Playing And Understanding Bar Chords

Once you have gained confidence playing open chords, the next thing to tackle in the chord department is Bar Chords. Bar chords are a very powerful and useful tool on the guitar. A bar chord involves ‘barring’ a finger (usually the 1st) so that the one finger is playing multiple strings at once. Because bar chords contain no open notes, they are movable up and down the fretboard. This means that if you learn to play a major shape (for example), you can play it in as many different positions as possible. The hand strength required to play bar chords is much more than for open chords, so at first, it will probably feel very uncomfortable. It is very easy to get discouraged when starting out with bar chords. Try not to expect too much at the start. Just go through the motions of playing the shapes and know that if you practice them every day, you will soon see great progress.

Main Chord Types:

There are 4 main types of bar chords:

Major – Dominant 7 – Minor – Minor 7

Remember, major is always the default chord. It is not necessary to say “A Major”. You can just say “A”. Dominant 7 gets abbreviated to ‘7’ (for example, A7). Minor is abbreviated to ‘m’ (for example,  Am) and Minor 7 is abbreviated to ‘m7’ (for example, Am7).

There are also essentially 2 different main ‘groups’ of bar chords. 1 group is played with the root note on the 6th string (E). The other group is played with the root note on the 5th string (A). These are refered to as ‘root 6’ bar chords and ‘root 5’ bar chords. We are going to look at Major, Dominant 7, Minor and Minor 7 shapes for both root 6 and root 5 bar chords. Therefor, we will be looking at 8 shapes in total:

Bar Chords - Root 6 - Major

Root 6 – Major

Bar Chords - Root 6 - Dominant 7

Root 6 – Dominant 7

Bar Chords - Root 6 - Minor

Root 6 – Minor

Bar Chords - Root 6 - Minor 7

Root 6 – Minor 7

Bar Chords - Root 5 - Major

Root 5 – Major

Bar Chords - Root 5 - Dominant 7

Root 5 – Dominant 7

Bar Chords - Root 5 - Minor

Root 5 – Minor

Bar Chords - Root 5 - Minor 7

Root 5 – Minor 7

Knowing Your Root Notes

Remember, all of these shapes can be played anywhere on the neck, so it is important to know what the root notes are for any position. For example, if you play the first shape (root 6 Major) with the bar in the 1st fret, you would be playing an F major chord. If you were to play the exact same shape but on the 7th fret, you would now be playing a B major chord. Obviously knowing the notes along the neck for the 6th string and 5th string is essential for understanding this.

The following tables show which note corresponds to each fret on the 6th and 5th strings:

Notes On The 6th String

Notes On The 6th String

Notes On The 5th String

Notes On The 5th String

It should be pointed out that I haven’t included sharps and flats in this table, that’s because it is easier to learn the natural notes and then figure out where the sharps and flats are. For example, if G is on the 3rd fret of the 6th string, G# will be on the 4th fret. If D is on the 5th fret of the 5th string, Db is on the 4th fret. And so on. It’s quite simple, # (sharp) moves up a fret and b (flat) moves down a fret.

With the information in these tables, you can play any of the above shapes in all 12 keys. Just to clarify, let’s do another example. If we wanted to play B7, we would have 2 options. B7 in the form of a root 6 chord, or B7 in the form of a root 5 chord. If we were to play a root 6 chord, we would look at the notes on the 6th string and see that on the 6th string, the note B occurs on the 7th fret. Therefor, to play B7 as a root 6 chord, we would play the Dominant 7 shape (2nd chord in the list) and play it on the 7th fret. If we wanted to play B7 as a root 5 chord, we would look at the table for the 5th string and see that B occurs on the 2nd fret of the 5th string. Therefor, we would play the other Dominant 7 shape (6th chord in the list) on the 2nd fret.

As you can see, there are a lot of chords available to us now. Just within the first 12 frets, you have 8 different shapes that can be played in 12 different positions. That’s 96 chords!

Memorizing the shapes and positions is actually easier than it may seem at first. You should try to memorize the 8 shapes as quickly as possible and get used to playing them up and down the neck. To start with, you don’t need to be overly concerned with what key you are in or the root note you are playing. Just get used to the shapes until they start sounding clear enough to potentially use in a song. Once you are starting to get the hang of the shapes, that’s when you will want to get familiar with the positions. To do this, all you really need to do is learn simple songs and use bar chords instead of open chords. Practice playing a 3 chord song and use bar chords for each of the 3 chords. After you have played a few songs in this way, you will find that you are remembering where all of the root notes occur without having to refer to the tables.

If you want to speed up the memorization process, read the following post, how to know every note on the fretboard.


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About Genaaron Diamente

I play guitar. I teach guitar. I like making music. I'm trying to build this site up to be a valuable resource for guitar students and teachers.

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