How to Play Barre Chords without Suffering

A step by step way to learn barre chords on guitar with no pain in the process

You think that’s hard? Wait until you learn how to play barre chords.

Many beginner guitar students hear statements like this, or harrowing stories from other students who tried to learn barre chords and found them painful on the wrist and/or the thumb, or even impossible to play.

The truth is that while barre chords are a pretty tough challenge for beginners, no technique is hard to acquire if you practice it correctly and break it down into small steps.

And no guitar technique should ever be painful. Pain is an indication that you’re doing something wrong.

In this lesson I will give you a step by step process to learn barre chords on the guitar but before we start, let’s clarify some things.

What is a barre chord?

The first chords you learn on the guitar are open chords. This means there is one or more strings in the chord that is played open. This makes them easier to learn.

Barre chords require the index finger of the left hand to press all the strings, while the rest of the fingers form the shape of the chord.

The following is the diagram for the A major barre chord. All the strings of the 5th fret are pressed by the index finger. The ring finger and the pinkie press the 7th fret while the middle finger presses the 6th fret.

Try playing it. You’ll probably find it hard to get all the notes to sound right. Maybe just one or two notes sound right, or even none.

Don’t let this worry you because we’re going to break this into small steps.

Why learn barre chords?

Barre chords may be a though nut but once you get them right, your options in guitar playing and songwriting increase significantly.

This is because unlike open chords, barre chords are moveable.

The shapes for G and A major open chord are different. However the G major and the A major barre chord share the exact same pattern, as do all other major chords that start on the same string.

This is the G major barre chord. It’s exactly like the A major given above with the barre on the third fret.

barre-chords-2

Once you’re fluent in playing barre chords, you can play many more chords with fewer shapes.

Barre chords on acoustic vs. electric guitar

Barre chords are easier to play on an electric guitar than on an acoustic, thus if you have the choice, I suggest that you learn them on the electric guitar first.

If you’re a strictly acoustic guitar player, don’t worry, you will still learn barre chords. The process may be a bit longer.

This brings us to the next point.

Learning barre chords is a process

The hardest way to learn barre chords is to put everything else on hold while practicing them.

Rather, you should keep practicing other things (open chords, songs, scales etc) and allocating some time for barre chords during every practice session.

Give barre chords time and keep improving in other areas as you do so. These will leave a ripple effect on your barre chords.

For instance, the more fluent you get in changing between open chords, the easier it will be to change between barre chords.

The strength and stretch you develop in other areas of practice will make the barre chords easier. So on and so forth.

Another reason why you should do this is that if you practice barre chords for a long stretch of time, it’s more likely they’ll begin to hurt. Thus it’s better to practice barre chords frequently but for a short duration.

If you practice barre chords regularly for a period of time, the penny will drop – with no pain in the process.

If you try to push yourself to learn to play barre chords fluently in a week or less, you’re likely to be disappointed.

Note: I can’t give you a timeline for how long it should take you to learn how to play barre chords fluently. There are too many variables that determine this including your age, the size of your hands and how long you have been practicing the guitar.

That said, you shouldn’t even be worrying about how long it takes since you’re learning other things and improving on the guitar anyway.

Next, we’ll go into the steps to learn barre chords without any pain!

Step 1: Know what you’re playing

Before you start playing barre chords you need to know what these chords are: their shape, and how to find them on the fretboard.  

The first part of this step is to memorize name of the notes on the low E and A string on the guitar fretboard. (I suggest memorizing the name of the notes on all the strings, but for the purpose of playing barre chords, E and A will do).

The second part is learning the shapes of the barre chords.

These are the same as those for major or minor open chords starting on the same string.

The barre chords of A and G major I gave you above, have the root note on the E string, thus they share the same shape of the E major open chord.

If we want to change from say, A major to A minor, we just remove the middle finger from the chord – as we would to change from E major to E minor in open position.

barre-chords-3

If the barre chords start from the A string, they take the same shapes as the open A major and A minor chords.

The following are the chords of D major and D minor barre chords with the root note on the 5th fret of the A string.

barre-chords-4

With just these four shapes, you can play every major and minor chord in two positions of the fretboard.

Now that you know where to find barre chords on the fretboard, let’s start working on making them sound right.

Step 2: Change open chord fingerings

Though barre chords share the same shapes as open chords, you cannot play them using the same fingerings since you need the index finger for the barre.

Thus in this step you will play open chords with the fingers you would use if you were playing a barre.

These are the barre chord fingerings applied to open E major and E minor.

These are the barre chord fingerings for A major and A minor.

Note: To play the A major open chord you were probably using your index, middle and ring finger. As a barre chord, this chord shape is usually played by applying a second barre with the ring finger. The reason is that higher up on the guitar fretboard the distance between the frets gets thinner and at some point there wouldn’t be enough space for all your fingers.

