If you’ve been strumming and playing songs using chords like G, C, D, E, and A, with maybe a couple of minor or sevenths thrown in, you’ve been playing open chords—those that use one or more open strings. Barre chords have no open strings; you play them by placing your index finger across five or six strings at once (barring them) and putting down some combination of your remaining fingers on the frets above your index finger.
It can be a challenge at first to get barre chords to sound as clear and clean as their open counterparts. But the payoff is that, unlike open chords, you can use each barre-chord shape to play 12 different chords—just by moving the shape up or down the neck. Learning barre shapes thus gives you access to the kind of out-of-the-way chords you may have run into in songbooks, with names like Bm, Ab7, F#, etc. In this lesson you’ll learn a handful of essential chord shapes and use them to play the swing favorite “After You’ve Gone.”
Your first barre chord is G major, as shown in Example 1. Your first finger covers all six strings at the third fret; your second is on fret 4 of string 3; your fourth, fret 5 of string 4; and your third, fret 5 of string 5. To see where this chord comes from, play an open-position E chord and look at where your fingers are relative to the nut of the guitar. Now place a capo at the third fret and play the same E chord above the capo. Remove the capo and play the G barre chord. Look familiar? The G barre chord is just an E shape capoed up three frets, with your first finger serving as the capo.
The same logic leads to your next two barre chords. If you lift your second finger from the G barre chord, you get a Gm barre. If you play an open-position Em chord with the capo at the third fret, you’ll see the similarity between the capoed Em and the Gm barre chord. Starting from the G chord again, remove your fourth finger and you get a G7 chord. Compare this to an open E7 chord capoed at the third fret.
These G, Gm, and G7 chords all have their root on the sixth string. The root is the foundational note of a chord that gives the chord its name. The lowest note of each of these G chords is the third-fret G on string 6. If you move any of these three shapes up or down the neck, it will become a different chord. That new chord’s name will be determined by the root, but its quality will remain the same—that is, whether it’s a major, minor, or seventh chord. For example, if you slide G7 up two frets, you get A7. It’s still a seventh chord, but the bottom note—fret 5, string 6—is A. If you slide Gm up to the eighth fret, you get a Cm chord, because the sixth-string note is C. Move a G chord down one fret for an F#/Gb chord, as the second fret of the sixth string is an F#/Gb.
Fifth-String-Root Barre Chords
There is a second distinct family of barre chords for which you only need to barre across the top five strings, as depicted at the third fret in Example 2. If you capo at the third fret and play A, Am, and the two-finger A7 chord, you can see where these barre-chord shapes come from. To play the C chord, bar strings 4–2 with your third finger and strings 5–1 with your first. If that feels awkward, you can omit the highest note, on string 1, and only play the fifth-fret note with your first finger. I would encourage you to also try the alternative fingering, with your second, third, and fourth fingers on strings 4, 3, and 2, respectively, rather than a third-finger barre covering those interior notes.
The C, Cm, and C7 chords all have their root on the fifth string, and so are called fifth-string-root chords, to distinguish them from the first three chords we learned, whose roots were on the sixth string. As you move each fifth-string-root chord up or down the neck, it will take its name from whatever note you are playing on the fifth string. For example, a C chord moved up to the sixth fret is D#/Eb, a Cm chord shifted down to the second fret is Bm, and a C7 transferred to the ninth fret is an F#7/Gb7.
Now let’s play a song. The swing standard “After You’ve Gone,” composed by Henry Creamer and Turner Layton in 1918, has been performed by numerous musicians, including Charlie Parker, Riders in the Sky, and, most notably to guitarists, Django Reinhardt and the Quintet of the Hot Club of France. The arrangement here uses all six of these shapes, and playing through it should give you a good idea of the whole new world barre chords can open up.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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