The recognition of specific DNA sequences by proteins is thought to depend on two types of mechanism: one that involves the formation of hydrogen bonds with specific bases, primarily in the major groove, and one involving sequence-dependent deformations of the DNA helix. By comprehensively analysing the three-dimensional structures of protein-DNA complexes, here we show that the binding of arginine residues to narrow minor grooves is a widely used mode for protein-DNA recognition. This readout mechanism exploits the phenomenon that narrow minor grooves strongly enhance the negative electrostatic potential of the DNA. The nucleosome core particle offers a prominent example of this effect. Minor-groove narrowing is often associated with the presence of A-tracts, AT-rich sequences that exclude the flexible TpA step. These findings indicate that the ability to detect local variations in DNA shape and electrostatic potential is a general mechanism that enables proteins to use information in the minor groove, which otherwise offers few opportunities for the formation of base-specific hydrogen bonds, to achieve DNA-binding specificity.