Chords on a guitar can be divided by shape in two main categories. We have barre chords, and open chords. There are other chord shapes that don’t fit in these two categories, but we’re not going to talk about them in this article.
Barre chord is a type of chord played by using one finger (an index finger for most of the time) that presses multiple strings across one fret.
Open chord is a type of chord that includes at least one open (unfretted) string.
Those chords differ by shape, but that difference causes many more differences between them. In this article we’re going to analyze barre and open chords, alone and together in relation. How do they differ in terms of sustain, sound etc., when are they used more and so on.
Let’s start the analysis!
Open chords have a bit longer sustain. That’s because they include at leas one open string. Open strings tend to ring for a longer time than fretted strings do. You’ll notice that when a length of a string is longer, a sustain is also longer.
Since a string is longest when it’s open, an open chord is expected to have a longer sustain.
Another part of the reason why sustain is longer in open chords is the fact that many guitar players intentionally, or unintentionally, mute strings with their fingers when playing barre chords. Beginners often struggle with sustain when they play barre chords.
But, apart from that, barre chords simply have less sustain because they consist only of fretted strings. And fretted strings are shorter in length than open strings.
Transition of one chord to another is also something by which barre and open chords differ. Transition between one barre chord to another barre chord is easier.
That’s because all barre chords have a same shape. OK, there are different shapes between barre chords, but the difference is negligible. For most of the time, you only have to slide your hand from one fret to other. When you slide your hand, you don’t have to worry about how to position your fingers when you need to change a chord.
On the other hand, transition between open chords requires more finger dexterity. Guitar beginners have to practice those transitions, and pay more attention to their fingers, every time they are about to change a chord.
If transition is easier between barre chords, then why would we use open chords, you may ask? The truth is, the sound is different. And sound is important. That brings us to the next point.
It is mentioned above that open chords have a bit longer sustain than barre chords have. However, that’s not the only difference in regards to the sound they produce.
There are common progression between chords. Some chord progressions sound better with certain chord shapes. Also, some genres of music sound better with barre chords, some sound better with open chords.
Let’s examine the following chord progression. G – C – Am – C – D. Should it be played with barre or open chords?
Let’s say you’re playing it with an acoustic guitar. The answer is: It sounds way better with open chords. Why? It’s because it uses different open shapes, so it’s more interesting. If you were to play it with barre chords, it would sound dull and uninteresting.
Open chords have different shapes between themselves. For an acoustic sound, they usually sound better than barre chords.
I chose that particular progression (G – C – Am – C – D), because it is used in the following famous song. More Than Words by Extreme.
Now, just for the sake of argument, try to play the beginning progression by using just barre chords. It doesn’t sound as good as it is with open chords, don’t you agree?
4. Noodling and Alternate picking
We can take another example. Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd. The song uses same open chords, although in a different progression. You can notice another thing. When you play with open chords, it is easier to do guitar noodling. Guitar noodling is when you add other notes while you’re playing open chords. Take a look at the YouTube video here, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Basically, with barre chords it’s harder to add more flavor by adding notes while you’re playing chords in a certain rhythmic pattern.
Also, open chords are better when it comes to alternate picking. By this, I mean when you pick one string at a time, up and down, through the chord you’re playing.
5. Playing Styles
When it’s the time to incorporate barre chords in playing, then? Barre chords sound great with distorted sound. In other words, they are used heavily in rock music. That’s because the first three tones of a barre chord constitutes a power chord. Power chords are an integral part of punk, rock and metal genre.
In a way, barre chords sound more ‘powerish’ than open chords do. Although, distorted open chords are also often used. For example, Angus Young, the lead guitar player of AC/DC is famous for his usage of open chords. Keith Richard of The Rolling Stones, as well.
Barre chords are also used when a guitar serves as a secondary, filler instrument in a mix. In other words, when a guitar is not a main instrument, but rather a background accompaniment.
Open chords are played mostly within the first three frets on a guitar. Open G, C, D, A and E are the most known open chords. There are other open chords played further on a fretboard, like Aadd9 for example.
But basically, when we talk about open chords in terms of position on a fretboard, we’re talking about first three frets most of the time.
Barre chords can be played throughout a whole fretboard. Their shape allows you to play them everywhere. That advantage of barre chords comes in play in certain genres.
For example, ska genre. A guitar in reggae ska music is played by using barre chords. That’s because the reggae ska music demands chords to be in a higher register. In other words, chords are to be played higher on a fretboard. That demands barre chords.
7. Palm Muting
Palm muting is one of the fundamental guitar techniques. When it comes to chord shapes, it is obvious that the muting control is easier with barre chords.
When you play chords in some strumming rhythmic pattern, you often have to mute them to prevent them from unnecessary ringing. Rhythmical muting is easier when barre chords are used. That’s because you can mute barre chords from ringing simply by loosening your fingers on a fretboard.
To mute open chords from ringing, you have to deploy palm muting technique. And in a context of open chords, it takes some time and practice to mute them properly.
So, yes, barre chords are clearly easier to control.
8. Easy vs. Hard
For an intermediate player, barre chords are not hard. They are as easy to play as any open chord. However, if you’re a beginner, barre chords demand time and practice.
The most common issue is the fact that barre chords can become painful to perform. That’s due to soft skin and weak fingers that are characteristic for beginners. If you’re a beginner experiencing a problem with performing barre chords, read this article.
I hope this article gave you a valuable information about the subject. Open chords and barre chords represent two of the basic chord shapes that are played on a guitar. Let’s just highlight the areas where differences between the two chord shapes arise.
Open chords: more sustain due to longer ringing time of opening strings
Barre chords: less sustain
Open chords: A bit harder to transition between chords for a beginner, as transition requires a higher level of finger dexterity
Barre chords: Easy transition between chords due to the same shape every barre chord has.
Open chords: Bigger, more resonant sound than barre chords.
Barre chords: More compact sound.
- noodling and alternate picking
Open chords: Better for noodling and alternate picking
- playing styles
Open chords: Suitable for songs where a guitar is the main, leading instrument.
Barre chords: Suitable for rock, punk and metal where their ‘powerish’ sound blends well. Also suitable for songs where a guitar serves as an accompaniment, background instrument.
Open chords: Played mainly on the first three frets on a guitar.
Barre chords: Can be played anywhere on a fretboard.
- palm muting
Open chords: Demand more skill to mute when playing a strumming rhythmic pattern.
Barre chords: Easier to control muting.
- easy vs. hard playing
Open chords: Easier to play for a beginner
Barre chords: Demand more skill, time and practice for a beginner to master them.
That’s it. I hope you liked it! Check out other interesting articles from this site.
Cheers, and rock on!