Mastering bar chords can be difficult and confusing in the beginning. However, once you learn the basics and things fall into their place, it opens a wide world of chords and with them, progressions and variety in playing. Though hard to grasp (literally and allegorically) at first, bar chords are a vital part of almost any style of playing.
In this article, we will try to give an approach to bar chords that will hopefully demystify the basics and give you a feeling of “I know what I’m doing” when practicing them. For this, we will take a closer look on the A Major bar chord, since one can argue that the finger order for A Major bar chord is the most common shape you will use. Moreover, I hope we will explain that the rest of the chord shapes can be boiled down to “remove one” and “add some” to this particular chord shape.
This is possible due to consistencies in two major areas – how chords are composed and the alignment of tones/notes on strings on a typical guitar neck. Due to these consistencies and small differences between majors and other chords and string alignment, bar chords don’t change much. The A Major bar chord is easy to learn and can easily become pivot for transducing other chords on the move.
What are A Major and A Major triad?
To figure out the A Major bar chord shape, we will quickly have to take a look into its origin, which is the so-called A Major triad.
Let’s break down the term “A Major Triad” starting from the middle word. The “Major” in the term refers to a major scale. It is a sort of staple unit in music theory. It consists of eight notes with a particular pattern of “distance” between them. This “distance” is measured in half-steps and steps.
Measuring distance on a guitar fret board
What is a half-step? It’s the smallest unit of distinction between tones in Western music. For example, a half-step is the difference between notes B and C, or notes E and F.
On a guitar neck, this is a difference between two neighboring frets. Play any note on a guitar neck, then move your finger up or down the same string, and you get to play its half-step.
Now, if you get yourself a properly tuned guitar with classic tuning, you would know that the strings are respectfully going as E, A, D, G, B, and E. If you start playing the first string from the top (E), then play the second one from the top, you will notice there’s a difference in tones. This difference is called an interval. Since we can measure it, let’s try to figure out how “distant” the E and A are.
To do that, move one fret at a time playing the two strings alternately until you hit the same tone. How many did you count?
If you’ve done this right, you should notice that the 5th fret of the E string sounds the same as playing the open A string. This means the difference between E and A is 5 half-steps or two and a half steps.
If you play around with other strings, you will notice the pattern repeats. A is 5 half-steps away from D, and G is 5 frets after D. Now, we get a little discrepancy in the pattern – G and H is 4 half steps away from each other. This will be important for later. Then we go back to the old pattern and find the 5-fret difference between B and high E string.
A Major Scale revisited
Once we figured out the units of measurement in musical tones, we can figure out what a Major scale is in general.
We can do this by checking the golden child of scales – C Major. Everything begins with this scale since it’s the most straightforward. The C Major scale has the following 8 notes: C, D, E, F, G, B (American), and C.
What do we do with this information? Well, we figure out the pattern in distance between notes. If we look at the piano keyboard, we find that we are only playing white keys in C Major. The black keys are also notes but we skip them because this is exactly where we need full steps instead of a half-step. Let’s go back a little bit.
The piano keyboard has black and white keys because the difference between every adjacent key is one half-step. We have the C, and there is a black key adjacent to it (don’t mind that all white keys touch each other, it’s important what the very next key you can play). This is C# (“C sharp”) or Db (“D flat”), a tone half a step away from C. We go on and we hit the D key, which is two half-steps or a full step away from C.
If we follow this pattern, we find that we get a full step between D and E. Then, we don’t have any black keys between E and F, which confirms that there is a half-step between them. Checking and counting on, we find that the C Major scale has the following distance pattern.
In other words, we can say that there are half steps between the 3rd and the 4th note, and the 7th and the 8th. That’s all we need to remember.
Now, let’s see how we can figure out the A Major scale. If we remember that we need to keep full steps between every note except the 3rd/4th and 7th/8th, we get the following:
This scale introduces three new notes, C#, F#, and G#. We could play these on the black keys of a keyboard. Though these notes can be called differently if we used flats (they would then be Db, Gb, and Ab), we used the sharps in this case, basically because it sounds more similar to the C-Major scale.
A Major triad revisited
Since we figured out which notes are included in the A Major scale, we can now talk about producing the basic chord, called the triad. It consists of three notes and two-thirds. Confused? Great, let’s clarify.
Every basic chord can be created with three notes. Since we’re looking into Major chords, we need to pick the right three notes from the scale to form it. These three notes are the first note of the scale (the base note), the third note of the scale, and the fifth note. Let’s check what those notes would be for the C Major scale first.
