For beginning players, it's a wall that seems surmountable. Up to this point, the newbie player has figured out how to contort his left hand to play a G, keep from hitting multiple strings with each finger as he plays a C, and only strum 4 out of 6 strings to play D. But then the teacher says, "Let's try the F chord," and the student's vocabulary suddenly gets more colorful. His guitar vocabulary, that is. He learns a new five-letter word: "barre." Did you know that the first attempt at "barring" is enough to make 47% of new students quit? (Did you also know that 68% of all statistics are made up on the spot?)
But one day, after perseverance and dented fingertips, the student gets it and begins a new journey with an index finger that can press down multiple strings. This student now has the skills to escape the gravity of the first four frets by playing barre chords.
If you're already on the far side of that ring of fire called "learning how to play barre chords," you might be tempted to ditch this session and go kill some time watching the Crossroads guitar duel between Steve Vai and the Karate Kid. [OK, fine. Go watch it. I'll wait.........doesn't get old, does it?] Besides looking at the standard barre chords, we'll talk about ways to use them in worship music.
First, let me cover some ground for any novices: a barre, or bar, is a technique of using one finger to play multiple fretted notes. This is done to create chords in keys and octaves not possible with open notes. Most often, the finger used to bar is your 1st, or index, finger. There can be partial barres, covering 2 two 5 strings, as in the case of the simple F chord (shown above); or there are the full barres, where the finger covers all six strings (shown to the right.) The chord diagram will show a curved line covering the strings to be barred. Some diagrams may also use a straight line.
We'll be looking first at "6th-String Root" barre chords. "6th-string root" means just that - the root is on the sixth string. The root, without going into much theory, is the daddy-o note of the chord. It's what the chord is built on and what it's named after. The C chord's root is C. The A chord's root is, yep: A.
The most common barre chord shape is the E-shape barre chord. It looks like the common open position E major chord (see it in the stars?) The first finger barre emulates the open notes. [The numbers under the string in this particular diagram are the fingers used in this shape. From here on out, the fingerings won't be designated. But if you have a question on any of these chords, drop me an email. I'll be glad to help you out.]
The beauty of this and other barre chords is that you can simply move this shape up and down the neck to create new chords. If you play this shape at the 5th fret, you get an A major chord. Notice that under the 6th string, there is an R. That means root. In this position, the root note is A. If we were to move this shape up to the 8th fret, the root and chord would be C.
The two numbers, 3 and 5, are part of most every chord: the third and the fifth. These are tones, or notes, that make up the chord. They are named by their interval from the Root. We're getting in up to our noses in theory, so I'll stop now and save the theory-geeking for another blog post. But without getting into too deep, we'll be looking at how the Root, Third and Fifth moves around as we change the quality of this barre chord.
Whenever you see just the letter designating the chord name - as in this case with A - it's implied that it's a major chord. At times, you'll see major chords designated with an uppercase M, as AM (A Major). But if you don't see anything but the letter, assume it's major. Every other type of chord or voicing will have some alteration to the name.
Before we move on to look at variations of this shape, let's talk about actually playing this bar chord. A mistake that many players make is not using enough of their first finger to press down the barre. Do you see how your finger is divided into thirds? Often a player learning the bar will place the very tip of his/her finger at the 6th string and try to press down all the strings with the top 2/3s of his/her finger. The bottom third of your finger is where the beef is. Try placing the bottom third of your finger on strings one and two. Your finger may extend above the 6th string, but that's ok. Using the bottom third of your finger will give you more leverage.
Another trick to learn barre chords is playing them higher up the neck. Honestly, a full F barre chord at the 1st fret is brutal. The same shape is usually easier to play between the 5th and 9th frets. Get used to playing this barre shape up higher, then work your way down towards the lower frets.
Again, without getting to deep, these bar chord shapes can actually teach us some music theory. Let's go back to the A barre chord:
If you know the third of the chord you know the gender of the chord. And by gender, I mean whether it is a Major or Minor.
Play this A chord to the left. Your 2nd finger is playing the 3rd of the chord (coincidentally, and only coincidentally, it's on the 3rd string. The string number is no indication of the chord interval.) If you lift up that finger, it lowers this 3rd interval making it a "flat" or minor 3rd. What is created is an A minor barre chord (designated with a lowercase 'm'). Notice how much darker it is than the major. 2nd finger on - happy! 2nd finger off - sad!
[Notice also that the Am chord resembles the open position "E"-shape, only now it's the Em shape.]
Go back to play your A major shape. Lift up your 4th finger (that's your pinky). What happened? The root was lowered two frets (one whole step) to create a 'flat 7' interval in the chord. This chord is known as the A Dominant 7, or just A7. It is a bit unstable (like that one uncle that you see only at Christmas and you hope he doesn't hit the eggnog too hard before he visits). It feels like it wants to go somewhere. It does. Dominant 7 chords usually want to resolve to another chord. In the case of A7, it wants to go home to D. Try it.
There's another chord that contains a "flat 7". Play the A7. Now lift your 2nd finger again. You now have an A Minor 7 (to the left). The Minor7 chords are used a ton in modern worship music. The straight minor chord is often too dark; the presence of that 'flat 7' softens the sound. It still has a minor sound to it, but far less mournful. Here's another voicing for a m7 barre chord that I like (on right).
Let's head back to our Major shape. A common alteration of chords is to raise the 3rd up one half step (one fret). Try it (but you'll likely have to change your second, third and fourth fingers around to do it). This is called an Asus4. The 'sus' is short for 'suspended'. Think of it this way: the 3rd is 'suspended' and replaced by the 4th. Practice playing the Asus4 to the A. It's a common sound you hear often.
Another variation is a dominant 7 chord with a sus4. Remember how the m7 tended to soften the sound of the minor chord? The sus4 does the same thing for the Dominant 7 chord. It takes away some of the instability of it. It still wants to go home, but its a kinder, gentler yearning to resolve. (Versus the A7 screaming "take me back to the freaking D chord now!") And besides the A7sus4 being a nicer chord, this particular fingering is actually easier to play than the straight Asus4.
Sus2, add2, add9 chords are great chord variations. (So great, in fact, that they'll have their own entry in this series.) But with this 6th string root bar chord, there aren't a lot of options that sound great. Here's one option for an Aadd2. It's a bit of a stretch, but it's a nice sounding chord once you've gotten it. (Btw - Dave Matthews fans will recognize the shape of strings 6, 5, 4. If you're older, think Andy Summers' riff on The Police's "SOS.")
So that's the beginning of "Escape #3: Barre Chords." In the next post, we'll continue to look at barre chords (5th string root) and then talk about when, where, why, and how to use them in worship music.