6 Sixth Licks For Bluegrass Guitar

6 Sixth Licks For Bluegrass Guitar

Marcel Ardans

Marcel Ardans

The sixth interval seems to be a a breakthrough concept for many players, for some it might be hard to remember a time before you knew a couple little sixth phrases. If your new to the idea, its more simple than you think. Starting on C, let’s count six notes in the major scale: C, D, E, F, G, A. That means C and A are a sixth apart, its that simple. You might think recognizing two notes that are a sixth apart might be harder on the guitar but that’s not too tough either. You see sixths on the guitar are characterized by skipping a string. In all of these licks if I jump from one string to another and skip one in-between, that’s probably a sixth.

This article is by no means a complete list or methodology to how your favorite players use sixths. Rather these licks were plucked from the Jazz and Grass account on Instagram that I help run which promises a new guitar lick everyday.

6. Country Style

For most of us, we might associate the sixth sound with country vocabulary. In the lick above you can hear when paired with a classic country bending statement an ascending sixth lick is right at home. You can find more of these in my article 10 Must Know Country Telecaster Licks.

These linear straight ahead sixth lines may have become a cliche of the country genre but they’re still worth breaking down. The first sixth is built of a slide into a G# and an E, this implies an E major chord. The next sixth is a hybrid picked A and F# this would imply a B7. Next we have a chromatic passing hybrid picked sixth built of Bb and G; followed by a sixth comprised of B and G# that returns us back to an E major sound. 

That means the implied chord change here is E – B7 – E, I – V7 – I or in casual terms 1 – 5 – 1. But for each step of the implied changes we’re only able to articulate a portion of the notes that build up these chords. This is one of the trademarks of a sixth lick.

5. Descending Strings

One way to break up the linear feeling of a sixth line and deviate from the cliche country sound is to use the sixth motif across different string sets. 

In this lick the first full measure uses sixths to imply G major (B and G) then a nonfunctional G9 (A and F). The next measure moves down a string set and performs the same maneuver to imply D Major (F# and D) and a functional D9 (E and C). The last measure moves down a strings set and by a shifting down a sixth implies G major (D and B), a chromatic passing sixth (Db and Bb), and D7 (C and A). After all that the line resolves on a G triad.

4. Avoid The Root

One nice way to also elevate your sixth lines is by purposefully avoiding the root of a chord. This lick is structured around a D – A – D chord change but when it comes to resolve over the last D chord there is no D note in sight. 

Looking at the second measure our first sixth is C# and A (or the 3rd and root of the A chord). Moving down a string set I then use G and E (or the 7th and 5th of the A chord). This slides up into seventh fret where hopefully you can hear A and F# (or the 5th and 3rd of the D chord) but no D note. Despite this, things still feel very resolved. 

3. Octave Displacement

This lick ends with a scenario that should be familiar to you if you’ve ever tried to play bluegrass in the key of D. Your playing a descending line, down you go, but you get to the end of your low E string and there is no D note down there for you to resolve to. Sadly, fret -2 cannot be reached on this plane by us mere mortals.

Looking at the last two notes we can see how we got out of that tough situation. We’re using a sixth interval to perform a simple example of octave displacement. Essentially continuing a line an octave away from where you’d expect. In this case the sixth interval from F# to D helps us smooth over the fact that we’ve just had to jump an octave to resolve our line.

2. Make A Line

This concept is broad but is likely the most important piece of advice you can gain, make a line that is more than just sixths. The sixths are the inspiration or the jumping off point but there is more in our line around them. 

We can analyze this line like the others we’ve seen: the first measure feels like A – A7 or A9 (C# – A moving to B – G), the second and third measures briefly imply D moving back to A7 (A – F# moving through Ab – F and landing on G -E), eventually resolving to D (F# – D). But that would kind of be missing the point, the thing that makes this lick interesting is all of the connective tissue between the sixths. Bluegrass lines are always more than the sum of their parts by way of construction and that should never be something we ignore.

(Also, check out that escape note on the open B string. More on that in my article on 8 Licks With Open Strings Up The Neck.)

1. Crosspicking

There’s lots of sixths all over the beginning of Tony Rice’s Streets Of London off of the Church Street Blues record. They’re a great way to break up your crosspicking and really all it comes down to in this context is skipping a string. 

As usual the deceptively simple ends up at the end. These are chord arpeggios, this shouldn’t be too hard. Sadly, this will take more than one article to get a hold of but its a good journey to go down. Best of luck including sixths in your bluegrass guitar breaks!

If you liked this article, you might also like 10 Up The Neck Travelling Licks!


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