One of the best things that you can do to advance to the next level with your guitar playing is learning how to properly play barre chords.
They are commonly found in almost all styles of music, and having a good grasp on how to play them (and play them correctly) will significantly enhance all that you can do with the instrument.
That being said, barre chords often get a bit of a bad rap, especially with most beginners. That’s because they can be a little challenging to pull off without some substantial practice time.
Tricky? Yeah. Impossible? Nope – not at all!
We’re going to take a quick overview of what a barre chord is, what the benefits of learning them are, and some tips and tricks that’ll help make sure you’re playing them the right way.
What is a barre chord, and how are they different from open chords?
Most beginners are familiar with what are called ‘open chords.’ These are chords that are played down near the nut, with a key characteristic being that one or more strings are played open (that is, without having a finger put on a fret higher up the neck). That, plus each finger’s sole purpose in life is to fret only one note. Below is the most common fingering for an open D chord:
Pretty simple, right?
A barre chord is a different way of playing the same chord. They come in six primary forms, as shown below:
The main difference is that, with barre chords, you use one (or more) of your fingers to hold down more than one string at a time.
But why would you choose to play a barre chord over an open chord, especially if playing an open chord might be easier?
Positioning on the neck
Depending on the song you’re playing, it might be inconvenient to have to jump all over the neck. Using our D chord as an example, if you’re wailing away on a solo above the 12th fret, it’s a lot easier to hit that D chord by using a barre formation at the 10th fret as compared to going all the way down by the nut to play the open D formation.
Flexibility and movability
Take a good look at the barre chord diagrams above. Do you notice anything familiar about them?
The second one, the A shape looks like an open A chord, except your 1st finger, acts as the nut (note that the low E string isn’t meant to be played). The first diagram, the A shape, looks like an open E chord, but in that case, your first finger acts as the nut.
Why is this a big deal? It means that both chord forms are movable, meaning you can use the same exact fingering pattern on different frets to play different chords.
Take the D chord form that has your 1st finger on the 5th fret. Move that same formation up two frets, and you have an E chord. Move it down three frets, and you have a B chord. The same concept holds true for the other fingering pattern (the one that starts at the 10th fret). Take that same shape down 5 frets, and you have an A chord. Move up to the 8th fret, and you have a C chord.
Keeping this all in mind, you can see that barre chords are amazingly flexible. They offer a great way to play the chords you need at different positions all over the neck.
How to play a barre chord
All of that’s great, but aren’t barre chords hard to play?
We won’t sugar coat it here – yes, they can be tricky to play the right way when you first try to do it. It may feel a bit unnatural to have one finger hold down several strings simultaneously, and it will take some getting used to.
Here are a few tips for you to help move things along:
Use the right grip on the neck.
Having your fretting hand in the right position will make a massive difference in how well you can play a barre chord. Our recommendation is to make sure your thumb is placed firmly on the back of the neck to help you get the right pressure.
Don’t go too hard
Speaking of pressure, a common mistake among beginners is to use too much finger pressure. It’s understandable; you’re trying to fret all of those strings, and you may think that the best way to do it is to press down as hard as you can.
In reality, too much pressure can be a bad thing. Not only will it tire your hand out, but you may also actually make your strings go sharp by pushing down too much (this is more common with electric guitars that have thinner strings than an acoustic). Over time you’ll learn what just the right amount of finger pressure is – but it most likely will take some trial and error at the start.
Play one string at a time
One of the biggest problems with playing barre chords is making sure that all of the notes ring out properly. An excellent way to ensure that you’re fretting the strings correctly is to play each note of the chord, one at a time. Let each one ring out. If you hear some muffled or dead notes, you’ll know that you’re doing something wrong.
That being said, if you have some dead notes when you’re first trying to tackle them, don’t fret about it (pun entirely intended). As a heads up, you may be more likely to muffle a few notes when you’re trying to play a song and are switching from one chord to another.
Make it a personal goal to be able to switch between different barre chords with ease. Practice shifting from chord to chord by starting out slowly and then building up your speed as you get better and better over time.
Ensure your guitar does not have setup problems. In short, this means that the guitar has had all its adjustments optimized by an experienced luthier. A guitar set up correctly will be as easy to play as possible by ensuring the action is correct. Correct action means the strings are set at the optimal height above the frets along the fretboard’s entire length for the player’s requirements.
If the action is too high, fretting notes and chords will be difficult, making the guitar hard to play. Action which is too low may result in string buzz, this occurs when the strings are coming into contact with the frets when played.
Having a solid understanding of what barre chords are, how they work, and developing the right techniques to play them properly is a skill set that just about every guitar player will need to master to advance past the beginner level. They are extremely useful in multiple genres, and you’ll find them in tons of your favorite songs.
While learning to play them is critical, the simple fact is that barre chords aren’t the easiest thing in the world to play. But you can get them right – it’ll just take some patience on your part. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t play them perfectly right out of the gate – take it slow at the start and build your skill over time. The next thing you know, you’ll be ripping them out like a seasoned pro!
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