Guitar Lesson Three – Barre Chords

Guitar Lesson Three

Lesson three will begin as this document.
I may make it into a video later.

It’s inspired by a Quora question. Read on!

If a guitarist never makes an effort to learn barre chords, what are the playing experiences they’ll never be able to enjoy?

That’s a great question!

I can assure you, when you start playing barre chords, you’ll also start to learn how to play the guitar! You’ll begin to understand the simplicity of how the guitar is laid out and how to find all the notes you need!

Everything on a guitar is done is sections, even when it appears a guitarist is flying all over with his hands. There are simple reference points, which can be found by counting up to what fret you’re on, using the dot markings as reference points, or, most likely, using your current position as a reference point (where you’re moving from).

Hagstrom Viking and Hagstrom HL550 guitars. Choose your weapon!

Let me show you how versatile and simple the guitar can be, by starting in one place. There are many things you can “assign” to a location on the neck of the guitar. Then, I’ll show you how you can move at once, to another location, and, relatively-speaking, everything stays the same.

In other words, I’ll show you freedom and simplicity you can never see if you don’t come up the neck for both single notes and chords, as well as logic that’s built-in to the guitar design that you wouldn’t even suspect.

Start in One Place

 What are the notes? There’s lots of them!

Keep it Simple Answer: Don’t worry about it.

Let’s just find SOME of them. Two of them.

The first dot, on the first string, is a G. Never forget that!

But, which is the “first string?” I’ll tell you it doesn’t matter. They both have exactly the same notes on them, two octaves apart, so either the top or bottom string. Technically, the littlest string is the “first” string, but we’re keeping it super simple, and we’re looking at both, the first and sixth strings, as the same note. Super simple. The second dot is an A. They go in order, but the whole notes do not always line up with a dot. So far, so good. First dot is G, 2nd is A. If we were to keep going up the neck, next whole note would be B, then C, D, E, F … and then start over again.


A true beginner NEEDS to see the octave. Eight notes; that’s what an octave is; eight consecutive whole notes. This is not hard. Do Re Me Fa So La Tee Do! That’s it. Nothing more. Notice there is a DO at the beginning and the end. There are only SEVEN whole notes, and an octave is a “package” of them, in a row, which begins and ends on the same note (which you can call the “root” note). So, in the key of A, an octave is ABCDEFGA. That’s eight notes, but two of them are the same – the first and last notes are the same notes one octave apart from each other, and each of these “end” notes in an octave serves as both the first note of one octave AND the last note of the adjacent octave. It’s sounds complicated, but it’s just eight notes in a row, and the end notes are part of both the octave above the note and the one below it.

A B C D E F G, A B C D E F G … – becomes

A B C D E F G A … and it goes around for as many times as the instrument has notes! A guitar has two octaves if you keep your hand in one place and play notes top to bottom, and the neck is approximately two octaves long. In the spirit of keeping it simple, that’s all we need to know. Octaves are a way to measure music notes. But it’s CRITICAL to visualize octaves in order to start to understand the fingerboard.

A Simple Scale

A simple scale? Is that where we’re going next?
What about barre chords?

I promise we’ll be there soon! There are many things that wrap together when you start to see neck positions, notes and octaves!

A Simple Warning

At this point, a quick warning. There are millions of ways, it seems, to describe, explain and understand this stuff. That’s part of the beauty of music and instruments; they beg you to interpret them, to understand them, and ultimately what matters will be the way YOU understand it, not me. If you scrub around the interWeb, you’ll find people talking about my simple points and making it sound very different! It can even be made to sound complicated! But don’t let that discourage you! It’s all the same notes!

Okay, Here it Is!

This is consecutive whole notes (one way to play them) in a row:

x – x – o – x
o – x – o – x
x – o – x – x
x – o – x – x
x – x – o – x
x – x – o – x

That is a scale. It’s one of the “positions.” Ready to learn?

You’ll memorize this scale. It won’t be as hard as it seems. You’ll benefit ENORMOUSLY. You’ll use it for the rest of your life!

Here’s how to study and learn it easily:

Look at the image below. Blue dots are where you will line up your fingers. This is because with this particular scale, you’ll find the “root” note (the key you want to be playing in) falls on the middle finger of your chording hand. Look at the blue dots and put your four fingers right across those four frets (stretching your fingers bottom to top). Now, you’ll see what the pattern above is – all I did is put an X where there’s a note. The Os are half notes, which are not in this scale! Also: this scale starts and ends in C – it’s TWO octaves, and the “shared” C is noted – the Cs are green. The only reason this is a scale in “C” is because I laid my middle finger down in the C-position. If I put my middle finger in the B-position, I would be proceeding to play a scale in B.

You now know the whole note diatonic scale in every key along the neck.

Image of Notes on the Fretboard originally from

Don’t Move!

