How Barre Chords Were Born on Guitar: The Bar Chord Formula
Barre chords (also known as bar chords) are some of the most useful chords we can learn on the guitar.
We can use them to play all over the fretboard.
We can read them off a lead sheet to play with a singer or a band, or join in with a jam. And they are frequently found notated in classical guitar sheet music.
But where did they come from, and what is the logic behind them?
What is a Barre Chord?
The name ‘barre’ comes from the French. It means a bar.
In a barre chord, the first finger presses down on more than one string. We can place it on any fret, so it’s helpful to think of the finger (bar) acting as a moveable nut up and down the guitar neck.
As a reminder, the nut of the guitar is “fret zero,” near the tuning keys. It stops the strings at that point.
What is an Open Chord?
An open chord is one which uses one or more open strings, with no finger pressing that string.
They’re sometimes called ‘Cowboy Chords’, and they crop up all the time in music. Many of us are familiar with open chords like Am, E, D, G, and C.
The open chords are a foundational element of playing guitar in any style.
How To Make Barre Chords Out of Open Chords
You can make a barre chord out of any open chord you might know. You do this by changing the left-hand fingering and using the index finger in place of the open string.
How to Use an E chord Shape
For instance, take the open E major chord illustrated here.
We usually use fingers 2, 3, and 1 for the E chord. That’s three open strings and three fretted strings.
So what happens if we switch our fingers around?
If we use fingers 2, 3, and 4, we make the index finger available to become the bar.
If we then place our index finger over the nut, as if we are replacing it, we have the basis of a barre chord.
We can then move this chord anywhere on the neck as long as we keep the shape constant.
Naming the Barre Chord
The chord name changes when we move the barre chord up and down the neck. The name of the chord will be the same as the name of the note under the first finger on the sixth string. This is the ‘root’ of the chord.
The root (chord name) is marked in red on these images.
So if we put the barred finger of an E chord over fret one, the root will be F. The chord will become an F major chord.
How to Use a D Chord Shape
To convert the open D chord into a barre chord shape, we do the same thing.
We switch over fingers 1, 2, and 3, and instead use 2, 3, and 4. It’s a bit of a stretch, but we then hover our first finger over the nut. Once we’ve got that shape secure, we can move it around the guitar neck in the same way as the E chord shape.
Note that the root of a D shape barre chord is always on the fourth (D) string.
How to Use a G Chord Shape
Four-finger chords can also become barre shapes. But if we’re using four fingers, we need to get rid of one of them to free up the index finger.
If we play the G chord (shown) with our third finger on the third fret of the second string, that could be the one we remove. The chord can still exist with an open B string.
We then position our index finger over the nut, and we’ll have the correct shape to move around the fretboard.
What if I Can’t Stretch that Far?
We do have methods to make barre chords easier to play. But sometimes the stretch is too large.
So, what happens if we can’t stretch our fingers that far?
Well, these awkward stretch chord shapes (like the G chord) aren’t found in music very much.
But we do find fragments of that shape.
For instance, people often use only the top four strings of the G shape to move around the neck.
Sometimes we move only the bass strings around in the same way. They’re still part of that G shape.
And these fragmented shapes crop up all the time in classical guitar notation.
Is it the Same for Minor Chords?
It’s exactly the same for the minor chords.
If you know your minor open chord shapes, like Dm, Am, and Em, you’ll be able to turn them into barre chords and move them around.
It’s the same for 7th chords and any other open chord.
Pick a Chord: Any Chord
The beauty of barre chords is their flexibility. We simply take the open chord and convert it by barring with our first finger.
And if we know the names of the notes on the bass strings, we’ll be able to find and play barre chords in any key.
For more on bar chords, check out the full course.
Hi, I’m Allen Mathews.
I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
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