Before we answer, let’s try to figure it out. If the first note is C, the second note would be D. We come to the E, which is third, so it is a note in our triad. Let’s skip F since it’s the fourth note and go straight on to G, which is the fifth. So, the triad for the C Major scale is C-E-G.
Similarly, we can do that for the A Major scale – it’s A-C#-E. To consolidate this knowledge, let’s break the three notes into half steps and find them on the guitar by counting frets.
Since between A and C#, there are two full steps, you can say there are four half-steps or frets between them. C# and E are again separated by 3 half-steps or frets. Once more, A and E are separated by 7 frets.
If we remember that the difference between the upper strings is 5 frets, we can figure out that there is E on the second fret of the D string. We play the two strings together and we have a basic p5 riff, great for rock and metal.
A neat thing about chords
Now that we know what three notes are included in our A Major chord, we can learn one neat thing about chords in general – it’s the same chord no many how many notes you play if all the notes belong to a triad. In other words, you can repeat the notes in a chord by playing their octaves.
Since the guitar has 6 strings, we can play some of the notes twice or three times. Let’s figure out a weird chord that’s not used much but describes the case perfectly.
It’s the third iteration of A Major chord on open strings. Since we are only allowed to play A, C#, and E, we can figure out that the E, A, and high E strings are already on our side. We have to figure out what to do with strings D, G, and B.
That’s easy – we move two frets up on D to get another E, two frets up the G string to reach another A, and two frets up on the B, to get to the C#. We have all three tones in a triad, and we have our first chord.
This sounds a little off – this is because it’s not your bread-and-butter A major chord, since it starts with the third tone in the triad (E). This is called the third iterate. If the first note was the second one (C#), it would be called the second iteration.
If we want to play the first, basic iteration of the chord, the lowest tone has to be the first note in our triad, and the first note of the scale, which is A. So, we only have to do is to lose the top E string and start playing with the A string, from top to bottom. We have our A Major chord on open strings.
Introducing the A Major Bar chord
But, let’s say you really want to play all 6 strings! How do we do that? Our first task would be to locate the A note on the top E string of a guitar, which we already know where it is – on the E string’s fifth fret.
Next, we can either go with C# or E which are on the fourth and seventh fret of the A string, respectively. We can already repeat A on the D string (7th fret) or even play E (2nd fret) and C# (11th fret). However, we quickly figure out that E and C# are kind of too far.
The G string also has A on the second fret that’s too far as discussed, and E is also kind of way off at the 9th fret. However, C# is neatly on its 6th fret.
Then you figure out that the E and A notes are conveniently on the fifth fret of strings B and E.
Scratching your head a bit, we can figure out that though we don’t have 6 fingers, we can play the lower E, B, and the high E string with one finger barring the whole guitar neck on the fifth fret. We have three more fingers left, and it’s kind of neat how the ring finger can go on the 7th fret A string, the pinkie can catch the 7th fret D string, and then the middle finger can hit the C# on the sixth fret of the G string.
This way, we get the standard 5-7-7-6-5-5 shape. Strum it and you’ll hear the A Major chord. If any of the strings don’t resonate well, don’t worry, it takes time to practice the fingers to hold the strings properly, especially the index (bar) finger.
Launching yourself to other chords
Let’s say we practiced the A Major bar chord enough and we are a little bored. If we remember the pattern well and move two frets up, we can now play the B Major chord the same way. Move another fret up, and we can play the C Major bar chord as well. Go two half-steps lower than the A Major bar chord, and you get the G Major bar chord. Bar the neck at the first fret and play the same shape, and you’ll get F Major bar chord, which is notorious for being hard to play for beginners (picking thinner strings can help).
Not only that, but you are ready to play some minor chords as well. Just lift your middle finger from the G string, and you play a minor chord already. This is because the main difference between minor chords and Major chords is that there is a half-step between the 2nd and the 3rd note in a minor scale, instead of a half-step between the 3rd and 4th note.
This conveniently translates to bar chords that start on A string. If you ditch the top E string (don’t play it at all) and move your finger shape down one string, you have the basic shape for minor chords played with 5 strings, starting with the A string.
This is because of the difference between the G string and the B string. Since the difference is 4 frets instead of five, you conveniently place your fingers so that you can play the second minor tone in the triad, instead of the second major tone in the triad.
So, with one shape, you get to play both Major chords starting with the E string, and minor chords starting with the A string. By the way, if you want to play a Major chord starting with A string, you just align your fingers into an Open A Major chord – bar a neck with your finger, the middle finger rests two frets from the index finger on the D string, the ring finger is on the 2nd fret on the G string, and the pinkie hits the B string a fret higher than in minor chord – on the second fret, below the middle and the ring finger.