Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Spanish Nights: my love hate for Barre Chords

My fingers were stuck.

    I hate barre chords. Hate is such a strong word, but there's not another to express my disdain for them. I came to this realization one night during my classical guitar class. It was a warm spring evening and my teacher had decided to have class outside. We gathered around him under a shady willow tree and he showed us a new chord, the "F" chord. According to him, this particular "F" chord was our introduction to barre chords, and the perfect way to practice stretching our fingers. Beaming with enthusiasm, I quickly put finger one (pointer finger) over strings one and two, and placed the others where they needed to go. Within 10 seconds I felt a twinge of pain in my pointer finger but I didn't care, I was learning something new and ready to take my practice to another level. Then came the Arpeggios. When I got to strings one and two, my guitar made a loud THUNK. It's a sound that all guitarists know too well; the dreaded sound of muted strings (or string) which indicates that you're not pressing your fingers hard enough on the frets or your hand needs to relax so your fingers can be positioned up higher on the frets. Either way, the sound of muted strings is enough to crush the soul of any guitar player, especially a novice like myself. There I sat, the whole class staring at me, my eyes watering as I attempted to try again. Eyebrows raised, my teacher comes over to look at my hand and assess the situation. He said, "You need to relax, no need to be so tense". He attempted to move my finger a bit. With whispered breath I say, "I can't move my hand, my fingers are stuck". At this point the pain was surging up and down my fingers like an electric current. Was the pain in finger one, two or three? Maybe it's my wrist, I thought to myself. Some of my classmates giggled, thinking I was joking, until finally I said "Professor, I can't move my hand, my fingers have fused with the strings". One of my fellow classmates, a kind, older woman, came and gently eased my hand off the strings. She was even so kind as to rub my wrist and fingers. My teacher confessed that he'd never experienced such a phenomenon. I had never experienced anything like it; its like my hand was staging an active protest. It was battle that I could not win. After some WD-40 and a few more tries, I finally mastered the "F" chord and it was time to move on to other barre chords.

The dreaded "F" chord
   So on to barred Em we went. When the time came for me to put finger one down across all the strings and stretch my other fingers to the frets, I began to question my entire existence. The pain shot through my hand like a laser beam. Strings muted and fingers burning, I had had enough. " I'm getting the hell outta here", I declared, as I began to pack my guitar up. No way in hell was I going to endure this indignity any longer (I told myself to that playing the flute would be easier and I could be the next Bobbi Humphrey).To make matters worse, this was just a nylon string guitar. I knew that the steel would be a hundred times worse on my fingers. As I made my way to the towards the outdoor walkway, my kind older classmate from earlier called my name. I paused, shame rising to my face, and turned around to see her, the whole class and my teacher looking at me, collective disappointment on their faces. "It's, okay, it hurts all of our fingers in the beginning, but you'll get it, don't give up," she said. So, red-faced with embarrassment and shame, I sat at the nearest seat and unpacked my guitar. The next hour was grueling, but gave me a sense of accomplishment. We took frequent breaks to stretch and rest and soon the muted strings went away and I could actually hear the chords. I knew that with practice, I would get better, so I sucked it up and hung in there.

My classical guitar "Diablo"
   That was last spring, but I remember it like it was yesterday. What my teacher never explained to me was that the "action"on classical and acoustic guitars are high, causing you to press harder, making you gain strength in your hands. Recently, I moved over to electric, a Schecter c6 plus. The action was very low on the neck and my fingers just glided seamlessly up and down the fretboard. I was a barre chord master, the strength in my hands that I gained from the acoustic, served me very well on my new electric. All the strings rang out clearly and I had a new appreciation for barre chords.

He's so pretty, I had to take his picture twice.
  I often think about the elderly lady in my class, her kind face, her patience, her soft healing touch. We lost contact after the spring class and I think about her from time to time. If only I could email or call her to thank her again. She refused to allow me to give up and words can't describe how grateful I am for that. If I had walked out of class that day, I might have tossed my guitar aside, sold it and moved on with my life, but she saw something in me worth fighting for. I took a lot from that guitar class, not least of all, the kindness she showed me. It made me more determined then ever to pass that on to someone else. It would be tragic for me to emerge from that experience with a defeated attitude, Music isn't for quitters. No pain, no gain.

 To whoever's reading this: Never give up and remember to be kind to others, and keep the circle of love going.

I could say that I hate barre chords still, but hate is such a very strong word.


  1. Very well written...I used to hate them as well...but I also persevered and they are (mostly) a breeze now and for some time. Good for you Mango! I'm going to save this for students to read to help them as they tend to struggle with them.

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