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Guitar barre chords

Updated on May 2, 2016

Some Good News

You can get by without barre chords, and usually I won't really use them at all in the course of a gig. Once you understand the concept, which is important, there are many ways to avoid using them. Rock rhythm guitar sounds better with power or 5 chords, due to the way amp distortion works on chords, and jazz guitar requires 3 or 4-note chords - check out my hub Guitar-advanced and jazz chords.

I'll avoid them so I can play for longer periods without putting strain on my left hand and use my thumb over the neck as detailed below.

My new hub Guitar Chords - barre shapes tips has more info on this, with chord grids and photos. It will explain more clearly some of the concepts around replacing barre chords.


Barre chords are essential if you want to really progress on guitar, but they are a real hurdle for the beginner to overcome. Put your first finger across all the strings, projecting slightly over the edge. Now move your thumb behind the neck until it's pointing back at the headstock, the rest of your hand is off the neck, just form a clamp between thumb and first finger. Now add an E shape with your other fingers, then try an Em shape too.

This will be easier if you move up the fretboard to fret 5, as the frets get smaller. There are bound to be some buzzes at first, but try to get the lowest 4 strings (lowest in pitch) coming out cleanly. This will get you by for the moment.

The sign for a barre chord is a loop over several strings (see below) - this means play all these strings with your first finger. It's a picture of your first finger but only if you are very, very thin.

The first line of shapes are the ones to learn, and will cover any song in any key as you move them up the neck.

There are two major shapes and two minor shapes.

Barre chords for guitar

Learning chords

Play the root 6 G chord: an E shape , barre on fret 3, then move up to

fret 5 =A

fret 7 =B

fret 8 =C

You can play minor chords for the same root notes by changing the shape to Em.

If you find barre chords a problem, here is one solution. Flatten your first finger over strings 1 and 2 (E and B) and make an E shape with your other fingers, then put your thumb over the neck to fret string 6. You should learn this grip anyway, as it has many advantages over the standard way. Not least, it will help you play for longer periods and give your hand a rest.

Root 5 chords

Chords with a root 5 bass note - use Am and A shapes. Do not barre the sixth string (low E) and just play strings 1-5. I've listed the notes and fret numbers for string 5 - starting with open A, then A sharp or B flat, then B, then C. When you reach C you'll recognise it as the lowest note of a C chord, at least I hope you will 'coz otherwise we're in trouble!

This note sequence needs to be memorised, but it won't take long.

Just like root 6 based chords, you can use the thumb over the neck technique.

The following examples start from string 1.

5 6 7 7 5 - thumb does fret 5 on the A string: Dm We're not using string 6 at all. Cm will be down 2 frets.

Tried but failed

There's a song by the Smiths which goes: "we tried but we failed, we tried but we failed, we tried - but we failed."

If you've tried barre chords and Heaven Knows You're Miserable Now, just use a capo. The capo used to be seen as a crutch for the indifferent guitarist, but really it's an essential bit of kit.

If you need to play in a flat key such as F, it's easier to use a capo at fret 1 and play chords in E. Similarly, if the music is in B flat, capo at fret 1 and play in A. For E flat capo at fret 1 and play in D.

Most of the best groups have never been averse to using a capo. Including The Beatles, The Eagles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor.

A capo is a nice gift idea for a guitar player, also the books listed below are really useful.


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    • profile image

      Simon 6 years ago

      The e-shape bar chord isn't that bad all it takes is to play every day. I can't not play every day.

    • phoenix482010 profile image

      phoenix482010 7 years ago from Cobourg Ontario Canada

      great tips ,i,ve been playing for years ,and barre chords are hard for me because i have short fingers, and thick fingers which like u said makes it a lot harder to play ,thanks for the thumb tip.....

    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 7 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Hi - the thing is, some people have small hands/fingers, and that makes it harder - as opposed to Hendrix for example, who had massive hands. Whatever works, stick with it.

    • Guitar Geek profile image

      Guitar Geek 7 years ago from Newcastle Upon Tyne

      Hi. I'm not so sure why everyone think barre chords are hard. Sure I struggled with them for a month or two, but now I use them all the time, and I'm just a kid. I'm so glad you told me that you are supposed to point your thumb to the headstock because for about 7 months I've thought I'd developed a bad habbit doing that... sooo thanks.

    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 7 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Hi Jane - nearly always, it's the thumb position that's wrong. Try pointing it towards the headstock, halfway across the bottom of the neck. The other way is to play the F and G barre shape in the diagram, covering strings 1 and 2 with first finger, and 6 with your thumb.If any four strings are sounding clear, it's going to work.

    • Jane Bovary profile image

      Jane Bovary 7 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Hi Jon..... I didn't realise the capo used to be frowned upon. Not that I care, I use mine all the time. Purists!

      It took me an eternity to get a grip on barre chords...I was beginning to think there was something wrong with my fingers! Even now there's a couple I have trouble with and can't seem to get a totally clear sound with. I'll be trying the thumb tip. Thankyou...

    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 8 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Hi - I think it's good, if not essential, to be able to use both approaches. But 3-note chords get around the problem anyway.

    • profile image

      Another Green 8 years ago

      I learned barre chords by using my thumb. It helped me master (ok maybe not master, it's been a few months) barres faster than some of my friends. However, i plan on shifting to the conventional 1st finger style. I hear it's a lot more feasible playing them in that manner in some select genres.

    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 8 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Hi. For an easy B chord,starting in fret 2: flatten first finger on strings 5 to 1, use little finger to play an A shape in fret 4. So you have a partial barre in fret 2, with an A shape on top.

    • Garnet Greene profile image

      Garnet Greene 8 years ago from Lovely Town, USA

      I'm going to try the "thumb" hint you share here. I'm starting up, again, with my guitar after a couple years of not playing. I have vowed to master barre chords and B chords this time around. I know that for the casual player barre chords really are the "keys to the kingdom." I don't aspire to jazz phrasing, etc.

    • Jon Green profile image

      Jon Green 8 years ago from Frome, Somerset, UK

      Yes- they're really a big hurdle for most people. Now I never use them at all!

    • tyrrell123 profile image

      tyrrell123 8 years ago from Yorkshire, England

      My god, barre chords drove me mad for months when I started out with them. I just couldn't progress with them... Like a dog with a bone, I persisted got my guitar setup by a pro and put some lighter strings on and stuck with it. Eventually I began to improve but my guitar nearly ended up in a million pieces on numerous occaisions.