Barre chords give the full range of possibilities in guitar playing. Don't box your guitar playing with open chords, explore more!
The chords you play so far have been formed around the open strings of the guitar. However, restricting yourself to using only these chords gives you little access to playing in many of the sharp or flat keys. The solution to this problem comes in the form of the barre chord. While a lot of music that falls under the broad category of rock can be played using only open-string chords, ignoring the full range of possibilities is rather like a painter not using colors. One solution is to use barre chords.
• Making effective use of an E-shaped barre relies totally on a good knowledge of the notes on the 6th string. If, for example, you need to play a C# major chord, then you can play an E-shaped barre with the 1st finger covering the 9th finger - so long as you already know that the 9th fret of the 6th string is C#. Here are the root notes on the 6th string:
Open string - E major
1st fret - F major
2nd fret - F#/Gb major
3rd fret - G major
4th fret - G#/Ab major
5th fret - A major
6th fret - A#/Bb major
7th fret - B major
8th fret - C major
9th fret - C#/Db major
10th fret - D major
11th fret - D#/Eb major
12th fret - E major (octave)
Chords on the Move
Barre chords are essentially open-string chord shapes that can be formed at different positions along the fingerboard. To form a barre chord, the 1st finger is stretched across the width of the fingerboard, and the remaining three fingers are used to form the chord shape. In effect, the 1st finger acts like the nut or zero fret. The great thing about barre chords is that they allow open-string chord shapes to be played in any key.
The most commonly used barre chords are variations on the E and A-shaped open-string chords. Less common are those formed around the open C and G chords - they are possible, but much trickier. Barre chord are also sometimes known as "slash" chords.
Some guitarists like the way in which open-string chords sound; others appreciate the ease with which chord changes can be made. Therefore, instead of using the 1st finger to create a barre, some choose to fit a mechanical device called a capo instead.
If a capo were to be fitted to the 5th fret, a standard open E major shape could be strummed - the resulting chord would be A major chord.
Using the Thumb
The left-hand fingering for the E-shaped barre shown above is designed to provide you with maximum flexibility to switch between playing chords and single notes. This is because the thumb is maintained firmly against the back of the neck. However, not everyone follows this rule: some guitarists can be seen using the 1st finger to barre just the top two strings - the thumb is then stretched around the back of the neck to hold down the 6th string.
Most formal tutors would consider this to be (at the very least) quite unorthodox. But this is such a bad thing? On the one hand it may make changing chord shapes a little more difficult, but it does also allow for the alteration or muting of notes on the 6th string. Those with a particularly wide fingerspan may also be able to reach over to fret the 5th string. This theoretically enables you to play rhythm with integrated moving bass parts over all six strings at the same time.
Which one is best? Frankly, both have useful advantages. A good compromise is to learn the formal positioning (which will probably be the most versatile and useful in the long-run) and then, when you're feeling particularly experimental, try out the alternative technique to see whether it has any potential uses for your own playing. There's no single, all-encompassing set of rules by which the guitar should be played - anyone claiming otherwise is likely to be an extremely inflexible, old-fashioned music teacher.
This is not intended to sound like some sort of inverted snobbery. Although the classical system can provide everything you need to become a good guitarist, you may well find other approaches or have other ideas that may be more appropriate to your own music - when that happens you should at least give them a go.
Before you can play barre chords with any fluidity you need to build up strength in your fingers. Here are some tips that might help you ease the pain.
Concetrate only on the strings you have to push down for the chord. In an E-shaped barre, because you have three other fingers at work you only need to worry about the 1st finger covering the 1st, 2nd and 6th strings. So keep your barre finger as close to the fret as possible, but you can bring a slight curve to it if makes life a little more comfortable. Also, try gently pulling the neck toward you with your fretting hand. This may keeping the fretting fingers in place a little easier.
You should also consider your guitar. If the action is poor - the strings are too far from the fingerboard - and you are using heavy-gauge strings then you're going to have your work cut out playing barre chords at all.
Efficient practice is a MUST, though. Strumming along with barre-chorded versions of your favourite music will certainly help: you'll get the best results if you find a way to make it fun.