I remember it like it was yesterday. I was learning “Hotel California” by The Eagles. I had been playing guitar for a few months. And I was tired of playing “easy” songs.
I learned all the major open chords: C, A, G, E, D as well as all the minor versions. Heck I even learned some Sus chords and the famous “Hendrix” chord. So I was ready for a challenge. And I’d always wanted to learn this song. But I soon discovered something that would test my true love for guitar…
They hit me like a ton of bricks. Nothing before or since has made me feel so inferior as a guitar player. And it all started with this dang B minor. Oh how I hate you B minor. I was humming along, making progress, learning songs and enjoying myself until you showed up!
And you brought all your buddies too! Including the dreaded F Major. Barre chords were the bane of my existence for a long time. They never sounded right. There would always be a buzzing string.
I hate how the string would get caught in the crease of my finger. I’d end up pushing too hard and bending another string out of tune. Then my hand would cramp up and eventually go numb.
It was a real nightmare!
I began to think that I just wasn’t cut out for guitar. I’d see other players in the music shop play barre chords. It seemed effortless for them. But not me!
I ended up ditching Hotel California and moving onto other songs. But for many songs barre chords are unavoidable (especially for finger-picked songs). I’m ashamed to admit this but I gave up on guitar for a while. I just couldn’t get over the barre chord hump. No matter how much I practiced I never improved at playing them.
About 1 year later, I got the bug again and this time I decided to research as much as I could about playing barre chords. I went to the library and got all the guitar books I could. I scoured the internet for any info I could find. I even joined a lessons site (I’ll tell you about that later).
What I found was a complete mess. Conflicting advice. And most books gloss over barre chords as if most people don’t struggle with them. And let me tell you, most people do struggle with them. Here are some forum posts I found during my search.
So I wasn’t alone. It’s very common to struggle with barre chords. In fact, I bet the reason 90% of people give up on guitar (according to Fender) has something to do with barre chords!
Back to my research. I tried many different things. Most didn’t help me. But what did help, I focused on and used. Eventually, I developed that effortless barre chord ability. It wasn’t easy. Mostly because I had to wade through the swamp of bad info. I hope your barre chord journey is much easier than mine was.
That’s why I created this guide. I’ve put all the best barre chord tips into it. Reading this (and using it) will shorten your barre chord learning curve I promise! And when it does, leave me a comment. Now that you know my story, let’s get started!
The 4 Simple Chord Shapes that Unlock 1000’s of Songs
What are Barre chords?
They are movable chord shapes. You simply lay your index finger down across all the strings. It acts like a new “nut”. Or you could think of your index finger as a moving capo.
Then your other fingers complete the shape. This allows you to change the key of a chord. Simply move the whole shape up or down the fretboard.
Why is that so cool?
Because once you learn these 4 shapes, you effectively know 48 chords all over the neck! And these chords are used in 1000’s upon 1000’s of songs. So learning these 4 simple shapes effectively unlocks your ability to play all those songs.
That’s pretty cool! It’s rare that something so simple does so much on guitar. I know, I know, they are hard to play. We’re getting to that, keep your shirt on!
All other barre chords are built from these basic shapes. We’ll learn those at another time though. Hopefully you can see WHY these chord shapes are so powerful. And why you need to learn them to get past the beginner stage.
Barre Chord Exercise: Familiarize yourself with these shapes. Don’t play them too much though. We’ll get to that soon enough.
Next, you’ll learn how to actually finger these chords.
“5 Steps To Effortless Barre Chords”
How to practice barre chords? There are 5 steps I found that make playing barre chords much easier. I hesitate to say “effortless” but the truth is, once I made these steps automatic, they really did become effortless for me. Eventually, you won’t even think about these things when you play. But for now, make sure you are doing each of these consciously. Use this like a checklist when practicing barre chords:
Step 1: Make sure your arm is in the right spot. (Avoid the “Chicken Wing”!)
Your fret hand elbow should be in close to your body. If your arm is sticking out like a chicken wing, you’re doing it wrong. Arm posture is CRITICAL for proper barre chord playing. Luckily it’s a simple fix, but you might need to focus on this in the beginning.
Step 2: Make sure your thumb is in the right spot.
