What You Will Learn
  1. What a barre chord is
  2. Basic technique and exercises for playing barre chords
  3. Simple three- and four-string barre chord voicings

How to Play Barre Chords

What is a Barre Chord?

Barre chords are chords where two or more strings at the same fret are played with the same finger. This is done by flattening the finger out so that it can "barre" several strings at once. The index finger is most frequently used for the barre, but other fingers may be used for some chord voicings. Barre chords are useful because most of them can be moved up and down the neck. This make it easy to play in any key and transpose music from one key to another. These chords are one of the most difficult hurdles for a beginner to overcome, but are well worth the effort.

Barre Chord Technique

Playing barre chords properly requires careful attention to several things, including hand position and the amount of pressure to use. Many beginners use a great deal of pressure when playing barre chords, which causes their left hand to become very tense. You do need to develop some strength in your left hand in order to play barre chords, but dexterity and control are far more important. It is likely that your fingers will feel weak when you first start learning barre chords, but it is important to stay relaxed and press only hard enough to get a clear sound from each string in the chord.

Hand Position

Your thumb should be behind the neck rather than hanging over the fretboard. The thumb provides stability and puts your hand and arm in the proper position for playing when it is placed correctly behind the neck. Make sure your thumb is relaxed and isn't pressing against the back of the neck.

The Barre

You have likely used your fingertips for anything you have played up until now. Barre chords require you to use the entire finger in some chords. This may be somewhat uncomfortable or painful to your skin at first due to the strings pressing into your finger, but you will get used to this after enough practice.

Angle Your Finger

The index finger should be angled slightly toward the headstock of the guitar when playing a barre. This can be accomplished by bringing your elbow in toward your body slightly. This positions the finger in such a way that the barre is played with the part of the finger in between the flat part on the palm side (opposite the side of your finger where the nail is) and the side of the finger. This achieves several things:

Most barre chords use the index finger, so this advice applies to these chords only. Chords that use another finger for the barre may require a different approach.

The Other Fingers

The other fingers should be positioned so that they don't mute other strings when playing a barre chord. Play each string individually to make sure you aren't accidentally muting one or more strings that should sound. If you are muting any strings inadvertently, follow these steps to correct the issue:

Changing the Position of Your Fingers

You can change the position of your fingers by:

Dealing with Problems

Barre chords require a bit more flexibility and dexterity due to the additional stretch required and the fact one of your fingers is playing the barre while other fingers fret the rest of the notes in the chord. This makes it very easy for excess tension to occur. Avoid this by doing the following:

Three-string Barre Chords

Barre chords are traditionally taught using five- and six-string chords. This approach works for some students, but is quite a jump from playing simple first position chords. For this reason, this lesson starts with barre chords that use only three strings. The two three-string voicings in this lesson are based on first position chords that you should already know: E major and E minor.

Three-String Major Barre Chord

Chord Diagram

Chord diagram for three-string E major shape barre chord


The E major voicing is based on the top three strings of the first position E major chord. The root of the chord is found on the first string. This means that if you play the chord at the first fret, the resulting chord is F major.

This voicing is the top half of a six string voicing that you will learn later.


Tablature for three-string E major shape barre chord

Three-String Minor Barre Chord

Chord Diagram

Chord diagram for three-string E minor shape barre chord


The E minor voicing is based on the top half of a first position E minor chord. The root is found on the first string.


Tablature for three-string minor barre chord based on E minor

Four String Barre Chords

Four-String Major Barre Chord

Chord Diagram

Chord diagram for four string major barre chord


This voicing is based on the first position E major chord and adds one string to the three string voicing you learned earlier in this lesson. The root of this chord can be found on both the fourth and first string. If you are paying close attention, you should notice that this is the exact same voicing for the F major chord you learned in the lesson on beginning chords.


Tablature for four string major barre chord

Four-String Minor Barre Chord

Chord Diagram

Chord diagram for four string minor barre chord


The four-string E minor voicing is based on the open E minor chord. The root of the chord is found on both the first and fourth string.


Tablature for the four string minor barre chord

Moving Barre Chords Around the Neck

You need to do two things to move a chord around the neck:

Finding the Root

A barre chord can be moved by knowing the string(s) on which the root of the chord occurs. It isn't necessary to understand the theory behind chord construction to do this, although it is helpful. You only need to know the string where root occurs. Note that a root may appear multiple times in the same chord voicing. In chords with the root note on more than one string, you may use any one of the roots for transposing the chord. The result will be the same chord no matter which root you use. The location of the root is provided for all of the chords in this lesson.

