Learn to Play the Guitar in Two Weeks, Day 7: Barre chords

My order has been messed up. I had intended to stick to a steady left hand — right hand — left hand etc. rhythm for the remaining posts. Today was going to be some more flatpicking/right hand techniques, but I realized that we need one more group of chords in place before we go further.

So: get ready to fail, sweat, and swear, with …

The first major hurdle: Barre chords

Dm7, one of the chords that were presented on Day 6, introduces the concept of the barre chord: a chord where the same finger is used for several strings at the same time. This two-string mini barre — xx0211 — is the simplest possible variant, but before the day is done, you’re going to have to at least have tried the full six-string barre.

Let’s start with Dm7 and extend it gradually. The two first strings should be played with the index finger. This can be done in three ways:

  • place the finger on the second string, then bend it down so that it also covers the first string;
  • place the fingertip on both strings at the same time. If you have very tiny fingers, this will probably not work.
  • lay the index finger flat over the three highest strings, then place the long finger in its position on the third string, second fret

In practical playing, you will probably end up using one of the first two methods — pick the one that suits you and your finger best. Righ now, however, we are going to work on the third method.

This may seem like a waste of energy: why put two fingers on the same string? That index finger isn’t doing anything useful on the third string, is it?

At the moment, no. At the moment, I’m suggesting this form mainly as a way to prepare for the full barre chord. That said, there are cases where it is actually quite useful, namely: If that finger is needed in the next chord you’re playing.

Say, for example, that you’re playing the progression Dm7 — Dm7-5 — C (don’t worry about the name of that middle chord; I will explain that in a later post):

  Dm7     Dm7-5     C
  :   .   .   .     :   .
|-1-------1-------|-0-------
|-1-------1-------|-1-------
|-2-------1-------|-0-------
|-0-------0-------|-2-------
|-----------------|-3-------
|-----------------|---------

If the index finger is already covering all three strings, all you have to do is to lift off the longfinger — no repositioning of the index finger is needed at all.

It’s not F yet, but it’s getting there

This Dm7 chord can be extended to xx3211, which is a simple way to play F major. Technically, it’s not even cheating: all the right tones are there. (If you want/need to cheat, you can play xx3210, which is not F, but it’s close enough.) What’s wrong with it is that you have two strings that you can’t use, just as with D major.

We must therefore proceed. The next step is to add the fifth string:

xx        x
======    ======
||||11    ||||11
------    ------
|||2|| -> |||2||
------    ------
||3|||    |34|||

Now, all that is left is to get the sixth string into the mix. The bass tone of F major is found on the first fret of the sixth string. That’s both good news and bad news.

The good news is that the index finger should be able to do that — it’s already well on the way there. All you need to do is to extend the mini-barre all the way from the first to the sixth string:

======
1---11
------
|||2||
------
|34|||     

  F

The “F” chord

The bad news is that … well, it takes some strength in the index finger to be able to press down hard enough. There’s a reason why it’s called the “f word”.

Barre chords are a hurdle, and should anyone actually have taken the “day n” thing seriously and done one lesson a day, this is probably where you will have some problems keeping the pace. Any chord chart, picking pattern, or odd chord combination can be learned in one day, but barre chords is not just about technique or rote learning, but also about physical stamina. It takes more than a day to build up that strength.

But don’t despair: it doesn’t take that much time, and there are things you can do to get there sooner.

Most important is to learn not just how hard you have to press down to get six sounding strings, but also how softly you can press. A good barre chord technique is not about training your index finger and thumb to be able to press as hard as you can, but to apply as much pressure as needed, but nothing more. A cramped, strained hand is something to avoid, at all cost.

This also means: apply the pressure where it is needed. In the F chord, you don’t need to burden your index finger with a lot of pressure in the middle of the chord — those strings are being taken care of by the other fingers. Think of it rather as if you are playing this:

======
1|||||
------
|||2||
------
|34|||

Don’t use any more energy on this than what you need to get a clear bass tone. Then lower the index finger to cover the highest strings as well.