When your arm is close to your body, it brings your wrist down below the fretboard. This then makes it possible for your thumb to be directly behind your index finger on the back of the neck. There are times when you’ll grip the guitar neck like a baseball bat. Barre chord playing is not one of those times. Don’t do it!
Step 3: Use your index finger correctly.
This is a technique that most teachers don’t explain well. I’ll attempt to. You need slightly angle your index finger so that it’s not laying flat. When your index finger lays flat, the strings tend to go in the joints. And that is what causes buzzing. Rolling the index finger ever so slightly solves this buzzing problem.
Step 4: Use the correct amount of pressure (The Hulk-Strength Myth).
The fact is, you do not need super-strength to play barre chords. A certain amount of strength is required, but overdoing it is easy… and dangerous!
Here’s how to train yourself to always use the correct amount of pressure:
- First, make sure you follow steps 1-3.
- Then lay your index down on all 6 strings at the 3rd fret. Do not press, just lay it gently on the strings. Enough to mute them.
- Then begin slowly strumming. Begin to press down on the strings with your index. Do this until all the strings ring clearly.
- Then stop. Take your hand off the guitar. Reset and do it again.
This will train you to only use the amount of pressure necessary to sound the chord.
Step 5: Form the chord in this order (The “Reverse-Form” Trick!).
This one is a little counter-intuitive. When I first tried learning barre chords, I would place my index finger first, then form the rest of the chord. Don’t Do This! Instead, practice placing your middle, ring and pinky fingers first. Then lay index finger down last. Not only does this ingrain fast chord switching (something I’ll talk about later) but it also helps with big stretches like the F Major chord.
Barre Chord Exercises: Practice the “proper pressure” exercise in Step 4 for 3-5 minutes each day for the first week. Practice forming all 4 barre chord shapes “in reverse” as described in step 5. Don’t over do it. Just practice these two exercises for a total of 10 minutes each day before your regular practice.
About Guitar Setup:
I’ve helped many people learn to play barre chords this way. One thing that I need to point out is guitar string height. If your guitar isn’t “setup” correctly, the strings will be too high. This will make playing the guitar very difficult and barre chords will be impossible. If you suspect your strings might be too high, try this simple test:
Get a quarter, at the 5th fret, slide it between the fret wire and the string. If it touches that’s ok. If there’s a little bit of room that’s ok too. If you can fit 2 quarters in there then your strings are too high. Take it to your local music store and ask them to do a “setup” on it. It should cost between $50-100 at most.
NOTE: Here’s a great video I found that explains these concepts:
Quick Tips For Immediately Easier Barre Chord Playing
There are a couple of shortcuts I found that can really have an immediate impact. Think of them as little boosters to jump-start your barre chord practice!
1. Play partial chords instead of barring the full chord.
It sounds almost the same and is easier for beginners. Here are two examples:
Instead of barring, you play the upper notes. The top of the chord. This technique works for all barre chord shapes.
2. Use a Capo For Easier Practice.
If you are finding the discomfort too much to bare, this will work wonders! Buy a capo. If you don’t know what one is, I’ve included an excellent video that explains how they work.
Do all the practice exercises I laid out earlier but do them with the capo on the 1st fret. This will lower the strings even further and make practicing much easier. It’s a crutch admittedly. But it can be the difference between quitting and mastering these darn things.
Here’s a great video guitar lesson on capos and barre chords (skip to 1:01):
Here’s How Long It Takes To Learn Barre Chords
This is a common question and it’s a simple answer. If you do the barre chord exercises that I’ve shown you in this guide. And do them just 10 minutes total per day. In roughly 2 weeks you’ll start to not think about barre chords anymore.
I’ve seen it happen many times. It might take 3 weeks in certain circumstances but generally it’s 2 weeks. That’s if you practice every day. I’ve taught this method to plenty of people that don’t practice consistently and it took them much longer.
Below is the guide I hand out to my students. Print it out and practice every day for the next 2 weeks. Mark of each day as you go to track your progress.
Barre Chord Practice Challenge:
What good is all this information if you don’t use it? Here’s my challenge to you:
- Print the above sheet out
- Practice the exercises as directed every day for 2 weeks
- Leave a comment below with your progress
I can’t wait to hear about your progress!