Just Because You’ve Got Six Strings… doesn’t mean you have to play all six all the time!

Hey, welcome back to our regularly scheduled programming, and to something that (I hope) will be more of a lesson than a rambling. Don’t get me wrong, rambling is important. Without a free and open discussion of ideas and philosophies, we don’t get the opportunity to grow very much. And, as I’ve told you many times, I’d rather have a student who questions things than one who merely takes my word and then moves on. Today we’re going to look at our “six-string orchestra,” as Harry Chapin once described his guitar in song, and wonder why we’re compelled to play all six come hell or high water.

One of the first things that informs a teacher that his or her guitar student has got an ear of some sort is when the pupil learns to play a D major chord. Invariably, the fledgling guitarist will strike all six strings in order to sound the chord and (hopefully) will grimace or show some outward sign that he or she knows that this sound a bit off, not quite right. The student may not know the reason why, but this will, of course, be learned.

But you can see from where the confusion comes. Watch any guitarist, especially the hard rockers. To the eye, it looks as if he or she is flailing away at the instrument. Unless we are watching someone performing a solo (and even then), it certainly seems as though all six strings are taking a beating almost all the time. But that is rarely the case.

This is where (and why) one’s ability to listen and to hear is so important. And, contrary to what many people may believe, this is a skill that most people can develop. We’ve talked about this before, when we discussed how ear training was vital in order how to figure out a song without the use of TAB (Happy New Ear). If you’d like to take a moment or two to review that article, please go right ahead, we’ll be here…

All set? Good, then let’s proceed. Explaining why the D chord sounds “not quite right” is easily explained. We already know, good little theory students that we are, that the D major chord is made up of the D, F# and A notes (the root, third and fifth of the D major scale). We also know that by playing the low E (sixth) string, we are introducing a note that has nothing to do with the D major chord. Therefore, it should sound amiss to our ears.

“But, David,” you say, “what about when we leave the high E string open? Didn’t you call it a Dsus2 back in Building Additions (and Suspensions) just a few months back?”

I’m glad you asked. This actually goes back to something else we touched upon way back in the beginning of the year. Those of you regular readers may recall that I often use the phrase “chord voicing” and that we discusse it a bit in the column Multiple Personality Disorder. Simply put (meaning: “put in an infuriatingly unhelpful way”), “chord voicing” is how the chord is “voiced” by your instrument. I know, I’m really getting annoying. Let’s try this example that we’ve also used before: your guitar is a choir that has six people. Each string corresponds to one person who sings (or doesn’t sing) when that particular string is struck (or not struck). Just as a choir has different voices – soprano, alto, tenor and bass (from high to low) – your guitar also has different voices – E, B, G, D, A and E. When you play a chord, you assign each string a note and that is the “voicing” of that chord. Let’s look at the chords in question:

D chords 1

So, then, playing a D major chord, we “assign” the D notes to the fourth string (open) and the second string (3rd fret), the F# to the first string (2nd fret) and the A note to the third string (also 2nd fret). In our Dsus2, we replace the F# with the E on the first string and all is right with the world.

Or is it? To those of you who are arguing that I haven’t solved the problem at all, give yourselves a pat on the back. All I’ve actually done is given you a look at the D chords arranged for four “voices” as if in a choir. But it is a place to start. Now let’s look at this a little more in depth.

Working From The Bottom Up

Before we go any further, I want to remind you again that music theory is based on the conventions of the past. It doesn’t begin to cover everything because it is so easy to come up with exceptions to the rule. But I also want to remind you that it will give you plenty of arguments as to why things are done they way they are. If there are certain tones and intervals that appeal to you that “traditional” theory says are “disonant,” then more power to you. All harmony is based on disonance and resolution and, quite frankly, there are some “disonant” intervals which are, at least to my ears, quite pleasing. To each his own.

One of the traditional rules in theory is that once you know the make up of a particular chord, you can play that chord anywhere within the range of one’s given instrument, provided that you do have all three notes somewhere. In The Power of Three, I showed you how you could play a C major chord virtually anywhere up or down the fretboard. The same is true of any chord you care to name. With the guitar, you have the option of how many voices you want to use. Technically, you can play a chord with only three strings. This is a method often used with very young children. Since their hands sometimes cannot grasp the entire fretboard, they learn chords using just the first three strings. As they grow they then start to learn the “full” chords, as opposed to the “partial” chords, although here “full” and “partial” refer actually to the span of the fretboard and not the actual chord itself.

Yet another tradition of theory dictates that the bass note (the lowest note of the chord you’re playing) should be the root or the fifth. Again, this is not a be-all-and-end-all rule, but it is a good suggestion, especially to the beginning and intermediate guitarist. Let’s listen to our D chord again, but this time I want you to follow along – play what I’m asking you to listen to. Don’t just take my word for this (don’t EVER just take my word for anything!). Okay?