Moving the Chord

To move the chord, you need to find the root of the chord you want to use instead of the chord you are playing. Both notes should be on the same string. This requires knowing the notes on the guitar. For example, if you are playing an A major barre chord and want to move to a D major barre chord, you need to find the root of the A major chord, which is A. If the root of the A major chord occurs on the first string, you need to find a D on this string to move to D major. D occurs at the tenth fret on the first string, so moving the chord to the tenth fret will give you a D major chord. This is shown in the image below. The roots on the first string are highlighted to make it easy to see how this chord was moved from A major to D major.

Moving an A major barre chord voicing to D major

How to Practice Finding Roots

Try finding major and minor barre chords on each of the following roots: A, Bb, B, C, C#, Db, D, Eb, E, F, F#, G, G#, and Ab. All of the chords in this lesson have roots on the first string, so this should be relatively easy. However, you should also try moving the four-string barre chords around by using the root on the fourth string for additional practice.


Don't start on these exercises until you can play all four barre chords cleanly.

Tips for Playing the Exercises

The exercises below use chord progressions that will require you to move up and down the neck. This can be difficult at first, but there are a few things that will make it easier.

Keep Your Index Finger in Position

The major and minor chords require only a small change to switch from major to minor or from minor to major. You only need to place the middle finger on the string or remove it to make this switch. For this reason, you should try to keep your fingers in the barre position when moving up or down the neck. You will have less to do once you reach the new chord position.

Know Where You Are Going

Look at the fret where the next chord is located before moving so you know exactly where you need to go. You eventually want to be able to do this without looking, but it is good to look at first so you can learn to switch more quickly and accurately.

Practice with Three-String Voicings First

Only one exercise is given for practicing three-string barre chord voicings, but you can practice the other exercises with these voicings instead of the four-string voicings by leaving the fourth string out of the chord. This should make it a little easier to learn the exercises. However, you should eventually practice the exercises as written.

Exercise 1

Exercise 1 is a chord progression in A minor. There are two beats of rest in between each chord change, so make use of this time to get to the next chord. You should begin moving into position immediately at the start of the rest on the third beat of each measure. This is a good opportunity to practice switching between chords. You won't always have beats of rest to make the switch, so work on perfecting your switching technique with this exercise.

The right hand should play all downstrokes for this exercise. Mute the strings during the rests to avoid string noise.

Barre chord exercise in A minor

Exercise 2

Exercise 2 is a progression in F major that uses four-string major and minor barre chords. This requires a little more moving around than exercise 1, but you still have beats of rest to get into position for each chord. The rests are reduced to a single beat here, so you need to move from one chord to the next a little more quickly.

Barre chord exercise in F major

Exercise 3

Exercise 3 is a chord progression in D major that uses four-string barre chords. The riff may remind you a little of the riff to songs like Louie, Louie or Wild Thing. This is because the chord progression and rhythm are similar. The rest is reduced to a single eighth note in this exercise, so you need to be even more efficient at changing chords than in the two previous exercises.

I VI IV V progression in D major with four-string barre chords

Exercise 4

Exercise 4 is a progression in A minor with some chromatic chords in between chords in the key. A chromatic chord is a chord that doesn't occur in a key. In this exercise, the chromatic chords occur on the "and" of beats two and four in each measure.

There are no rests in this exercise. However, the chords only move up or down one fret at a time, so the switching is relatively simple. You can slide your fingers along the string to move from one chord to the next, although it would be better to lift your fingers off the string when switching to the next chord to avoid string noise, but this is a more advanced technique.

Barre chord exercise in A minor with chromatic chords

Exercise 5

This exercise will be more challenging due to the distance between each chord and the fact that there are no rests. The chord progression here is a I vi IV V progression (in C major), which was commonly used in 50s rock. If you find the chord changes difficult, try just playing the chords without the right hand strumming pattern. Once you can switch between the chords smoothly, add the strum pattern.

I vi IV V exercise in C major with barre chords

Additional Practice

Use the chord progression reference to find progressions of major and minor chords and try to play them with the barre chord voicings in this lesson. Some will be more difficult due to large distances between the chords on the fretboard. Try playing the progressions in as many keys as possible while paying attention to where the roots of the chords are on the neck. This will help you learn the notes on the guitar, which is essential for learning to play barre chords in all keys.