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Guitar Chords and Barre Chords Guide

Updated on December 22, 2021
Jon Green profile image

For many years I taught guitar in college, building up a lot of experience in problem solving on guitar!

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.

Summary: you need to learn barre chord shapes to understand the guitar, but you can dispense with them in the longer term. Partly because less is more, and three and four note chords often sound better, and are also much easier to integrate into single note solos.


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 ifyou 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.

Why not start with the F chord at fret 1? Because it's the hardest to play, and may well lead to discouragement!

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. I think that Jimi Hendrix used this thumb over the neck approach.

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.

Barre chords, key of C, Key of E

Chords in C, chords in E

Picture above shows harmonised scales, root 5 and root 6 shapes.

Any song in the key of C will use combinations of these chords (first line) and any song in the key of E will use the chords in line 2.

All the other keys work the same way, just the starting point will change.

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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