D chords 2

First, let’s play the D with just the first four strings. And let’s do this with down strokes, shall we? Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Now play it with the first five strings. Still sounds okay. Different, maybe a little fuller, but still okay. Now with the open sixth string and – oh my God, what was that??!! Just kicks you right in the head, doesn’t it? Hey, let’s add our thumb to the 2nd fret of the sixth string to give us our F# in the bass instead of the dreaded E. That doesn’t sound bad, really. But if we’re honest with ourselves, the first two versions of the D major chord sound the best.

And let’s note here that this is actually a reason quite a few guitarists prefer the “drop D” tuning (see On The Tuning Awry for more details). By tuning the low E down a full step to D, you give yourself a pretty full bass sound with the D – A – D of the lowest three strings.

If you think about this, you’ll also understand why some people prefer to play their C chords with the G note in the bass. Let’s look at the two “standard” ways of playing this chord:

C chords

Again, it really becomes a matter of your preference in sounds. Myself, I rarely use the low E string on first position chords (even on the A or Am). But this is mostly because I want those notes for bass-work and not clutter. And, as I said, there are always going to be exceptions. Later on this fall, we’ll be covering alternating basslines and other things where we’ll be deliberately going against what I’ve just told you. And wait ’til you see the havoc next week brings…

Finesse: Accompaniment and Implication

But in the meantime, let’s explore this aspect of playing a bit more. And I guess that means we need the old disclaimer:

These files are the author’s own work and represent his interpretation of the song. They are intended solely for private study, scholarship or research.

There are two types of guitarists who already know quite a bit of the nuances when it comes to not playing all six strings at once. And, appropriately (you know how I love a paradox), they tend to inhabit totally different worlds. These two guitarists are, of course, the “power chorders” and the “pickers.” As we’ve previously noted (again, in Building Additions (and Suspensions) as well as Scales Within Scales), the power chord is simply the root and the fifth and in order to give it as much “ooomph” as possible, people tend to play them on only three strings: either the third, fourth and fifth strings or the fourth, fifth and sixth. Even riffs can fall into this category, as you can hear in Keith Richards’ signature riff of Jumping Jack Flash:

Jumpin Jack Flash part 1
Jumpin Jack Flash part 2

Or try this one from Money For Nothing courtesy of Mark Knopfler:

Money for Nothing part 1
Money for Nothing part 2

But riffs can also be wielded by the acoustic guitarist as well. Here’s a familar one from Tracy Chapman:

Fast Car

But as much fun as riffs can be, there are also guitarists who use the instrument to create accompaniments that are incredibly delicate and intriguingly intricate. It can something very simple, yet very elegant, as here in the beginning measures of Van Morrison’s Crazy Love. Try it out and see:

Crazy Love

This is a fine example of using the guitar in the manner that a pianist might accompany a vocalist. The instrument plays the notes of the chords individually. Your ear actually puts the chords together. I might note hear that it takes a lot of practice to play like this while singing!

And of course this style of playing can get really involved as well, like in the introduction to Little Wing by Hendrix. I’m not going to detail this in TAB for you here, though, because we’re going to be studying this in much more detail in November or December.

A skilled guitarist or writer can use this “chords by implication” device to stunning effect. Take Simon and Garfunkel’s version of Scarborough Fair. If you look it up in a words-and-chords format, chances are very likely you’ll see something like this:

Scarborough Fair lyrics

But if you listen to Paul Simon’s fingerpicking pattern on the recording, you’ll be wondering (and muttering to yourself) for days on end. What is he doing? Well, I could tell you for starters that he’s playing with a capo on the seventh fret and you could say, “Great! Then all I’ll have to do is transpose the chords to A minor and I’ll be set!” But that’s really not what’s going on either, is it?

Actually, playing the Em (or Am) chord is precisely what he doesn’t do! No lie! Instead, he uses this two chord progression in place of the Em chord (and again, this is with the capo on the 7th fret):

Scarborough Fair

Now that’s pretty wild, isn’t it? In the first line of the song the E minor chords each have a count of two measures. Simon uses this progression to fill those two measures and while the E minor chord is never fully voiced, it is fully implied by both the accompaniment and the melody.

These are the sort of “tricks” that open up whole new dimensions for the guitarist. Towards the end of the year, once we get a little more theory under our belts, we’ll be delving into more and more stuff like this. But for now, if you take anything at all away from this lesson, please let it be the idea that you can get as much from your guitar with a bit of finesse as you can by banging it to death. There will be times for that, believe me, but your guitar will ultimately breathe a bit easier if you utilize both methods. And I think you will be pleasantly surprised at how much more control you will gain over your instrument when you develop a lighter touch.

A few quick notes: while Paul’s been away, I’ve served as a designated “answer man” and I would like to thank all of you who have written for your patience when I haven’t gotten back to you immediately. For the many requests for more Songs For Beginners, be assured that more are on the way. After all, we don’t want to drive our webmaster crazy by giving him a dozen articles to edit as soon as he gets back…

As always, please feel free to write in with any questions, comments, concerns or topics you’d like to see covered in future columns. You can either drop off a note at the Guitar Forums or email me directly at [email protected].

Until next week, when I’ll tell you to forget everything I told you this week (!)…