Bar chords are the most feared and physically challenging chords that most guitar players ever face. However, they are also some of the most useful chords you can learn on the guitar. They can be so tough for some players that they give up playing altogether, but fear not. I’m going to show you exactly how to overcome the challenge of bar chords and master them to play the music you love.
You may be asking yourself, “so what is a bar chord anyway?” For our purposes, a bar chord is when you lay your 1st finger across multiple strings to fret or “bar” them. It’s kind of like using that 1st finger as a movable nut or capo so you can move your open chord shapes all around the fretboard. This will become clear as we progress here.
This lesson will focus on making the E major bar chord shape. Before you even try to make a bar chord using this shape, you need to be able to make the open E with your 2nd, 3rd, and 4th fingers instead of your 1st, 2nd, and 3rd fingers. This is ground zero. Put in some work with this just like you did when you were learning your basic open chords, and your life will be much easier. Be sure to put the shape on and take it off multiple times in your practice session until you can go right to it with no problem.
The next step to getting clean bar chords down is to work on getting a clean bar before even trying to make the entire bar chord shape. This is critical, and it’s so important that if you skip it, I will guarantee that you will have more trouble with bar chords than you should. It’s so important that I have a Clean Bar Checklist for you to go through.
1 - Get your guitar setup if you haven’t already done so. 2 - Work on creating the bar on its own before even trying to make the full bar chord shape.
3 - Put the bar on using a clamp-like motion between your thumb and 1st finger. 4 - Place your bar right behind the fret. 5 - Experiment with the vertical placement of your finger to minimize the muting sound of your finger creases on the strings. 6 - Tilt/lean your bar back on the bony edge of your finger instead of using the meaty/flat underside of your finger. 7 - Don’t kink your wrist too far one way or the other. 8 - Don’t raise your elbow. Let your arm fall by the side of your body.
Keep all of these tips in mind as we move through this next exercise. The idea here is to use your 1st finger to make a bar on the 1st fret across all six strings and check each string for buzzing or a muted sound. If it sounds clean, that’s great. If it’s muted or buzzy, then simply go through the checklist. Now move up to the second fret and repeat the process. Do this up and back down the fretboard. If you are playing an acoustic guitar you can stop around the 9th or 10th fret and work your way back down to the 1st fret. Putting in time with this exercise will help build your strength and refine your bar technique, two critical areas for making full clean bar chord shapes.
It may take you a while to build the technique and strength you need to play a bar cleanly, but that’s pretty normal. A skill that is this physical takes time to build. The more consistent you are with your practice, the faster this will come to you. It is critical that you can make the open E shape with your 2nd, 3rd, and 4th fingers, and then make the bar cleanly on its own before progressing any further.
It’s time to put the two pieces of the puzzle together to create your first bar chord. Let’s start with a G bar chord by placing your 1st finger across all six strings on the 3rd fret. You get the name for this particular bar chord shape the same way you got the names for your power chords. The name of the note on your sixth string will give you the name of the major bar chord you are playing. In this case, the name of the 3rd fret of the sixth string is a G note, so we will be playing a G major bar chord. Once you have your 1st finger on the 3rd fret of all six strings, you can let your E major chord shape fall in place with your remaining fingers. That would leave your 2nd finger on the 4th fret of the G string, 3rd finger on the 5th fret of the A string, and 4th finger on the 5th fret of the D string.
Do you see how we just moved the open E major shape up by three frets and put our bar down on the 3rd fret as a type of movable nut? That is the power of bar chords. Now you can use your open E shape anywhere on the fretboard to play any major chord. For example, you could move the shape up to where your bar is on the 5th fret to play an A major chord or to where your bar is on 1st fret to play an F major chord. Magic!
Your bar chord may not sound that great at first because there is a lot of strength and coordination that is required to pull this off. One thing that really helped me was to put down the bar first and then put down the shape. Take the chord off and then put down the shape first and then the bar. Alternating bar - shape and then shape - bar is kind of like cross-training. It will help you get to the ultimate goal of putting the entire shape on all at once.
If you’ve put in the work with being able to play the E major shape with your 2nd, 3rd, and 4th fingers and being able to play the bar on its own then this E major bar chord shape should be much easier for you. If this is still pretty difficult for you then you will want to go back and work on these two practice points a bit more. I know it’s a lot of work but it’s worth it!