This is not to say that you should not apply any pressure in the middle: it may be needed to provide the connection between the two outer parts of the chord. Besides, there are other chords where you will also play the intermediary strings with the index finger, such as F7:

======
1-1-11
------
|||2||
------
|3||||

Other barre-based chords

Half-barres are useful in many situations besides Dm7. One of the most common is the A major chord, where the three fingers at the second fret can be replaced by a half-barre:

 o   o
======
||||||
------
||1-1|
------
||||||
------
  A

The trick here is of course to bend the finger enough to let the first string ring. If that seems too difficult, it is possible to cheat by muting the string instead; just touch it with the index finger, and problem solved.

The same half-barre is used in a variant of A7:

 o
======
||||||
------
||1--1
------
|||||2     

  A7

D major is also a good candiate for a half-barre:

  o
======
||||||
------
|||1-1
------
||||2|     

  D

The living capo

Once you master this chord — and it will probably not happen the first day — you have what it takes to play literally thousands of chords. When your hand begins to ache and your index finger is about to go off, that may perhaps be a comforting thought.

If you’re saying to yourself: “Hey! This F thing — isn’t it just an E major chord played with the wrong fingers and with that annoying index finger across the whole thing?”, then you’re absolutely right. Barre chords could be thought of as if you’re using a living capo, one you can quickly and easily move wherever you want.

This also means that if you move the whole chord up to the third fret, you have yet another way of playing G major:

======        
||||||            1---11  3rd 
------   or       ------      
||||||  shorter:  |||2||      
------            ------      
1---11            |34|||      
------            ------      
|||2||        
------        
|34|||        
------        

355433

  G 

The second form of the chord chart is convenient if you move further up the neck — it saves a lot of |||||| lines…

The “E shape” is not the only barre chord type you can use. Another common and very useful type is the “Am shape”, which is the same as the E shape but on different strings. Bm is a common chord with this shape:

x
====== 
|||||| 
------ 
11---1 
------ 
||||2|        
------        
||34||        
------        
 
x24432

  Bm 

But just about any of the open chords can be used, although some of them are more tricky than others:


1----1      1----1            
------      ------            
||||||      ||||||            
------      ------            
|34|||      |3||||            
------      ------            
||||||      ||||||            
                        
 "Em"        "Em7"      


|1---1      |1---1      |1---1            
------      ------      ------            
||||||      ||||||      ||||2|            
------      ------      ------            
||234|      ||3|4|      ||3|||            
------      ------      ------            
||||||      ||||||      ||||||            
                        
 "A"         "A7"        "Am7"      

1----1
------
||||2|
------
||3|||
------
|4||||
      
  "C" 

The ones in the first row are based on the sixth string, and the ones in the second row on the fifth string. To find out which chord you are playing at a given fret, go to the chart of the neck, which I presented in lesson 4, but which I’ll gladly present again, extended a few frets upwards:

0        1         2        3       4       5      6    7    8
e'||----f'----|---f#'---|---g'---|--ab'--|--a'--|-bb'-|-b'-|-c''
b ||----c'----|---c#'---|---d'---|--eb'--|--e'--|-f'--|-f#'|-g'-
g ||----ab----|----a----|---bb---|--b----|--c'--|-c#'-|-d'-|-eb'
d ||----eb----|----e----|---f----|--f#---|--g---|-ab--|-a--|-bb-
A ||----Bb----|----B----|---c----|--c#---|--d---|-eb--|-e--|-f--
E ||----F-----|----F#---|---G----|--Ab---|--A---|-Bb--|-B--|-c--

How to use this? Say you need to play a B flat minor (Bbm) chord. From the chart, you can see that you have a Bb at the first fret of the fifth string and at the sixth fret of the sixth string. Thus, you can either play an Am shape with the “capo” — the index finger — at the first fret, or an Em shape at the sixth. Which one you choose is up to you.

