For most guitarists, learning to play barre chords is a rite of passage from the beginner level to the land of intermediate guitar playing. These chord forms are very handy because they are 100% moveable. They are based off of open chord shapes and allow access to a huge variety of chords by memorizing a small handful of forms.
The pain of learning barre chords can be daunting on the front end but they make playing guitar much easier in the long run. Here are a few points to keep in mind when getting started with chords:
They will sound bad at first… guaranteed.
First things first: your barre chords will sound bad to start with. Don’t “fret” (pun intended)… strum them anyway. Don’t substitute your barre chords with “cheater” versions. Resist the temptation to capo everything or only choose songs with open chords. You need to accept the fact that your barre chords will sound like a muted, buzzing mess in the beginning. It’s OK. Every intermediate or advance guitarist has been there. In fact, we all respect you more for making the effort to tackle barre chords, bad notes and all. To be a legit, well-rounded guitarist, you need to do the hard work of learning and eventually mastering barre chords. When you do, the fretboard will open up and you’ll escape the prison that holds beginner guitarists in the first four frets. However, be realistic about your learning curve with barre chords. You will have to develop some new strength in your chording hand, so choose songs that only have one or two barre chords in the midst of several open chords. Practice songs with barre chords frequently and give yourself a lot of grace as you learn.
Keep your thumb beneath your forefinger.
These two fingers work together to turn your hand into a human capo. When playing open chords, it’s common for guitarists to “choke hold” the neck of the guitar with the palm of the hand. When you move into barre chords, it’s important to adjust your posture so that the thumb pushes off the back of the neck, almost directly below the forefinger as it lays across the strings. This posture pushes your hand forward and allows for better reach for the forefinger and clearance for the other fingers.
Curl fingers 2, 3 and 4.
(Note: this tip does not apply to the A major shape.) When placing the second, third and fourth fingers, it is important to avoid touching any neighboring strings. Put a nice curl in these fingers so they get good clearance and end up in the right spots. You should be able to slide a pencil between your fingers and the fretboard (almost).
Find your forefinger’s sweet spot and press down hard.
The forefinger applies pressure to five or six strings at the same time. It can be quite challenging to get even pressure across all of them. First, fine-tune the position of your forefinger. If you haven’t looked closely at your finger recently, let me remind you that it is made of three short sections connected by joints. The finger is more fleshy in the middle sections between the joints and a bit “thinner” a the joints. When fine-tuning your forefinger, you will find that you get better pressure on the strings when you slightly roll the forefinger to one side. You can also strategically place your joints over certain difficult-to-fret strings so you get a harder surface on the finger to press against the string. You may find that the strings are easier to hold down if you place the forefinger closer to the fret instead of in the middle of the space between frets. Once you find the “sweet spot” for your forefinger, press down hard! It take a substantial amount of pressure to hold down five or six strings with one finger.
Check each string for muting or buzzing.
Once you have your hand in good barre chord form, press down and pick through each string. Do you hear all of the notes or do you have muted strings? Are some of the notes buzzing? Try to troubleshoot your barre chord to get as many good notes as possible (eventually all of them). Even if all of your strings sound bad, play the chord anyway (see the first point).
Try not to break your guitar in frustration as you wrestle with barre chords. Set a realistic goal and timeline for learning to play them and work diligently to take your guitar playing to the next level. If you get bogged down with barre chords, take a break and play songs with open chords that you can rock… and build your confidence while your fingers rest.