By Aldo Chircop
Yes, this is about the dreaded F barre chord, the nemesis of many guitar players who’ve just started getting to grips with chords.
Many people seem to struggle inordinately with correctly holding a barre chord on the first fret. If this is or has been the case for you, have you ever stopped and asked yourself why? If you want to know the answer, then read on.
First, we need to understand a basic physics principle. When you have a piece of material under tension, such as a guitar string, and want to deflect or bend it by applying a sideways force to it, the amount of force required to obtain a certain deflection will vary according to where the force is applied along its length.
You can easily picture this by imagining a tight rope walker. The rope will feel much stiffer very close to the supports, than at the centre.
The exact same thing happens with a guitar string, which feels harder to bend or even press down on a fret in the area close to the nut, than somewhere around the middle. This is to a degree unavoidable.
However, on at least some guitars, this problem is made a lot worse by a nut that is way too high!
By increasing the distance by which you must deflect the strings at the point where they are already at their stiffest, a nut that is too high will make barre chords on the low frets – chief among them the F barre chord on the first fret – feel a lot harder than they should.
And this, ladies and gentlemen, might be the ‘silent killer of F chords’ which is making it so hard to play an F chord on your guitar. Yes, this is one of the few cases where the blame could lie squarely on the instrument rather than the player.
If you are currently struggling to play F barre chords correctly, you owe it to yourself to check whether the nut on your guitar is too high. If this is the case, you will save yourself a lot of grief by having a guitar tech replace or file down the nut or getting a guitar with a properly adjusted nut.
Here’s a very simple and sure-fire method to check if the nut on your guitar is too high.
First, simply form and hold an F barre chord at the first fret and take a good mental note of how much effort it requires.
Next, place a capo on the first fret and hold the barre chord at the second fret. Again, take a good mental note of how much effort it requires.
Now here’s the golden rule:
If holding the barre chord at the second fret with a capo at the first fret, feels much easier than holding the barre chord alone at the first fret, that is a sure sign that the nut is too high and must be filed down or replaced.
On a guitar with a properly adjusted nut, both tests should feel very near to identical, and any increase in effort required at the first fret should be almost imperceptible. If the difference is significant, then your guitar needs some work.
And there you have it. The silent killer of F chords finally unveiled. Do this test if you have been having trouble with F barre chords. You might be pleasantly surprised to discover that a little maintenance work on your guitar is all that’s needed to solve the problem.
About the author:
Aldo Chircop is a guitarist, composer, producer and guitar teacher based in Malta. He is president and chief instructor of Malta Rock Academy, home of the best blues, rock and metal guitar lessons in Malta.