Playing the A Shape Barre Chord
From JamPlay.com – The Number One Source for Guitar Lessons.
Note – If you are not yet familiar with barre chords, please visit our previous article titled Learning Barre Chords. This article will help you understand what exactly a barre chord is as well as offer up advice on how to make playing them easier.
In our last installment we talked about the general ideas behind barre chords and delved deep into the E shape. This time around we are going to take a look at the A shape and what makes this invaluable chord tick.
The first, and most important thing, to realize about the A shape barre chord is that this is a 5 string chord. The root note, or naming note, will no longer be on the 6th string (the low E string), but instead on the 5th string (A string). This means that your index finger now only needs to barre five strings, and that whichever note is played on the 5th string names the chord.
The regular A major chord is pictured to the left. Take a good look at this chord and memorize the finger position, as this is the shape the A shape barre chord is based off of. Notice that the 5th string remains open, which makes it an A note, giving this chord the name A major.
Transforming this chord shape into a barre chord is extremely easy on paper, but turns out to be quite a bit more difficult in practice. As you will notice, the chord chart of the A major open chord makes use of only the 2nd, 3rd and 4th fingers, leaving the 1st finger, or barring finger, free. Finger the A major open chord using the chart to the left. Once this shape is fingered properly, and all of the strings are ringing out clearly and without distortion, move the shape up to the third fret. That means move your 2nd, 3rd and 4th fingers up to the 3rd fret of the 4th (D), 3rd (G) and 2nd (B) strings. Now strum from the 5th string down and notice that the chord no longer sounds good. This is because the open A string and E string are no longer part of the chord. To return clarity to the chord and remove dissonance, the barre must be added. Drop the index finger across the first fret, pressing down strings 5 through 1. For the sake of practice and strength building, I recommend trying to depress all five strings, but in all reality the only strings you need to truly be concerned with barring are the 5th (A) and 1st (E).
Once the first fret is barred properly, strum again and notice how the sound flows with a beautiful synchronicity. It is once again a major chord, ringing proud and true. Since it has been moved up a fret, it is no longer considered an A Major. This chord could be named either A# Major or Bb major. They are both the same chord, using the same notes, but the name of the chord can change depending on the context of the playing (usually going upwards, as in from A to B would be A#, going from B to A would be Bb). Don’t worry about understanding that for now, it’s not important to comprehend, just understand that A# and Bb are the same thing. Moving the entire shape up another fret (starting on the second) would transform the chord into a B Major, the third fret would be C major and so on. If you don’t understand the naming of the chord or why it changes as you move up and down the neck, please see our first article on playing barre chords.
If you are lucky this chord will ring out perfectly and sound beautiful and you will be able to move it up the neck with ease. If this is the case, feel free to practice the chord and explore it’s subtle intricacies. Substituting barre chords in place of open chords in your favorite songs (or practice routine) is a great way to practice, and I recommend doing so. For the rest of us, those who are having problems gripping this chord shape and having it ring out in crystal clarity, our journey continues.
Some individuals, myself included, will not be able to play the chord in this shape. Trying to cram the 2nd, 3rd and 4th fingers all within such a small space can be difficult, if not impossible, for payers with larger fingers. The problem is only compounded as the chord shape moves farther up the neck and the space between frets grows ever smaller.
Let us forget for a moment about the barre chord, and return to the A major open chord. In order to make playing the barre chord easier, we must master a different variation of it’s patriarch.
Take a look to the right and you will notice that this version of the A major is played quite differently from anything you may have seen before. Instead of using individual fingers, compressed and tangled into a frenzied clump, only the third finger used. It holds down the 4th (D), 3rd (G) and 2nd (B) strings by itself. This same feat can also be accomplished using only the index finger, and is often done in genres such as fingerstyle, but for the purposes of making a barre chord we need to ensure that the index finger remains open and free of entangling responsibilities.
Let’s give it a try, shall we? Try fingering those three strings on the second fret using only your third finger. The first and biggest problem that generally occurs is that the third finger does not bend enough, making it difficult for the 1st string (high e) to ring out properly. This is a problem that will only improve with time and practice as your hand gets stronger and better coordinated. Don’t worry too much if this happens, if you are playing a song and the chord comes up you can always neglect to play the 1st (high e) string. That’s not to say you shouldn’t eventually learn to finger it properly, but it can take time.
Now, move that shape up to the third fret and lay your index finger across the 5th string-1st string, making certain that the 5th (A) and 1st(high e) strings are fully engaged. When strummed, the chord should ring clear and bright, enlivening the room and all in it. If this isn’t the case, experiment with hand and finger position until perfection, or it’s closest possible approximation, is achieved.
It should be noted that this particular version of the chord takes an immense amount of hand strength and may only be possible for to hold the chord for a moment or two, at least at the onset. Don’t worry about this too much, continue practicing and as your strength increases it will quickly become second nature. If playing this chord at the first fret is too difficult, trying playing it farther up the neck, perhaps the 7th fret, and work your way down. Less tension is required to fret the chord as you move up the neck.
These two shapes create exactly the same chord and the sound should not differ. Simply choose whichever version is most comfortable for you to play and practice it well. If you desire to play a genre such as fingerstyle or Jazz, there may be situations in the future that require you to play one particular shape or another (to free up a finger to play melody or bass notes), but for now it is simply a matter of personal preference.
Good luck, my friends, this is a difficult chord to play and can take weeks, perhaps even months, to fully master. Just remember, no matter how hard it feels to finger the chords now, after proper practice your hands will grow stronger and each day will be easier than the last. If you have any questions or comments please be sure to leave them below.