The Barre Chord Power Up: Increase Your Acoustic Guitar Playing Power Level to Over 9000!

A thorough run down of the key of E Major using open chords. Good for songwriters.

Ultimate Guitar
Remember when you first nailed a barre chord? When you first got all six strings ringing out you were delighted, but after a while, the gloss starts to wear off. This lesson covers a small trick to give barre chords in the key of E Major a new sound, increasing their power level to well over 9000.

The Barre Chord Power Up

When it comes to barre chord abortions, I'm what you would call a liberal - I'm very much pro-choice. I think barre chords should be avoided at all costs, because they sound terrible. Sure, you should have used protection and learned to play in DADGAD, but it's too late for that now - you'd have to relearn all the chords and no-one wants to be the a-sehole who can only play in DADGAD. What I offer below is my solution to the barre chord problem - What I call the guitar friendly key of E Major. I've split this lesson into two parts - The first part is just what the key sounds like and how to play it, and the second is the theory and how to use it.

Part 1: How To Play

Before you read anything, check out this video to get a feel for what this key sounds like and why it makes barre chords more interesting.
YouTube preview picture

Let's Hear Some Examples

In a nutshell, we're going to play in the key of E Major, which uses almost all barre chords, but instead of playing barre chords, we leave the e and b strings open. Check out the tab to see what I mean.

Ex. 1

E Major standard

Ex. 2

Guitar Friendly E Major
() Brackets indicate optional notes. Ex.1 and Ex.2 - The chords are the same, except for the open strings in Ex.2 Ex.1 - Uses barre chords only Ex.2 - Leaves the e and b strings ringing out. To play this we have to change the fingering slightly. Here's how the key sounds when you use it in a full song

The Fingering

In order to play in the new GF key, we need to learn two new shapes - an open major and open minor barre chord. Check it out below. Open Major Barre Chord*

Open Minor Barre Chord*

*My computer crashed last week and this was the best I could do in Mac preview edit.
I    ii  iii  IV  V     vi  vii     
Remember: I, IV and V are Major, ii, iii and vi are Minor. Forget about vii for now. Check out the video below for a quick walkthrough.

Part 2: The Theory: Gloss over if bored.

The standard chords of E Major are: I-E ii-F#m iii-G#m IV-A V-B vi-C#m vii-D#dim Dreadfully dull. Let's spice things up shall we? Let's turn these boring chords into a Guitar Friendly or GF key. When we start playing in the GF key, we end up naturally playing these chords: I-E ii-F#m7add4 iii-G#madd6 IV-Aadd2 V-Badd4 vi-C#m7 vii-D#dimadd2add6 It's a fancy list of chords, and it looks more like the result of someone smashing their keyboard. The beauty of the GF key is that you would likely never play these chords in this combination, but in the GF key it comes together quite naturally. As you can see from the tab in part one, all you have to do is leave the e and b strings open. The theory of GF keys is that in any key, there are the two most important notes - the root and the fifth, or the tonic and the dominant if you're being fancy. We take those two notes and play them with every chord. This will work because they are the most central notes in the key.

Common Q's

My song isn't in E Major, can this still work? Yes, either use the transpose button on the UG website or manually transpose the chords. You can google "transpose chords" into Google, but if you have any specific questions feel free to email me. Can this system still be used higher up the neck? What if I have a capo on the 8th fret? The system can still work, you just have to change it around slightly. To do that, you would play chords IV V and vi on the a string. See the tab below to try it out.
Do you have any examples of this being used in a song? No. It probably has been used, I just can't name any songs. I'm sure a few people will recognise it and share. So to use this system, I just play the same chords with the e and b strings left open? How do I play that? Yes. Check out the specific fingering guide under the "Part 1: How to Play" section in this article. What would you use this for? I personally use for three things: 1) make barre chord based songs more interesting. 2) To make a cover I'm doing sound fuller, mainly if I'm playing the song in a one or two piece situation. 3) As a way to make chord progressions sound more interesting - ii-vi-I-V sounds pretty boring to me in G Major, but in E Major it sounds awesome. I'm sure there are other uses, but those are the main ones for me. Are there any other keys like this that would spice up my acoustic guitar playing? Yes, I'll being doing more of these in future posts. About the Author: By Eoghan O'Neill. Sign up to his newsletter to catch these lessons.

24 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Yeah, I find those chords cool sounding (I figured this kind of chords out by myself - I just tried playing barre chords like that and they sounded great). But if you only learn this and not the basic barre chords, you can only really play in certain keys (any key that has E and B notes in the key signature - or you could leave some other strings open). Also, if you start overusing these chords, they become too basic sounding. They shouldn't be used everywhere. Basic chords without any added notes have their place. Sometimes you want it to sound simple. Sometimes the song needs simple sounding chords. For example not every bassline needs to be full of tricks - sometimes a simple bassline like in "Runnin with the Devil" by Van Halen makes the song sound awesome. Or not every drum beat needs to be over complicated - listen to AC/DC and the power of the simple drum beats - they just make the songs rock. Same with these chords - not every song needs to use them. Sometimes you want simple stuff. You need to learn to use barre, I think it's limiting if you can't use it. And you can add notes to the basic barre chords too. The barre technique is important in guitar playing - you can use it to build your own chords. Also, replace every add2 and add4 with add9 and add11 - they are the "more correct" names for the chords. And you don't need to use an "add" before the 6. Though I'm not sure if this is a lesson for those who can already play barre chords or for those who can't play them yet. Or maybe it's for both? But my point was, if you only learn to play like this, it's not a good thing.
    A few examples can be found in Rush songs.
    (the whole intro is around these Emaj chords) The part from 3:35 is just your "major shapes".
    Yeah, Rush use it a lot. The main album with this is probably Hemispheres, but also the albums released either side of it (A Farewell To Kings & Permanent Waves).
    dereck trucks only plays in a tuning similar to dadgad and he's the best guitarist i've ever heard
    Cool little technique, but it's got a lot of limitations. They're also not technically the same chord anymore, only the same root note. An F#m7add11 (or add4 as you put it, and I think it's actually just an F#m11, but I may be wrong there, so feel free to correct me) is not quite the same chord as an F#m
    Eoghan O'Neill
    No, you're totally correct. I just like to think of it that way so I can play around with songs easier.
    Don't stop at just E chords though - I once wrote a song that basically just moved this chord ---775 up and down the neck at places where the 3 open strings matched it. Sounded quite good on an acoustic. Been done before of course, but so what? And then, you throw in the odd fretted note to break up the sound of the "droning" strings... Ooh, endless possibilities etc etc.