Tip: When playing A major shape barre chords with a second barre you may find it hard to get the last note to sound right. If that’s the case, you can simply not play it or play it dead. You’ll get the sound of the chord anyway.

barre-chords-6

Practice changing between these four chords using the given fingerings.

Step 3: Playing the barre chords

The next step is to introduce the barre.

Many students learn the barre chord of F major first. The reason is that F major cannot be played as an open chord, and it also happens to be a chord that’s frequently used in songs.

This is not a good idea at all because the note F being on the first fret of the low E string means that you have to bar the first fret – the hardest fret to bar since it’s  the closest to the head of the guitar.

Thus we’re going to put the bar on the 7th fret, which gives us the chord of B major.

barre-chords-7

Play the chord one string at a time. How many strings are buzzing, or dead? By the end of the process the number should be zero, but for now, it’s OK if not all the notes are sounding right.

Note: Common sense tells us that if some notes are not sounding right, we need to press the strings harder. However, while strength has a role to play, this is usually overemphasized by guitar students.

It is more likely that your position needs some adjustments at this point, than that you’re not applying enough strength to the barre.

And guess what happens if you apply too much strength to compensate for incorrect position?

Yep, pain and suffering. You’re here to avoid that.

Step 4: Adjust your finger position

If you can play every note of the B major chord clearly every time you play it, without applying an incredible amount of strength from your wrist, congratulations.

Barre chords are almost under your belt and you should go through the following checklist just to make sure you’re doing everything right.

If there is one or more notes that still don’t sound right, you probably need to adjust the position of your fingers and your hand. 

While not all guitarists play barre chords the same way, due to variables like the size of their hands or their style of playing, the fundamentals to getting barre chords right are the same.

The following should be used as a checklist to make sure you’re playing barre chords correctly:

  • Rather than barring the frets with the fleshy part of your index finger, you should turn your finger a little towards the left so that you press the notes with the part of your finger that’s between the fleshy and the bony part of your finger.
  • Keep the barre, (as well as the other fingers) as close to the next fret as possible. Close enough as not to mute the notes. The closer you are to the fret, the less pressure you need to apply.
  • Make sure the knuckles of your ring, middle and small finger form a curve. Don’t let any of your knuckles collapse since this will create a lot of unnecessary tension on your hand.
  • Your thumb should be behind the index finger pointing up.
  • Take care of unnecessary tension. Applying more tension than necessary makes everything you do on the guitar harder.

You do need to apply pressure from your wrist to execute a barre chord, but your arm and shoulder, as well as other parts of the body such as your jaws, should be relaxed. (Reducing tension when practicing the guitar requires a study of its own. The first step is being aware of it).

If you’ve carefully checked your hand/finger position with the points above, executing barre chords should have already become easier.

They may not sound perfect yet, because though you’re doing the right things, you haven’t developed enough strength, stretch and more importantly, muscle memory.

The following exercises should help you with develop the above.

Step 5: Barre chord exercises

In the first group of exercises you’ll be playing parts of the barre on the higher strings of the guitar.

For the rest at the end of each bar, lift the pressure from your index finger without removing it from the strings, so that complete silence comes out of the strings.

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This next group of exercises is the same as the one above applied to the lower strings of the guitar.

barre-chords-9

The next exercise is a partial barre of the major chord that takes the shape of E major.

Now that you get the drift of playing partial barre chords, you can create your own and use them to fix problems with dead or buzzing strings.

Find the string that doesn’t sound right, form a partial barre chord around it and practice it like the exercises above.

In the following exercises you’ll practice pressing the whole barre chord and lifting it on time. This helps you develop muscle memory and recollect the barre chord position.

The example uses the chord of A major starting on the E string. You should apply this exercise to the other three barre chord patterns you have learned today, as well as to other patterns you will learn in the future.

barre-chords-11

If you’ve been through this whole process and still can’t get your barre chords to sound right, simply go through it again as many times as necessary.

During the process you’re building strength, stretch, and muscle memory. Thus it should feel easier ever time you go through.

The next step is to practice changing from a barre chord to another.

Step 6: Barre chord changes

Now that you can practice each barre chord in isolation, you should practice changing from a barre chord to another with ease.

The following are a few exercises to get you started. Create your own combinations to become fluent in barre chord changes.

Step 7: Other barre chords

By now you should know how to play all major and minor barre chords and fluently change between one another.

One last thing you need to know is that every chord that you play open, can also be played as a barre chord.

For instance, the following are the chords of A7 (open) and D7 (barre).

barre-chords-13

Conclusion: Where to go from here

Once you can play both open and barre chords, the amount of chords you can learn on the guitar can run into thousands.

However, how many chords you should learn should depend on other factors such as your guitar playing goals, and the genre of music you want to play.

As you build your chord vocabulary, it’s important not to neglect other areas of guitar playing such as technique, applied music theory and fretboard mastery.

Let the number of chords you know grow with the ability to use them, along with the other elements that make a good guitar player.


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