Teaching Bar Chords on Guitar: A Way Into Music Theory?

Teaching Bar Chords on Guitar

The study of bar chords can provide a guitar teacher with an ideal opportunity to build technique and also introduce music theory to their students?

teaching bar chords to guitar studentsThere are really two different objectives with regard to bar chords as far as our students are concerned. The first is …..

To enable our students to  physically play the four basic major and minor guitar bar chords shapes?,

and the second objective is……….

To ensure that they become capable of working out where bar chords are located on the neck of the guitar?

Root notes of the four common guitar bar chord shapes are located on the (low) E and A strings. If our students can identify all of the notes on these two strings then it is simply a case of “hanging” the appropriate major or minor shape onto the note in question?

If you look at the picture at the top of this article you will see that one of the handouts that we have produced is a “Bar Chord Root Finder” which graphically displays the name and location of the notes on the bottom two strings of the guitar.

The use of bar chords is also a good way “into” music theory as perhaps for the first time some of the “rules” of theory can become relevant to a guitar player because they can help him (or her) to find the root notes of chord shapes that they want to play.

Guitar bar chord root notes on the E and A stringsUp until this point (the point at which when a student is technically ready to move on from playing the open chords of the CAGED System) I tend to steer clear of music theory in preference to helping my students to develop the ability to change between simple chords (in time) and developing single note skills by practicing recognisable tunes and riffs (song intros etc) using guitar tablature rather than notated music. I work on the theory that its a bit strange to teach someone something that they can’t do (play single note riffs and melodies etc.) using a language (notated music) that they do not (yet) speak.

To properly understand how to work out where bar chords can be built on the neck of the guitar people need to know about the (seemingly strange?) way that musical notes are named and set out. This provides an ideal opportunity to introduce music theory?

I tend to use the root finder to point out the fact that there is an interval of a whole step (2 frets) between each (natural) letter name other than between B and C and also between E and F which feature a half step (1 fret) interval.

Students can also be made aware of the fact that the notes which are found behind frets between the natural notes can be either sharpenned or flattened versions of those natural notes depending upon the circumstances. As a guitar teacher you do not need to go into those circumstances at this stage? It is enough that the learner becomes aware of the general principle. later this awareness can be built upon when studying scale and chord construction.

This provides the student with a “bite sized” chunk of music theory and prepares then for the study of guitar scales and chords that may be to come.

I normally also spend a little time using the root finder as part of a short “question and answer” session with questions like “Which note is a whole step above G? on the E string” and “What note can be found a half step below C on the A string?”

Playing First Bar Chords on Guitar

Using a backing track to help students to play bar chords in time

bar chords for guitar teachersIn order to have them work with bar chords effectively we need to help our guitar students to develop a functioning mental “map of the neck” Becoming able to identify the notes on the E and A strings (at first with reference to the “bar chord root finder” but after a while using only their own increased understanding) will significantly increase their grasp of how both the guitar and the music theory  af the thing works.


A great way to start students off  along this path is by using two bar chords (A and G)  along with our relevant backing track which features a bass player and drummer playing a repeated chord progression consisting of two bars of each chord as in the video below which shows how a single backing track might be used to help teach guitar at various stages of a learners career?

Ask the students to play a single bar chord as each chord changes (giving them plenty of time to form the next shape) and please consider sharing this post using the social networking/email buttons below? Cheers!

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