9 Converting Open Chord Shapes into Barre Chords – Guitar Theory


Converting Open Chord Shapes into Barre Chords

In This Chapter

  • The difference between open and closed chords
  • Understanding barre chords
  • Knowing your E-shaped barre chords
  • Playing A-shaped barre chords
  • Using (and avoiding) C-shaped barre chords

One of the arguments some guitarists make against learning music theory goes something along the lines of “theory is just rules and rules are a detriment to creativity.” Way back in Chapter 1 we discussed how theory and creativity tend to work hand in hand. Thinking of guitar theory as “rules” can cause you to miss important connections in bringing more creativity to your guitar playing.

Hopefully you have learned from Parts 1 and 2 that guitar theory and music theory are not a set of rules. Instead, theory is a set of observations about music throughout the history of mankind that can be used for guidelines and guidance. And, having spent the first two parts of this book learning the observations, you can now start to reap the benefits of music theory on your guitar.

And here’s where, yet again, you learn that you already do put theory into practical use on a regular basis, particularly if you play barre chords with any regularity. Barre chords serve as one of the best examples of how guitarists use guitar theory all the time, whether they know it or not.

And knowing the guitar theory behind barre chords can give you more knowledge of your fretboard than you might imagine.

“Open” and “Closed” Chords

The basic chords you first learned when taking up guitar—Em, E, Am, A, D, C, and G—are known as “open chords” or “open-position” chords, if you will. They are all played within the first five frets of the guitar’s neck and each involves the use of open strings as well as fretted strings in order to play the chord. They are also called “cowboy chords,” which is supposed to evoke an image of their “simplicity” (although you’ll learn in Chapter 20 that open chords can actually be more complicated and more tonally complex than barre chords can ever be). You can just imagine a weary cowpoke playing his guitar by the campfire at the end of the day.


While open chords are the staple of folk and other acoustic guitar-based songs, some rock guitarists, such as AC/DC’s Malcolm Young, find open chords essential in creating driving, edgy music. You can hear how the ringing, open chords provide the pulse for songs like “You Shook Me All Night Long” or “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You).”

Barre chords are “closed chords” in that they involve no open strings. Each string is fretted, usually with the index finger laid across all six strings at any given fret. Not every string needs to be played, as you’ll soon read.

Because no open strings are involved in barre chords, they can be played at any point along the guitar’s fretboard, which is why some guitarists refer to barre chords as “movable chords.”

The Guitar Theory Behind Barre Chords

Play an open-position E chord, but don’t use your index finger to do so. Your middle finger will be at the first fret of the G string, your pinky at the second fret of the D string, and your ring finger at the second fret of the A string. Both the high and low E strings, as well as the B string, are played as open strings.

You also know now, because of your knowledge of the notes on the first five frets in Chapter 2, that the second fret of the A string is B, the second fret of the D string is E, and the first fret of the G string is G. You also know from your study of basic chord construction in Chapter 6 that these three notes (E, G, and B) make up an E major chord.

Since you raise the pitch of each single note a musical half-step each time you move your finger up the fretboard, it makes sense that you can raise the pitch of whole chords by doing the same. Moving this E major chord up one fret, your middle finger will be on the second fret of the G string (which is the note A), your pinky will be on the third fret of the D string (which is F), and your ring finger will be on the third fret of the A string (which is C). And the notes F, A, and C are indeed the notes of the F major chord.

However, the notes of the two open E strings and the open B string are not part of the F chord. Although you moved each of the fretted notes of the E chord up a musical half-step, you did not alter any of the notes of the open strings. This is why you have to “close” the open strings in order to make a barre chord work.

Step by step from E to F.

Placing your index finger across all six strings at the first fret closes the chord by forming a barre. Your index finger is now playing the notes F (at the first fret of both the low and high E strings) and C (at the first fret of the B string).

E-Shaped Barre Chords

Learning this E-shaped barre chord, you can now play any of the 12 possible major chords. Examine the chord in terms of its intervals:

The intervals of the E-shaped barre chord.

The root note of this shape is always at the fret covered by the index finger on either of the E strings. Since the low E string (the thickest one) is also called the sixth string, many guitar players think of E-shaped barre chords as “root 6” barre chords.

And as long as you know what note is at any given fret of the low E string, you can know each of the 12 possible major chords in this E-shaped barre form:

All 12 possible E-shaped barre major chords.

Sevenths, Minors, and Minor Sevenths in the E-Shape

In addition to E major, you probably also know the open-position chords E7, Em, and Em7:

E7, Em, and Em7 open chords.

Using the same process you did to form the E-shaped barre chord, you can now make these shapes all over the neck as well. First think of each chord in terms of its intervals:

The intervals of the E-shaped 7, minor, and minor 7 barre chords.

And then find the root note on the low E string to play any of these chords or all 12 possibilities of each:

Various E-shaped 7, minor, and minor 7 barre chords.

