll be able to take a look at a chord progression and play it instantly. This is an incredibly useful skill for when you want to play a song a band mate brings to rehearsal or look up the chords online to a song and quickly want to check it out.
What I noticed with my in-person students though, is that the information you need to do this doesn't easily stick. Sometimes it was hard to recall where you’d play a C#maj7 chord and which shape you need to do so. Other times, it just took too long to remember to be really useful.
That’s why I created a method to help my students learn all this in a couple of lessons. It worked well and so I turned it into an online course: Guitar Chord Bootcamp.
Half of the course is a series of challenges that’ll cement what you need to know in your brain, such as the notes on the low E string and the most important chord shapes. The other half is 14 video songs, so you can apply everything you’re learning along the way and immediately see how useful your new skills are.
To see if it’s for you, check out the first couple of lessons for free:
Using this thumb-over technique, it’s often possible to produce the same notes as when you’re barring your index finger. This has two major advantages:
- It can be easier, more comfortable or more convenient to play ‘Hendrix-style’ chords. This is often the case when you’re standing and your guitar is hanging quite low.
- These thumb chords can free up your pinky finger (and ring finger), so you can add extra note to the chord or play little embellishments.
Here’s how these Hendrix chords work. Instead of barring your index finger across all six strings, you wrap your thumb around the guitar neck and play play the note on the low E string with your thumb. You can then use your other four fingers to fret the rest of the chords. There are lots of possible variations, but the ‘classic’ Hendrix chord, with the A string and high E string muted, is this one:
To see and hear these chords in action, check out this video of the chorus of The Wind Cries Mary. The chords played are G and Bb. Also note the little embellishment the pinky plays.
If you want to learn exactly how, you might want to check out my course Guitar Chord Bootcamp.
The course will take you through a step-by-step plan to learn how to read and play chords. This is a really cool skill to have because you'll be able to learn new songs much faster, whether it's a song a friend brings to rehearsal or an awesome new song you've just discovered online.
You can take the first couple of lessons for free, which will show you the basics of playing chords in any key! You can check it out by enrolling here:
If you run into any problems playing barre chords and can't find the solution in this article, let me know! Just leave a comment or send me a note at just (at) stringkick.com. I want to make this guide as complete as possible, so I'd love to hear from you!
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