Choosing When to Use Barre Chords

Whenever you encounter a chord that cannot be played using the basic first position chords, you can always find a way to play them using barre chords. There are other times, however, that it is appropriate to use a barre chord, even when the same chord can be formed without barring. The two most important considerations fall into two categories: speed and sound.

Efficiency = Speed

Even though barre chords may initially be more difficult to play than chords that contain open strings, in some situations they are actually easier and will be distinctly faster. For example, try playing a Dm to A progression by using  first position chords. Then, make a Dm chord at the fifth fret (use the Am shape and barre at V), followed by the A chord at the fifth fret (using the E shape). Notice how your fingers (2,3 and 4) are in the exact same shape for both chords. All you have to do to change chords is move that shape – all in one piece – up one set of strings. No need to completely re-finger!

Here are  few more examples of chord progressions that will be played more easily by using barre chords than by using first position chords:

G – Bm     This example is similar to the one above, but when you play the G at the third fret, you will need to move back a fret to play the Bm.

A  – Ab – G – Ab – A      These chords descend and ascend chromatically (by half-steps), so you can hold the shape without even moving to a different string set. This type of progression invariably moves very fast and often on the half-beat, so there is no time to lose!

Am – Gm – F      A similar situation occurs with chords that move more than a half-step, as in this example of whole-step motion. In such a progression the chords may or may not be consistent in quality (mixing major and minor as in this case, for instance), but the adjustment is minor and the advantage gained by using barre chords is no less significant.

Sound Choices

Play an A chord in the first position, followed by one produced at the fifth fret. Play them both again, listening carefully to the sound produced. the reason they sound “the same, but different” is that both chords contain the notes A, C# and E, but the notes are not in the same order or octave. In the first position A chord, the notes (starting from the sixth string and going to the first) are E, A, E, A, C#, E and in the barred A chord the notes are (again, from the sixth through first strings) A, E, A, C#, E, A.

The order of the notes in a chord and the octave in which they occur is described by the musical term “voicing.” By choosing whether to use a barre chord and which barre chord to use, you are choosing the way the chord is voiced. Some parts of  songs or kinds of  music may sound better with parallel voicing (as in the last two examples), which is easily achieved by using barre chords. Other songs may sound more interesting with more varied voicings.

As you develop your sensitivity to sounds on your guitar, you may even want to make decisions about where you play chords based on differences you detect in tone between open strings and fretted notes or between shorter or longer strings. (Chords played higher on the fretboard have a shorter string length than those played lower, since the act of fretting essentially shortens the string.) Although these considerations produce subtle changes which you may not care to address right now, it’s good to know that you have the option to do so!

Practice playing the following chord progressions in different positions. The slash marks represent beats, so if there is only one slash mark for two chords, you will play the first chord on the beat and the second one on the “&” after the beat.

C       –     Bb – A
/   /   /    /
(1  2  3    4       &)


Cm – G –  F – G
/               /
1        &    2    &

Dm         Cm    Bb
/       /       /        /
(!      2      3       4)