A few comments on some of the other shapes:

  • I’ve indicated that you should use the ring- and little fingers for the Em/Em7/A7 shapes. With those chord types, you are in the fortunate situation that you can use the long finger to give extra support to the index finger. This is probably something that will happen automatically, and that is perfectly fine.
  • For the A/Am shapes, I have not said anything about the sixth string. In the long run, it will be best to let the index finger go all the way — you are going to need that last bass tone eventually, for fullness of sound and for alternating bass. For now, however, you are allowed to use only the five strings.
  • For the A shape, there is another alternative:
    |1---1     |1---1     
    ------     ------     
    ||||||     ||||||     
    ------ or  ------     
    ||444|     ||333|     
    ------     ------     
    ||||||     ||||||     
            
           "A"      
    

    A double barre! If it looks insane at first, don’t worry. Personally I use the little finger version most of the time. Again, it doesn’t really matter if the first string is muted (accidentally or on purpose), and should you happen to play

    |1---1     
    ------     
    ||||||     
    ------     
    ||4444     
    ------     
    ||||||     
          
     "A"  
    

    that’s not anything you’ll hang for either.

  • It is perhaps a bit mean to introduce the C shape at this stage. I know it took me a long time to get comfortable with it. Sadly, there are chords where that’s just about the only viable alternative. E/g# is one (476454 in shorthand); the only alternative is just as bad (422100, with some little finger acrobatics and plenty of chances to get it wrong).

Tom Thumb’s Blues

Using the index finger is not the only way to play these chords. You can also use the thumb.

I said earlier on that according to classical guitar teaching, the thumb should stay in the lower half of the neck, and actually using it to play something is reason for excommunication.

If your goal is to spend yor musical carreer sitting down with a guitar between your legs, then feel free to follow this. It has its merits: it allows your fingers maximum mobility.

But if you want to stand up once in a while, slide back in your couch, play in the back seat of a bus, etc., then get that thumb working!

The “thumb F” is much easier on the hand than the barre version. Start with the “extended Dm7 and bring your thumb up from behind the neck to play the sixth string on the first fret:

x              
======    ====== 
||||11    T|||11 
------    ------ 
|||2|| -> |||2|| 
------    ------ 
|34|||    |34||| 
                 

If you have a small thumb, you may complain and say that it can’t be done. That may be the case, but before you give up: You don’t need to twist the thumb all the way around and up on the fret board. It takes surprisingly little pressure — almost just a touch — to get the right tone.

This chord shape is a perfect candidate for cheating: if it seems like too much to play the mini-barre with the index finger and get the thumb around at the same time, then just let the index finger mute the first string:

     x    
====== 
T|||1| 
------ 
|||2|| 
------ 
|34||| 
                 

Some people also play the “Am shape” with the thumb:

     
====== 
TT|||1 
------ 
||||2| 
------ 
||34|| 
       

That’s way beyond me — my thumb is much too short and stiff — but if you can do it, do it!

Other movable chord shapes

The fewer open strings there are in a chord, the more freely you can move it around. The barre chords where all the strings are fingered, are the main exponents of this, but other chord shapes go in the same direction, and can be used higher up on the fretboard, with some care.

C7 is the best example. the four middle strings are covered, and that’s good enough as long as you stay away from the outer strings when you play. Thus, you can produce a D7 with a slightly different sound character by moving C7 two frets up and mute the first string:

x    x 
====== 
|||||| 
------ 
|||||| 
------ 
||||1| 
------ 
||2||| 
------ 
|3|4|| 
------ 
  D7   

Incidentally, if you do play the open first string as well, the chord you get is called D9. The chords-with-strange-names will be the topic of a later post.

And if you move it up yet another two frets, with the index finger in the fifth fret on the second string, you get E7. And lo and behold! Here, you can use all the strings, since the tone on the outer strings is e. This shape is a wonderful, full-bodied alternative to the first-position E7 (020100).

