Slip Sliding With Sixths

I live and play around Chicago. Naturally, there’s a lot of blues going down, and I do a lot of acoustic guitar and blues harp gigs. When I’m laying down grooves behind some hot harmonica solo or accompanying a vocalist, it can get pretty tiring playing the same patterns over and over again. One way to dress up a simple blues progression is to throw in a few sliding fingerings and open strings. And this technique works far beyond the blues, as we’ll examine in this lesson.

We’ll look first at a simple chord scale in the key of e, shown in Ex. 1, using a series of sixths slid diatonically up the fretboard. The notes we’re playing (e, F#, G#, A, B, C, D#, e) make up what we call the e Mixolydian mode, but don’t worry about that for right now. Just dig how easy this is to play and how huge it sounds.

Now we’ll find a typical use for these sliding sixths, which is to play a 12-bar blues in e. But this is a real “uptown” kind of blues, thanks to all the jangly open strings. In Ex. 2 we’ll use only the first three chords from the scale in Ex. 1. In bar 1 I’ve shown the chords as simple quarter notes; bar 3 shows a dressed-up rhythm involving muted strums between each chord. These muted “chunks” help drive the tune, giving your progression a great shuffle groove. A basic eighth-note, down-up strum pattern with ringing, open strings throughout simply rules. Use some fret-hand muting to keep things in control.

In most cases, I switch to an open A position to play this same riff over the IV chord. In Ex. 3, start with the A7 and slide on up, matching the feel and sound we used on the I chord. Try the A pattern using straight quarter-note strumming to be sure you’re not accidentally muting any of the open strings with a fretting-hand finger. Then try adding the additional rhythmic power illustrated in bar 3 of Ex. 2.

Now I’ll toy with your illusions about the sanctity of music theory, while illustrating a common trick many guitarists use to make solid blues and rock playing easier. In Ex. 4, I’ve slid the exact fingerings from Ex. 2 up the neck to play over our V chord (B), and then down two frets to play over the IV chord (A). Classical music theory frowns upon such parallel voice movement, but hey, this ain’t Mozart. This approach works for both rhythm and lead guitar playing and is a mainstay of successful rock and blues techniques—playing identical fingerings over the I, IV, and V chord. Take the easy road when you can.

But enough of the blues. I teach the above to all my students as a jumping-off point for using these nice-and-easy sliding-sixth fingerings to fatten up all kinds of chord progressions. I even use them extensively in my rock and country lead playing. You’ll want to use them in other keys, too, so in Ex. 5, I’ve laid out a similar chord scale starting on an A7 chord.

In Ex. 6, I’ve taken an excerpt out of that A chord scale that sounds a lot like the really cool climb in Supertramp’s (and the Goo Goo Dolls’) “Give a Little Bit.” This exact little exercise would also work in just about any rock or up-tempo folk song with a measure or two of A. So work these cool sixths into your vocabulary and start slip-sliding away.