Most new guitarists begin their training by learning and practicing the usual standard 10 – 20 open chords such as E,D,G,A, Am,F,Dm etc.
Once proficient with these, many players tend to stay within the confines of these open chords at the lower end of the fret board and never venture past the 3rd or 4th fret into the middle and upper sections of the guitar. This caged mentality effectively renders 3/4 of your guitar useless, stifles your creative ability and makes playing just about every song in the book extremely difficult.
Often the reason beginners find it hard to move beyond these open shapes is the fear of tackling the dreaded bar or barre chord.
When first introduced to the bar chord, most players find the actual concept of them very easy to understand and suddenly being able to create 15 different chords with one simple shape seems almost too good to be true. Changing that first E bar chord shape to an Am bar and then an A shape bar suddenly presents a beginner with a ridiculous amount of chords at their disposal in the space of three simple shapes.
E Shaped Bar Chord
Am Shaped Bar Chord
A Shaped Bar Chord
The versatility of these chords often prove to be somewhat of a revelation for guitarists but they also pose one or two problems that cause many people to avoid them. This can really affect a players progress.
To a beginner it is the actual hand strength necessary to fret and maintain these new bar shaped chords that pose the main problem. If you are inexperienced at fretting bar chords your hands will not be strong enough to hold them for more than a few seconds at a time and this can also be a painful experience. People instantly label them a nightmare after playing them for a few days and then give up, leaving them for the ‘experts’ and revert back to their easier and more familiar open chords.
This is not good. Probably 90% of modern songs contain some form of bar chord at some point in their progressions while many songs comprise either totally or mostly of bar chords. Not being able to use them will seriously affect your ability to progress past a very basic level of playing.
The simple fact is the muscles a player requires to fret a bar chord greatly differ from the ones required to fret your average open chord, so the fact that you are now straining previously unused muscles means that for the first couple of weeks when trying to get to grips with them, you will most certainly find very tiring on your hands and to a certain extent painful.
This new pain barrier tends to put off a lot of beginner players who simply back off from the bar chord and never progress any further.
The one thing a guitarist faced with this problem needs to know is that by sticking with them and practicing these shapes on a daily basis for 10 – 20 minutes a day, within a couple of weeks your hand muscles will rapidly grow to adapt to these new positions and what seems like a massive issue for you initially, will quickly fade into obscurity and become a complete breeze.
Remember how difficult fretting simple open chords were when you first started playing the guitar. After a while as your hand and finger strength grew they became second nature and so will your bar chords.
Once your muscles strengthen and become accustomed to bar chords you will have broken through a major guitar playing barrier and stepped up to a new level of playing from which you will never look back.
Within a month or so from learning your first bar chord and practicing them regularly you will be playing with ease, all over the fret board with absolutely no pain or strain whatsoever. This will enable you to reach out across the guitar and play just about any chord you want, wherever you wish with the minimum of fuss.
One of the best things about bar chords is the fact that when you are presented with a tab or song sheet that has some really dodgy chords in the progression like this C#m7 shown below.
or this C#m7 which you wouldn’t have a hope in hell of playing unless you were an experienced player
you can quickly and easily change the chord into something nicely manageable like this C#m7 bar chord.
This is simply an Am7 shaped chord with a bar in front of it, played 4 steps (semi tones) up . ie. Am7-A#m7-Bm7-Cm7-C#m7.
Most players with a bit of bar chord practice should be able to hit this chord with out too much trouble. Not so with the two above it.
You will often find that in most song or tab books, you will always be required at some point to pull off some ridiculously difficult chord by the guys who tabbed the song. They don’t care whether it is right or wrong or how the original artist would play the chord, they just stick any old shape down so they can finish the tab and get on with the next one.
You will generally find the original artist pulls off the chord in a much easier shape or position somewhere else up the fret board to enable the song to be played without too much trouble and in a live situation with ease.
Probably the most common bar chord application is the simple F chord.
F Bar chord
I have lost count how many times I have seen learner guitarists struggle with simple songs by trying to play chord progressions that contain the F major. The book or tab they are following will have shown the F chord as being an open F like the one shown below.
When in actual fact the correct F to play in the situation would be the F bar chord version.
The open F chord is much more difficult to play, sounds much lighter and is more awkward to reach than the bar chord F. The barred F chord has a much thicker more powerful sound, is easily accessible from the other chords in the surrounding area and is used more frequently in modern pop and rock songs than it’s twin.
If you try playing simple songs like ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ or ‘Sonnet’ from bands like The Verve and many others using the open F, you’ll find that the chord will not sound right and will just make the song much harder to play.
When you are confronted with a difficult chord in a tab or song book, most of the time you will be able to simplify the chord shown by substituting it with it’s alternative bar chord version. This is the way most musicians play and write songs.
Another great reason to learn bar chords is they are very useful when you’re trying to learn a song with complex picking patterns written by another artist. A player who is unaware of the usual bar chord patterns will spend hours working out fingering positions for the song when in actual fact the tune is often derived from picking different strings in simple bar chord shapes.
Take the Radiohead song Creep. The whole picking pattern throughout the main verses of the song although initially seems complex is simply 3 bar chords being picked across different strings and in different positions up the neck.
Huge numbers of songs rely on this technique and when you begin to understand how bar chords work and are used in song writing you will have a huge advantage over those who shy away from them.
If you really want to get ahead with your playing and make life easy for yourself then get stuck into your bar chords as soon as possible.
Start with your E and A and Am shapes first as shown at the top of this page, then move onto your minor, minor 7ths, 7th and 7sus4 shapes by simply removing a finger or two from each shape to create different types of seventh. Once you get the idea you will find hundreds of chords come easily.
The example below shows the F major bar chord and how easy it is to create minors, sevenths and minor seventh chords by removing a finger or two from the main F shape.
F Bar Chord
F minor Bar Chord
F minor 7 Bar Chord
F7 Bar Chord
These shapes can be transposed into any key by moving them up the fret board to any position you like.
Move on to the Am and A shapes after these and see how your chord vocabulary expands with no effort at all.
Implementing Bar Chords With Open Chords
Once you get the hang of fingering your bar chord shapes and moving between them it is important that you then become proficient at moving from open chords to bar chords and back again. Once you can achieve this there will be nothing to stop you and the fret board will become a place that you can truly express yourself. It will also get you thinking ‘out of the box’ and open up new dimensions to your playing.
Start slowly using chord progressions in close proximity to each other, eg. Open G, Open D, Bar Bm, Open A and repeat etc.
Finding an easy song that has good movement between open and bar chords in the main verses and chorus such as David Gray’s ‘Night Blindness’, which is full of B minors, or a song with loads of F majors in it like a typical Verve song will help you get your positioning right. Once you can hit F’s and B minors from any open chord you can then move up the fret board and become more adventurous between chord changes.
Try and hit the B minor (below) and F major bar chords from various different open chords
Just remember, once you crack this technique you will be well on your way to becoming a good solid guitar player.
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