Incidentally, it goes very well together with A played with an E shape thumb chord at the fifth fret (577655): the ring finger is already in place on the fifth string, the index finger is where it should be on the second string, and the other two fingers fall easily in place.
This A, in turn, can be simplified to 007650, since A on the open fifth string is the keynote, and e is a legitimate member of the chord.

D7 and C are other possible candidates to be moved upwards, although they are not as versatile as C7 and the pure barre/thumb chords.

A final note about shapes

You may remember that I have recommended to play C with
the shape 332010

   o o
====== 
||||1| 
------ 
||2||| 
------ 
34|||| 
------ 
  C

This is not only because of the better sound, or because it can then be moved more easily, since four strings are covered, but for economical reasons: the shape of the three fingers is the same as in the E shape and the Am shape. You should see the advantage immediately once you start playing songs in C major, where you are bound to alternate between F and C quite a lot. With this C shape, all you need to do is to bend down your thumb a little to get it to the sixth string, and then shift the block of fingers one string down. You can do that whole operation almost without moving your hand at all. Compare that with the “simpler” C shape (x32010) and the full barre F, which takes a lot more energy and requires you to move the hand around a lot:

======     ======         
||||1|     1----1         
------     ------         
||2|||     |||2||         
------     ------         
|3||||     |34|||         
------     ------         
  C          F            

There are other shapes that reappear in several different chords. Here’s just a sample, without comments, just to have them in one place, and let you familiarize you with the idea…:

||1|||    ||||||    ||||||    ||||||                  
------    ------    ------    ------                  
||||2|    |1|2||    ||1|2|    ||1|2|                  
------    ------    ------    ------                  
|||3|4    ||3|4|    |||3|4    |3|4||                  
------    ------    ------    ------                  
||||||    ||||||    ||||||    ||||||                  


||||||    ||||||    ||||||    ||||||             
------    ------    ------    ------             
|||1||    ||||1|    |||||1    |||1||             
------    ------    ------    ------             
||2|3|    |||2||    ||||2|    ||2|||             
------    ------    ------    ------             
||||||    ||3|||    |||3||    |3||||             


||||||    ||||||    ||||||                  
------    ------    ------                  
||1|||    |||||1    |||||1                  
------    ------    ------                  
||||||    ||||||    ||||2|                  
------    ------    ------                  
|3||||    ||||3|    ||||||                  

A final note about rhythms

Why would one play, say the A–E7 combination at the fifth fret with barre/thumb chords, when they are so easy to play in the first position, with all the nice, open strings?

Other than variation, the main reason is: rhythm. The great thing about a barre chord is that you can easily mute it. In any kind of music with a snappy rhythm, such as swing jazz, rock’n’roll, etc., you would want to have short, crisp chords. That is much easier to accomplish with barre chords than with chords with open strings. Strike the strings with the right hand, then immediately loosen the grip on the strings in the left hand so that the strings are muted.

Once you get a hang of it, you have a wonderful rhythmical device at hand, which extends the capabilities of the guitar further over towards the drum kit.

All the Lessons

[catlist name=Lessons numberposts=150 order=asc orderby=date excludeposts=419]


5 thoughts on “Learn to Play the Guitar in Two Weeks, Day 7: Barre chords

  1. I came back to this site to look for that old LaTeX article, but you write so well I thought I’d check out the rest of what you’ve got here. I just started learning guitar like three weeks ago this is incredibly opportune timing. I can’t believe how I was playing D Major before.

  2. That’s funny — I tend to think of this blog as a musicians’ place with a few tech-posts (perhaps to lure the musicians into thinking about tech stuff…) — you are the first person I’ve heard from who has gone the other way. In fact, the first tech-person who as read any of the other posts at all…

    Just out of curiosity: how were you playing D major before?

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