Born on December 17, 1944 in São Paulo, Brazil, Carlos Barbosa-Lima grew up in the Brooklyn district of the city. He states that he began playing guitar when he was seven.
Barbosa-Lima recalls that his father, Manuel Carlos, hired an instructor to teach him how to play guitar. The lessons were then transferred from the father to the son, and the child became known in the neighborhood as a prodigy. After two years of lessons with Benedito Moreira, the young man was introduced to Brazilian guitarist composer Luiz Bonfá. Under the recommendation of Bonfa, Barbosa-Lima was directed to Isaias Savio, the father of the classical guitar school of Brasil. At the behest of family, friends, and acquaintances, he made his concert debut in Sao Paulo in November 1957 when he was twelve years old. During the next year, he performed on a television variety show that introduced young musicians and gave a solo concert in Rio de Janeiro. He signed a contract with Chantecler, which was part of RCA Brazil, and in June 1958 he released his first album, Dez Dedos Magicos Num Violão De Ouro.
In 1960 Barbosa-Lima began the life of a traveling musician, touring in Montevideo, Uruguay, and eastern Brazil. He made his American debut in Washington, D.C, in 1967. He toured through the U.S. and Central and South America. Barbosa-Lima was now making his own arrangements for guitar. In 1964 he released an album of arrangements by the popular Brazilian songwriter, Catullo. Friends of Barbosa-Lima heard these arrangements and encouraged him to continue arranging for guitar.
In 1967 Barbosa-Lima gave his New York debut at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall (then known as Carnegie Recital Hall). This concert was met once again with excellent reviews and moved his career onto the global concert stage. In 1968 he went to Madrid to play for Andrés Segovia. After returning two years later, he gave a concert in New York's Town Hall. At the conclusion of this concert, he was approached by Harold Shaw and Shaw Concerts who offered him a steady stream of concert dates within the United States. With the heavy concert schedule and Masterclasses now available to him through Shaw Concerts Barbosa-Lima took a teaching position at Carnegie Mellon University (1974–1978). It was during this time that Barbosa-Lima's reputation as a world-class guitarist began to blossom and composers began writing works for him. One very important composer of this time was Alberto Ginastera who composed the Sonata for guitar, op. 47 for Barbosa-Lima. The latter end of the decade (1977) saw Barbosa-Lima perform Francisco Mignone's Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.