If you are just starting out on the guitar, you might be wondering what’s the difference between barre chords and open chords. In the following article, we’re going to explain the key differences and when to use either depending on the context of the song you are playing.
The difference between open chords and barre chords (also spelled bar chord) is that barre chords are moveable, meaning they can be played in different positions on the neck, changing the pitch of the chord. This is because they do not include open strings (with the exception of F Major). Because your guitar’s fretboard has, at a minimum 120 frets, and there are only 12 notes used in western music, chords can be played in multiple shapes and positions on the guitar’s neck.
To demonstrate this further take a look at the example below which consists of an open A Major chord and a barred A Major chord. If you don’t know how to read chord charts, this article will teach you all you need to know.
Without getting too bogged down with music theory A Major is a triad (meaning it consists of three notes) A, C#, and E. It doesn’t matter where on the fretboard these notes are played, or if the notes are repeated or only included once, if you play all three without including any additional notes you are playing an A Major chord.
What differentiates the two is the open chord (shown on the left) contains open strings, indicated by the orange 0 at the top of the chord chart, while the barre chord on the right indicates all strings are fretted at the fifth fret, resulting in no open strings being played.
Notice the thicker line representing the nut is removed on the example on the right, and the fret number (5 to represent the 5th fret) is named that the chord begins on.
(If unsure what root, major third, and fifth refer to, they are the scale degrees of the E major scale from which the E Maj chord is built. You can learn the basics of chord theory by clicking here)
Why barre chords can be played anywhere on the neck
The real beauty of barre chords is they are moveable, as we are using the index finger to effectively replace the nut.
For example, we can take the same A Maj barre chord shown above and move it two frets higher on the neck to the 7th fret. This would result in a B Maj chord being played, which is made up of the notes: B, D#, and F#.
Barre Chord Shapes
IF you already know most of your open chord shapes, you will likely notice in the example above that the A barre chord uses an E Major chord shape, plus the index finger across all frets at the fifth fret, which replaces the nut.
Once we introduce the index finger as a replacement for the nut we can then use that same modified E Maj chord shape (or any open chord shape) to play any major chord we like anywhere on the neck. We do this by following the chromatic scale on the low E string all the way up to the 12th fret, as the root note for the E Maj chord shape is found on the low E string. For example, when played in the open position the open low E string is the root of the chord e.g. we don’t fret the string.
When we replace the nut with the index finger and move the shape higher up the neck to the third fret we are forming a G Maj chord.
We can also do this with different chord types. For example, an A min shape also can be used to play minor chords and is also moveable.
Major Barre Chord Shape
The most common chord shapes used to form major barre chords are A Maj and E Maj. E chord shapes use all 6 strings, whereas the A Maj and A min shapes use just the 5 strings, as the open A string is the root note for A Maj and A min chords.
Minor Barre Chords
A minor and E minor chord shapes are the most commonly used to form minor barre chords.
While you can also incorporate a C Major open chord shape without too much trouble, try moving a D or G shape up two frets and replacing the nut with the index finger. Some shapes are just not well suited to being used in this way.
Partial Barre Chords
Another type of barre chord is the partial barre chord. Power chords are examples of partial barre chords as only 3 or 4 strings are played with the 3rd scale degree omitted, resulting in the chord neither being major or minor.
Another example of a partial barre chord is the F Major shape. When F major is played, the bass strings (E, and A) are not played. This means in open position there are no open strings making this chord shape moveable.
However, in most cases open F Maj is one of the more difficult open chord shapes for beginners to master, but as you become more advanced can be a useful, moveable chord shape to incorporate.
Difficult Barre Chords
Why are Barre Chords More Difficult to Play
So while barre chords are incredibly useful for guitarists, they are also harder to play for beginner guitarists.
The reason for this is string tension. Simply put, when playing open chords, not all strings are fretted. However, when playing barre chords all strings must be fretted, including the use of a single finger (the index finger) to barre either 5 or 6 strings (depending on the chord shape used).
When to Use Barre Chords, and when to Use Open Chords
Some chords, however, are easier played as barre chords
While different styles of music influence the kind of chord shapes we might use, some barre chord shapes are also easier to play. For example, shortly after I got my first guitar I started learning barre chords because I found the open F and open B chords difficult to master, like a lot of people.
In comparison simply moving the E Maj shape up one fret to play F Major, or moving the A Maj shape up one fret to play B was much easier than trying to play open F or open B.
Fatigue can also play a role.
For example, holding down barre chords can be tiring, as you are required to hold down 5 – 6 strings for each chord. Consider the difference between playing a D Maj chord in open position compared to a barre chord, you will soon see why the open chord is easier to fret, especially on acoustic guitar.
Open Chords, can sound huge!
If I am writing a piece of music and want a big sounding D Maj chord, I’m more inclined to use an open D chord, allowing the open strings to ring out, making the chord sound huge! If writing in the key of D, I’d likely also consider playing in drop D to include a D in the bass or double drop D , and removing the middle finger (the finger fretting the second fret on the 1st string) to include an additional D on the 1st string, but that’s another story.
In other cases, you may want more sustain from the chord e.g. allow the open strings to ring out as opposed to the faster decay of barre chords.
This is probably the most important factor.
If you consider the distance on the neck between the chords that make up a chord progression you are playing, some chords will allow for faster, smoother chord changes within the context of the song than others.
In other cases, the shape and location on the neck of the chord you are playing will allow you to introduce melodic elements. This may also depend on the key of the song you are playing.
For example, a piece I am working on starts on a C minor chord before transitioning to a G#minor. By using barre chords instead of open chords, I can introduce a transition chord (A# minor) which gives the piece a walking bass line feel, despite only including one additional chord.
In other cases, knowing how to play an E Maj chord shape, or perhaps the slightly less used F Maj chord shape allows you to incorporate notes from the pentatonic scale easily as they are in the same position on the neck.
When playing with other guitarists
A great way to combine two guitars in an interesting way, whether recording or rehearsing is to utilize different chord voicings. This allows for a more interesting musical texture and in some cases timing.
As you can see, the idea that barre chords are better than open chords or vice versa is the wrong way to look at things on the guitar as it depends mostly on context e.g. which type of chord is better suited to a piece of music or section of a song.
It’s true each has specific advantages e.g. learning barre chords will provide greater freedom on the guitar neck and allow you to play virtually any Major or minor chord. Open chords, on the other hand (especially on the acoustic guitar), incorporate open strings into your chords, making the chord sound full and rich, with more sustain.
The best course of action, of course, is to learn both your open and barre chords. But, hey.. if you want to skip learning B Maj as an open chord and simply use an A Maj shape on the second fret, we won’t tell anyone.