The idea is to learn the notes, but more – to play through the notes. When you do, you’ll HEAR what I mean. You’ll HEAR the first and last notes of the octave. You’ll realize you DON’T NEED to know what all the notes are called if all you want is to play the next one (up or down) – just go up or down. If you stay in the scale you can play endlessly, always staying in key. Keep your fingers aligned with their assigned frets! Stay there! To change key, move the whole arrangement.

But, what About Barre Chords!?

Okay, now you can move! 🙂

Scales are moveable, but mostly position-static for the duration of a song, but barre chords, they can move a lot, baby!

To understand the meaningfulness of barre chords, you first need to see one note. Then two. Then the rest, and how they lay in a predictable way!

Quick Summary of Scales

Also see how you can take the scale pattern you just learned and move it. Just start with your middle finger on the root note (on the top or bottom string). Put your middle finger on the G note. That’s the second dot (first or sixth string). Remember, G is the first dot position, and A is the second dot position.

In either G or A position, or any other, It’s exactly the same scale. You can do this ANYWHERE. Just change where you start, knowing which fingers to use.

Other scales “start” with different fingers, so don’t assume if you play a different scale, or a different form of this scale, you start with your MIDDLE finger on the root note, but with this scale and form you do.

EVERY scale is simply a divergence from the basic scale you already know; sometimes notes are added; or taken away. The whole-notes-scale is “diatonic,” which means “seven.” The “pentatonic,” or blues scale (the one everyone loves), is even easier, because it’s the exact same scale, the same notes, except two are dropped, so it’s a five-note scale. Simple stuff.

You won’t see this unless you look, but when you look it’s very satisfying to understand relative positions, basic patterns and interrelationships, and much easier than you may have imagined.

Now, What About Barre Chords?

I get ya. You wanted to appreciate barre chords! I remember!

They move, too! And they interconnect!

Barre chords, like any other chords, are just a combination of notes. If you start with an E shape (022100), probably the most useful chord shape on a guitar, you can move it anywhere you want, just the same as moving a scale, but you need to barre it.

This lovely image was borrowed from National Guitar Academy – He’s not playing an E-shape, but rather an A-minor shape. Very similar! Read on!

Learning the E Shape

Learning the E-Shape is by far the most important thing to do, once you understand the basics. It exists without barring, so be sure to master the E chord in it’s baseline position, up against the nut. The chord is simply 022100 (signifying which fret, each string, starting at the top).

So, barre an E shape. You’ll have to use pinkie, ring and middle to form the E shape, and your index finger does the barre. The barre is best described as moving the nut; the chord just moves up the neck, and in order to emulate strings that are zeros in base position, you move them up, too, as if the barre is the new nut, the end of the neck.

Magic Beans!

This is important: Something magical happens that makes the E-shape unique, and will open your eyes big time. This is not true of other chord shapes (now we’ll call them “chord shapes,” not “chords”). You can move the E-shape up the neck, and whatever fret you’re barring is the chord you’re playing. As long as you’re playing an E shape, if your barre finger is across the G fret (first dot) (we’ll call the fret with a G note on top and bottom strings the “G” position), you are playing a G-chord.

Think about it as playing a chord shape in a certain position. And if it’s an E-shape, the position and the name of the chord are the same.

E-shape: G position on fingerboard = G-chord.

E-shape: A position on fingerboard = A-chord.

E-shape: B position on fingerboard = B-chord.

It’s 100% consistent and predictable. Your palette is now larger!

Play an E-shape barre chord, and you now can plan ANY basic chord. You’ll be surprised at how other barre chords can be even easier; and you’ll find it scintillating that an E-minor-shape has the same behavior; in G position, the shape will sound out a G-minor. Same with E7 and Em7-shape,s and Em7 is only a one-finger cowboy chord! You now know E, and every other whole and half-step chord up the neck, and E-minor and every other minor (in sharp/flat) … every simple 7 … all the way up the neck.

When you get to the double dots up the neck (fret 12), you can stop. All theory pertains to one octave. At the double dots the neck goes into a new octave. In other words the double dots are the “E” position, one octave higher than the nut E position, and everything above the double-dot will be a mirror image of what you already know (no need to learn it again!).

Starting with a cowboy E (022100) and moving up, when you get to the double dots with your barre, you’re playing the same chord as without a barre, just one octave higher, so you’ve gone through one entire octave range of chords, E – F – G – A – B – C – D … and their relatives.

Wait, There’s More!

Now that we’ve gotten here, you will certainly be impressed, knowing so many chords so easily. Just play an E-shape barre anywhere you want!

But there’s WAY more than even that!

Some Interesting Things That Happen

Once you see the layout of all of the above, the meaningfulness of the fingerboard will emerge, and you’ll see it was designed to make it easy to understand! Your playing will become an arrangement of notes and chords that easily sound good together and are easy to find.

