So why should you learn barre chords? You can play many guitar songs with just the basic open chords you learned. Sometimes, however, you see a song in a key that includes some chords other than the basic open chords. In order to be able to play in any key, therefore, you need to learn how to play a chord in other roots and how to transpose a basic open chord to different keys. This article will look at two basic techniques for transposing chords: the barre technique and shifting techniques.

I. What is a Barre Chord?

A barre chord takes its name from the role of the 1st finger of your left hand. This finger acts as a barre (or bar) across the fingerboard, depressing all six strings and, in effect, replacing the nut. By using your 1st finger as a barre, you can move many of the basic open chords up and down the fingerboard.

To understand this, first play an E chord, as shown in the picture below, left. Notice that in order for the 1st finger to be used as a barre, the fingering has to be changed slightly; use your 2nd, 3rd, and 4th fingers instead of the usual 1st, 2nd, and 3rd fingers. Now move the chord up one fret and lay your 1st finger across the 1st fret, pressing all six strings as shown below, right. You are now holding your first barre chord, F.

In the same manner, move this F chord up two frets, 1st finger barring the 3rd fret and other fingers maintaining the same chord shape. You now have an alternative way to play a G chord. Moving the chord up another two frets will produce an A chord, and so on.

what is a barre chord

II. Names of the Barre Chords

A chord is named after the bottom note called the root. The root is the principle note on which a chord is built. The E chord is called the E because its root is the E note, as played by an open 6th string (below, left). The Am chord is called Am because it is a minor chord built upon the principal note A, or an open 5th string (below, right).

names of the barre chords

Similarly, all the barre chords in the shape of an E chord have their root on the 6th string, and they are all named after the note of the 6th string at the fret that your 1st finger barres. The chord up one fret from an E chord is called an F chord, since the 1st finger lies on the 1st fret and the name of the note on the 1st fret of the 6th string is F (below, left). Similarly, if you play the same chord shape at the 5th fret, it is called an A chord because you barre the 5th fret, which has A on the 6th string (below, right).

names of the barre chords

01. E-form Barre Chords

The E-form barre chords have their root on the 6th string and are based on the basic open chords E, E7, E5, and Em. As shown in the examples below, first finger each E-root chord, then shift it up a fret, barring the 1st fret with your 1st finger to hold the F-root chord. Strive to execute each note of the chord as clearly as possible, without any notes being muted or buzzed.

E-form barre chords

In order to be able to move these E-form barre chords to all other roots along the fingerboard, you need to know the location of the notes on each fret of the 6th string, as shown below on the guitar fingerboard diagrams. The names of the notes start with E, the open 6th string, then go up alphabetically: E, F, G, A, B, C, D, and so on. The notes in between the natural notes are shown in the second diagram.

02. A-form Barre Chords

The A-form barre chords have roots on the 5th string and are based on A, A7, A5 and Am. First, shift each chord to the root B♭, as shown in the examples below. Then, learn the notes on the 5th string and practice transposing each A-root chord to all other roots, using the exercise.

A-form barre chords

03. D-form Barre Chords

The D-form barre chords have roots on the 4th string and are based on D, D7, D5, and Dm. Technically speaking, the 1st finger of each chord is not barring the strings, but it’s pressing the root of the second chord. As shown in the examples below, practice moving each chord to the root E♭. Then learn the notes on the 4th string with the guitar fingerboard diagrams and practice moving the chords, using the exercise below.

D-form barre chord

Tips On Playing A Barre Chord

You may have some difficulty playing a barre chord at first, as pressing a barre chord requires some hand strength. Here are some tips for practicing a barre chord:

  1. Keep your thumb behind the neck at all times. It should be directly opposite the 1st finger for maximum strength and effectiveness.
  2. It often takes time before a barre chord can be played clearly without a buzz. Do not be discouraged if it does not sound perfect at the beginning! Gradually build up your strength, and the sound will improve.
  3. Playing barre chords puts a lot of pressure on your left hand and fingers, and can become very tiring. Practice for short periods at first and take breaks frequently

III. Shifting Techniques

Another way to transpose a chord to a different key is to shift it to an appropriate place on the fingerboard, using one of the following three methods:

01. Shift the Same Chord Shape

As an example, press C7 first. Then, without changing the chord shape or fingering, simply move it up one fret so that your 3rd finger, which is pressing the root of the chord, will be on the 4th fret of the 5th string, as shown below.

Shift the same chord shape

hat you are now holding is a C♯7 chord. It is exactly the same chord shape as C7, but it’s placed a half step up and hence the root of the chord is now C♯ instead of C. Notice that when shifting the chord shape without using a barre, an open string available to an open chord may sometimes not be playable in some of the chords with different roots. For example, the open 1st string played in C7 is not part of the C♯7 chord and therefore should be muted, along with the 6th string, or you will hear some dissonance. Here are some other examples of shifting the same chord shape. 

02. Add the Root with the 1st Finger

Similar to moving the D-form barre chords, you can move a chord to a different position on the fingerboard simply by shifting the chord and adding the root with your 1st finger instead of barring multiple strings. For instance, play the A chord, then shift it up one fret and, instead of pressing all six strings at the 1st fret, simply press the 5th string at the 1st fret, or A♯, with your 1st finger. The result is a simpler way to play the A♯ chord without an extended barre.

Add the root with the 1st finger

03. Assume the Root

As an alternative to the above method, you can simply shift the chord without changing the fingering or even playing the new root. Instead, you move the same chord shape along the fingerboard and assume where the root of the new chord is. The red dot below indicates the root of F7, or the F note that is not being pressed but is simply assumed.

Assume the root

More about Assumed root on Wikipedia.

IV. Putting It Together

As you may already have realized, by using the barre and shifting techniques, you can play a guitar chord in several ways and in various positions. Rather than letting it overwhelm you, just continue practicing and playing a chord progression with only one or a handful of chord shapes. Then, as you get more comfortable, you can combine different chord forms and make up various ways of playing a progression. Which chord form to select depends on a number of factors. Here are some tips:

  1. The closer you play one chord to another, the easier and smoother the chord transition will be.
  2. Select the chord forms or sequence of chords that are easiest for you to play.
  3. Barre chords are generally easier than open chords for playing strumming patterns that include rests.

Here are some examples that mix various barre and movable chord forms. Study each example and see how each chord is derived. Each example is one of many ways to play a progression. Feel free to experiment and make up different versions of your own.

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