More E-Shaped Barre Chords

The chord knowledge you gained in Chapter 7 gives you the ability to form major seventh chords, minor major sevenths, ninths, and more chords. You can now combine that knowledge with your understanding of E-shaped barre chords to play these all over the fretboard. Here are the intervallic forms for most of the barre chords you will come across:

Various complex E-shaped barre chords.

A-Shaped Barre Chords

The same principles of guitar theory allow you to create A-shaped barre chords as well. Here are the intervals for any major chord formed with an A-shaped barre:

The intervals of the A-shaped barre chord.

Because the root note of this shape is always at the fret covered by the index finger on the A string (which is also called the fifth string), these can be thought of as “root 5” barre chords. And, just as with the E-shape, knowing the note at any fret along the A string (remember you have a chart of that in Chapter 2) means you can play any of the 12 possible major chords in this shape:

All 12 possible A-shaped barre major chords.


Just as you try to strum various open A chords from the fifth string downward (missing the low E string on the downstroke), you should likely try not to hit the low E when playing A-shaped barre chords. Some guitarists find that barring only five strings with the index finger helps. Others still barre all six but just lay the index finger lightly on the low E string, instead of fully fretting it, in order to deaden the lowest string.

Sevenths, Minors, and Minor Sevenths in the A Shape

Of course, since you know different types of A chords, you can convert those to A-shaped barre chords as well. Here are the interval forms for A7, Am, and Am7:

The intervals of the A-shaped 7, minor, and minor 7 barre chords.

More A-Shaped Barre Chords

And here are interval forms for the more complex types of chords in A-shaped barre forms:

Various complex A-shaped barre chords.


There will be times when you may not be able to fret each note of a given chord, particularly when you start playing complex chords such as ninths, elevenths, and thirteenths. Ninth chords using the A barre shape, for example, contain no thirds. And since your guitar has only six strings, playing all seven notes of any thirteenth chord is impossible! You’ll often find yourself choosing which notes of a particular chord to leave out and still get the sound you want.

C-Shaped Barre Chords

C Major is another “root 5 chord” you know well, and it also can be played in a barre chord form. Here your barre will be closing the notes on the open high E and G strings:

The intervals of the C-shaped barre chord.

All 12 possible C-shaped barre major chords.

More C-Shaped Barre Chords

Most of the other C chords, such as C7, Cm, and Cm7, are more easily played as A-shaped barre chords rather than C-shaped ones. Still, there are a few C-shaped barres worth knowing, such as these:

Various complex C-shaped barre chords.

“Cheating” on the C-Shaped Barre

Truth be told, many guitarists find playing C-shaped barre chords fairly difficult because of the stretches involved. So instead of playing full C-shapes, they use the Am7 form of the A-shaped barre chord:

Using Am7-shaped barre in place of C-shaped barre chords.

Playing this Am7 shape means not hitting both the low E and the A strings, which can make the chord sound thinner than you might like. You can hear this form of chord being used in many rock songs, including Randy Rhoads’ rhythm playing on Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train.”


This Am7 shape, combined with the use of open G tuning, is the bread and butter of legendary guitarist Keith Richards’ style. With his high E string tuned down a whole step to D and his A string tuned down to G (he often takes the low E string off his guitar), the Am7 form creates a constant shifting from a G to a passing chord much like a sus4 (you’ll learn about passing chords in Chapter 19) that gives his rhythms a distinct shuffle. You’ll hear them in most songs by the Rolling Stones, but they’re especially in the foreground on “Start Me Up” and “Honky Tonk Women.”

Putting Theory to Practice

If you’ve never tried playing barre chords before, you first simply want to get used to making barres with your index finger as well as having all your fingers on the fretboard at once.

But as you’re getting acclimated to playing barre chords, take the extra step in knowing exactly which chord you’re playing. Try to think of each one as a specific chord and not just as a generic shape.

Shifting from open-position chords to barre chords will also help you learn specific barre chords more quickly, so take time to incorporate one or two barre chords into the songs you already know. For example, if you play a song that uses the chords D, G, and A, try playing both the G and A chords as E-shaped barre forms at certain points in the song. Once you get some confidence in your abilities, try playing the D as an A-shaped barre chord occasionally. Being able to seamlessly change between barre chords and open-position chords will give your playing a wider range of sounds.

The Least You Need to Know

  • Open chords make use of open strings. In barre chords, all six strings are usually fretted.
  • Open chords make use of open strings. For closed chords, which includes most barre chords, every played string is fretted.
  • Because they are closed, barre chords can be moved to any position on the guitar’s fretboard.
  • E-shaped and A-shaped barre chords are the most commonly played by guitarists.
  • Both simple and complex chords can be played as barre chords.
  • The Am7 form of the A-shaped barre chord can be used as a substitute for the C-shaped barre form.