Plus! The behaviors of other chord shapes is similar. There’s a simple key to understanding ALL of them – RELATIVE POSITION.

You already know what that means, and it makes things simple. I’ll show you! First, look at the E-shape again, and, instead of thinking of it as magic, look at what you’re actually doing. There is NOTHING special about this chord shape, other than the coincidence that when you play it against the nut (cowboy chord) it’s an E. It just so happens that the nut is also an E; in other words, unmodified, played bare, the “nut” is the zero position.

The logic continues … the first fret is the F position, second fret is the F sharp position, then G (dot), then G sharp, then A (dot), and so on … (you may also notice, it just so happens there is no E sharp; or B sharp, see chart above). So, it’s really just coincidence that the E-shape is the poster child for the easy understanding of barres. It matches; the chord you get is wherever your barre is. But look at it another way and you’ll see better:

Relative Positions

Relative position will be important. At this point you may not know what chord you’re playing, even though it sounds great! The reason you should “think” about positions relative to each other is because in the middle of performing a song, you DO NOT NEED TO KNOW what chord you’re playing. You don’t need to know it’s name, so much as it’s the right chord to be playing. And you won’t memorize it by it’s name; rather you’ll remember you play an A, then a B – and visually you just … say it with me! … go up two frets! In a raw-practical sense, it doesn’t matter if it’s called a B; it matters that it’s the next note up, that’s what you want to play.

The brain thinks more smoothly mid-song if you train it to see everything this way. It actually happens to some degree naturally.

“Relative positions” is a way to simplify the art of playing the guitar, and to understand the construction of a song without needing to know the part number for each brick. After all, it’s not a motionless structure, but one that unfolds as it goes along, so each time we play, we are building it anew. Look at it that way!

Look at the E-shape again. This time think of it as just a shape, like any other. Move it up and it goes up! You can see how much you move it, just comparing your barre position to where you were before. SUPER SIMPLY, to go up ONE NOTE, you’ll either go up one fret, or, more commonly, two frets. So generally, if you move ANY chord shape (NOT JUST THE E SHAPE) up two frets, whatever chord you WERE playing is now ONE NOTE HIGHER. That is about as simple as it gets!

Why does it matter?

Now you can move an A shape. And it’s even easier than moving an E shape. Now you’ll see why we call them shapes, not chords.

An A-“SHAPE” moved from baseline up TWO FRETS becomes …


Move it up one more fret and it’s a C-CHORD. This time you only went up one fret because there is no B-sharp. Don’t worry, you will easily remember where those two holes are (no E-sharp, no B-sharp) as you practice.

This is just getting fun now!

Now we know, if an A-shape is an A-chord when played as 002220, and you move it up one note … it doesn’t require much brain energy to know you’re playing a B-chord. These “relative” positions reveal what chord you’re playing easier than trying to memorize anything at all, and after all, you now know a TON of chords!

This is why I mentioned … The first dot on the first string is a G. If you remember that ONE thing, everything else can be gleaned relatively.

Time to Move On!

Want to try an A-minor shape? Okay, do it! Move it up and it’s a B-minor; exactly the same pattern, moved up one note (two frets) and you are playing a B-minor. One more fret and it’s a C-minor. These are all very popular chords. You don’t need to look at a chart to know what they are! Also, minor chords are often just-as-easy or easier to play than the major chords they’re based on. An E-minor shape in the F-position is an F-minor-chord, and requires fewer fingers than the E-shape –

You ALREADY can do it!

More mind-blowing?

Can you handle it?

Now you know the A-shape, and think of it differently than just an A-chord, you may find it easy to barre … people generally will NOT do a three-finger A-shape, but instead just span the shape with one finger …

You can move this A-shape anywhere!

Image from fretjam – A-shape played in a barre.

To figure out what chord you’re playing, go relative. Start at the headstock and find all the whole note chords, moving up. Don’t expect anything to line up neatly with the dots at this point; they are of limited usefulness. Certain chords like F, B, Cm and F#m will become very useful and you’ll memorize them quickly, and for the rest, it’s all relative! Remember, minor shapes work too.

I’ll leave this here. But with one task! Compare the pentatonic scale with the image above. The scale, which is popular and easy (and you may already know it) lines up exactly with the moveable A-shape you now have in your arsenal. Move the A-shape up, then play both the chord and notes. As a kicker, then play the E-shape, (all the time staying in the same position). It all works! You’re on your way, Stevie Ray Junior!

Some of the relative strategies are the same with a capo, so you may already have a head start! There are many interrelationships! You can fill in the remaining blanks as you come upon them. I hope it’s a fun ride!

Comments welcome!

Original question: If a guitarist never makes an effort to learn barre chords, what are the playing experiences they’ll never be able to enjoy?


Mark Urso

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