A lesson from my student area: how to play barre chords

I provide many online materials for my students to supplement their one-to-one lessons with me either in my studio or via Skype/FaceTime. Here is a lesson I provide to students who are starting to get into barre chords on the guitar.

How to play barre chords

Barre chords are a necessary evil in guitar I’m afraid. There are many popular chords that use them. For example:

F chord   Bm chord   F#m chord

As you can see, the first finger is laid flat against either 5 or 6 strings. There are even some chords where you can barre your first and 3rd fingers for a chord! The most popular being the Bb chord.

Bb chord

These chords can be quite difficult to play and it’s important not to try them until you understand the technique required to play them. If you play them with the wrong technique, not only will they sound bad, but you can hurt your hand as well. So it’s best to be careful!

Simplify the chord

If you are playing a song that has one or two pesky barre chords in it, the best thing to do is simplify the chord so the 1st finger doesn’t have to barre as many strings. This will ease the pressure on the 1st finger and enable you to build up strength and hopefully master the song in less time.

You can change the F chord so that the barre is only over two strings. It’s still an F chord but you only strum 4 strings instead of the usual 6. Sometimes, this version of the chord actually sounds better.

F chord   F chord

The same principle can also be used with the other barre chords shown above. Look how the fingerings can be changed. In the case of the Bm chord, you can even play it without a barre!

Bm chord   Bm chord   Bm chord

F#m chord   F#m chord

Bb chord   Bb chord

Positioning the barre

Once you have decided on the fingering for the chord, you have to get your 1st finger in the correct place for the barre. The technique is the same whether you are barring 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6 strings.

The idea is to use the side of the finger closest to your thumb. Take a look at the picture below.

A chord picture

The best way to achieve this is to lay the flat of your finger (the palm side) on top of the fret and then roll it off the fret so it sits behind it using the side of your finger. With the smaller barres as shown above, you can bend your 1st finger.

When barring all the strings you have to keep your 1st finger as straight as possible.

Dm chord picture

It doesn’t have to be completely straight though. Remember, the barre is only there for a couple of strings that are at the same fret but on different strings. Other fingers are involved and when then there are fingers on the other strings you don’t have to worry about the notes in the barre on those strings.

You can see in the picture below that the 1st finger isn’t completely straight. More pressure is added by the 1st finger at the 1st, 2nd and 6th strings as all the other strings are fretted with other fingers.

F chord picture

Don’t pinch too hard!

A lot of people complain that their thumb hurts when they start to play barre chords. This is because they are squeezing their 1st finger and thumb together to lay the finger flat on the strings. The best thing to do is ‘lean in’ to the chord. By that I mean let the weight of the fretting  hand pull the finger onto the strings, almost like gravity is pulling it towards the fretboard. You can use the muscles in your shoulder to help with this rather than the thumb. The thumb is there an an anchor point for the hand and not needed to add pressure to the strings.

The big barre chord exercise!

Here is an exercise to help build up the strength in your hand for using barre chords. It also helps to make the other finger more flexible when your 1st finger is being used as a barre.

Starting higher up the neck with the barre is easier than trying it at the lower frets. Less pressure is needed to fret the strings the further away from the nut you go. Once you have mastered this exercise at the 7th fret, you can move it down one fret at a time until you can play it at the 1st fret. If you’re having problems stretching your pinky finger out to the 10th fret you can move the exercise up to the 9th fret where the strings are closer together. If you are still having problems, it might be a good idea to try some linear exercises.

The aim is to keep the barre down throughout the exercise. Also, once you have put a  finger on a string you must leave it there until it is needed somewhere else or has to come off to strum the barre. Keep it slow and don’t try to play the whole exercise at once. Try just the barre and the first few notes. If at any time your thumb hurts stop, reposition your hand and try to lean in to the strings as described above.

Barre exercise 1 TAB

If you have found this lesson helpful, or have any tips for other players, please leave a comment. I would love to hear from you! Don’t forget, if you are stuck in a rut and would like some one-to-one tuition you can contact me for a free session where we can discuss your needs. You can look at the Skype guitar lessons or FaceTime Guitar lessons pages to see how it works.

Keep practicing!


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