Country Guitar 101

In addition to playing twangy bass-string riffs and pedal-steel bends, honky tonk lead guitarists love to outline chords by fretting major and minor sixths on the top four strings. These intervals suggest a horn or string section, yet played on a snappy Tele—think Roy Nichols, Don Rich, Clarence White, and James Burton—they’ll cut through the clamor of a roadhouse band.

Ex. 1 shows the two most useful patterns of sixths. In each grid, the three pairs of notes work as a set. Look at the first grid, which contains a minor sixth in the lowest position, followed by two major sixths, all played on the first and third strings. Notice the circled note on the first string—that’s the root for the set. Starting on the lowest-pitched grip—the diagonal shape—play through all three sixths. Now do the same for the second grid, which also contains a minor sixth in the lowest position followed by two major sixths, this time fretted on the second and fourth strings. Try different fingerings and befriend the ones that minimize lifting your digits from the strings.

You can play through either group of sixths starting with the highest or lowest interval in the set (the middle sixth acts as a stepping stone). You can also shift the three-part packages up the neck to different positions. Ex. 2 illustrates the process, outlining a D and G chord, respectively. In this case, we’re starting with the highest major sixth and working down to the minor sixth—the shape with the chord root in the top voice. Experiment by launching these same maneuvers higher up the fretboard to outline other major chords, such as E and A or G and C. First locate the root, and then trust your ears to guide your fingers.

Skilled pickers get their kicks by injecting the basic sixth patterns with rhythmic hiccups, chromatic approaches, and funky slides. Ex. 3 hints at the possibilities. In bar 1, notice how the sixth intervals are played melodically—that is, one note at a time. Yet by letting the notes ring together as indicated, you still hear each interval’s harmonic quality. The sixteenth-note, half-step approaches add quick tension and release. Bar 2 offers even longer—thus more pronounced—chromatic color. In bar 4, beat two, we borrow a trick from gospel piano, leaving the prescribed G group of sixths to insert an implied C chord before rejoining the G pattern by way of a dramatic half-step slide (beat three).

These sixths aren’t the exclusive property of country pickers. Memphis soul guitarists—including the mighty Steve Cropper—use the identical techniques, as do roots rockers and electric blues guitarists. Once you’ve absorbed these sounds, you’ll begin to hear them everywhere.