Welcome to Part 2 of our lesson on playing the dreaded F chord!
In Part 1, we found a good substitute for F, just to get us going in the right direction. That substitute was Fmaj7 and we knew all along that we were going to replace it with a proper F.
After all, when so many songs call for an F chord, and you can’t play it cleanly – or at all – then you have to substitute something so you can make it through the song, right?
We also took a look at expanding our fingering of that Fmaj7 so that it more closely resembles our final F chord product. By adding in finger 4 we not only thicken up the sound of the chord but also prep ourselves for moving into the full barre chord shape.
In this lesson, we’ll abandon our F chord substitutes and get down to the real deal. Pack a lunch, kids – we’re going in!
What You Need
How many ways do we need to play F?
Eventually we’ll need a full barre as well as two versions of the quasi-open shape, F and F/C.
Terminology Note: You can never really call an F an “open chord” because that would imply that it has at least one open string. However, since F is often found alongside other true open chords in the open position (aka, 1st position), and you can play it without a full barre, I sometimes refer to the F chord as “quasi-open”.
For a long time I thought it was easier to play the quasi-open F than the full barre. After watching people struggle with it – and after consulting Jamie Andreas’s DVD on barres – I’ve come to the realization that it might be just as easy to learn the barre and work backwards.
Honestly, I don’t know for sure what will work for you. We’re all different.
So let’s stay flexible and agree that we have a few avenues for mastering the F chord. We’ll test ’em out and see what works, the same way I do it in my guitar studio!
Location, Location, Location or Yet Another Reason Why F Sucks: The fact that F is located at fret 1 makes things harder, since you’re working at arm’s length. More “petite” folks with more “petite” arms will find this even more objectionable. If you don’t appreciate the reach right now, go ahead and capo at fret 4 and play your F chord at fret 5. Or don’t capo and just play it at fret 5 anyway. The point is that pulling your arm closer to your body will make things a tad easier.
The Quasi-Open F
When I was a kid and learning to play – before I even knew that barre chords existed – I had to contend with the dreaded F in the only shape that I or any of my peers knew:
This version of F is what I now call the “quasi-open” form; that is, the chord that most folks start off with in the open, or first, position.
You might think that playing this form of F has to be easier than the full barre. However, guitarists still find it maddeningly difficult to play the quasi-open shape well, because of…
The Partial Barre
The single most important – and difficult – element of the quasi-open F is the partial barre.
A partial barre is simply a barre technique that covers a small portion of strings, usually two or three, with one finger. In the case of F, we need to do this with finger 1.
The physical requirement for a good partial barre is the ability to invert your finger at the first, or distal, joint.
As a matter of fact, it would be good practice to do this with each of your left hand fingers, as they will ALL be called upon to perform it at some point (especially finger 3).
When you apply the partial barre to the middle strings, your finger will tend to invert more. But as you can see in the following photo, the partial barre at fret 1, strings 1 and 2, results in a fairly flat finger, especially when the thumb is on the side of the neck. This is good news for those folks who cannot invert their distal joint (see note below photo).
Unfortunate Technique Point: If you can’t invert your distal joint – and a small percentage of folks cannot – then you will have more difficulty here. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s true. All is not lost, however, if you find yourself in this group; you simply have to aim for flattening your finger as much as you can. A flattened finger should be doable and we can work with that.
Interesting Wikipedia Moment: I searched “barre chord” on the Wiki just for kicks and giggles and found a section called “Small Barre Chords”. It says that, as opposed to the full barre F, “the small bar or regular F chord is easily obtainable.” Just thought you’d like to know. 🙂
The “Open” F Method
Here is a solid method that I currently use with my students:
STEP 1 – Start with Fmaj7.
This is a great way to start because it uses what we already know to get us into the proper hand position.
Simply make the standard three-finger Fmaj7 shape and keep your thumb on the side of the neck. The pressure from your thumb should come from the bottom of the thumb pad, near the first joint, NOT close to the tip.
STEP 2 – “Collapse” finger 1 on a diagonal.
After establishing the Fmaj7, “collapse” finger 1 onto strings 2 and 1 to form F. Aim for a diagonal partial barre across the fret, NOT in a line parallel to the fret.
If your thumb is riding along the side of the neck, then it should virtually force finger 1 into the diagonal partial barre, which is a good thing. When established, the partial barre should in turn force the pressure downward toward the base of the thumb. Your palm will likely rise up a little to the neck as well.
IMPORTANT THUMB NOTE 1: Remember that we always want to work with our anatomy, not against it. If you try to barre finger 1 straight across and parallel with the frets, then it will fight your thumb position, forcing the thumb back. In the case of quasi-open F, we’d rather not have the thumb rotate back, because that will expose the low strings and reduce our ability to mute them.
IMPORTANT THUMB NOTE 2: Keeping the thumb on the side makes the chord feel a little clunkier at first, but in the long run it pays off with more benefits, such as muting options and strong, cohesive hand position with other chords. So the best cue is to aim for support at the base of the thumb rather than on the pad of the thumb. The base – right around the thumb’s last joint, where it connects to the hand – will give you the strongest leverage and likely feel most comfortable.
STEP 3 – “Push” the chord.
Once you’ve established the partial barre and feel the change in thumb pressure, cue yourself to “push” the chord across the fretboard toward you.
Since the barre is the toughest part and you’re trying your best to keep your finger inverted (or at least flat), the natural urge is to “pull” back into the barre and away from you. Unfortunately, this often causes fingers 2 and 3 to lean back from their upright position, thereby screwing up some perfectly clear notes.
After struggling to teach F effectively for a long time, the recent discovery of “pushing the chord” was a lightbulb moment for me and my student.
Using this mental cue will not only keep the barre solid, but it will also help to keep all upright digits in their proper positions and, as a bonus, allow you to mute string 5 with the tip of finger 3. Score!
STEP 4 – Mute the low strings.
Now that you’re pushing the strings instead of pulling them, the tip of finger 3 should be bumped up against string 5, creating an easy mute.
If, for some reason, you cannot mute string 5 with the fingertip, then playing it open will result in the chord F/A:
This is not a deal breaker, but it’s not ideal, since the open A bass note is not always appropriate. Make a solid effort to mute string 5 with the fingertip.
It’s also highly recommended that you then make it your business to mute string 6 with the thumb.
This is a challenge, especially while keeping all your other fingers steady, but if your thumb is positioned properly on the side of the neck and the pressure is coming from the base of the thumb, then the pad of the thumb should be in pretty good position to just touch string 6. No need to press!
Other F-ing Options
Two other ways to tackle the quasi-open F chord would be to start with Fmaj7/C (as seen in Part 1 of this lesson) or to start with the partial barre.
1 – Starting with Fmaj7/C is almost identical to the method outlined above, except that all fingers are aboard to start. It makes sense technically and it is highly useful in all sorts of playing situations.
Having more fingers aboard makes the chord feel a bit more cramped at first, but ultimately this grip will give you a solid hold on the chord and easily take care of your muting issues.
2 – Starting with the partial barre is another way to play F, but I usually try this as a last resort.
It’s a little trickier to get the right feel, since you’re starting with just one finger and then have to establish all the others after the fact. Experiment with it, but I recommend you start with the above method.
In Part 3 of this lesson, we’ll look at some techniques for making the best possible F barre chord. Stay tuned!
Let’s Go to the Video!
Want to see this lesson demonstrated on video? Check out How to Play the F Chord. Got a technique for playing the F chord that you’d like to share? Let me hear it in the comments!
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