Some of the most versatile licks I know involve 6ths. Depending on how you spin them, these licks work in rock, blues, country, bluegrass–virtually any popular style of music. I think the reason they tend to sound good is that they are built into the fabric of our chords (see note 1 at bottom of this page for more detail on this). And as a rule, things that are closely related to chords are going to tend to sound good.
What are 6ths?
When I refer to 6ths, I’m referring to an interval–the distance from one note to another. One very simplistic way of looking at it: From any note, a 6th is five letters away. If you consider your starting point to be #1, and then go up 5 steps, you’ll land on #6. That’s why it gets called a 6th. Examples of 6ths would be A to F, G to E, or Bb to G.
If you are counting carefully, you may have already noticed that there are a two possible different kinds of 6ths–these are known as major 6ths and minor 6ths. A to F would be an example of a minor 6th. From A to F# is a major 6th (notice, it’s still 6 letters away, even though there is now a # on that F). If you count the half-steps in these intervals, you’ll see that a minor 6th is 8 half-steps away (A > A# > B > C > C# > D > D# > E > F). , and a major 6th is 9 half-steps away. Note that in this situation, the terms “major” and “minor” don’t really have anything to do with chord quality–the simply refer to the size of the interval. A “major” interval is bigger, a “minor” interval is smaller.
What do 6ths look like on the fretboard?
It’s OK if that last paragraph sounds wonkish and confusing to you. These intervals make distinct and predictable patterns on the fretboard–and because of that, it’s not entirely necessary to know your 6ths off the top of your head. Rather, you can just rely on the patterns they form on the fretboard which, conveniently enough, can be easily associated with the CAGED system shapes.
In the diagram below, you can see where the 6ths can be found within the CAGED shapes. After that, we will take a look at how to use these to construct some licks by connecting them together.
One other less obvious 6th
There’s one more 6th that you can add to the mix, and is buried within a 7th chord. It’s also easy to visualize as part of a 9th chord too, if you’re familiar with that one:
6ths within minor chords
As you can imagine, 6ths are present within minor chords too. To my ears this is less of a bluesy thing, but extremely useful when following chords melodically. There are 3 primary fingerings for minor chords that I like to work from (basically the minor version of the CAGED system). The examples below are in the key of Bm, but if you can learn to associate them with the chord shapes, it’s easy enough to apply them in other keys.
Scale in 6ths
If you take all of the 6ths we have so far, you only have to add a couple more to play an entire scale in 6ths. Here is the entire A mixolydian scale played in 6ths, starting with the CAGED “E” shape on the 5th fret.
And here’s the A mixolydian scale played on the 2nd & 4th strings:
“The Killing Floor” (and others)
This first lick, or something very close to it, is the main hook in “The Killing Floor” by Howlin’ Wolf (and Jimi Hendrix poured some gasoline on it later (see the end, at about 2:30)). It was probably used before that, but Wolf’s is the first version of it that I’m aware of. Something similar was also used in “Soul Man” by Sam & Dave, and in the bridge of “The Lemon Song” by Led Zeppelin. We’ll do it here in the key of A, but you should use the CAGED shapes to help you transpose it to other keys. We’re going to start with a 6th derived from A chord using the CAGED “D” shape, and connect it to a 6th that’s based on the CAGED “E” shape a few frets below.
The 12-bar blues turnaround
If you’ve played some blues, you will probably recognize this lick–it (or something like it) is often used as a turnaround in a 12-bar blues progression. With a chromatic connection between two of the intervals, this one has a bluesier sound. Again we’re in the key of A.
You can mess with the phrasing on this sequence however you want. The resulting licks work great in rock, country, blues, bluegrass…just about anywhere, really. Here are a couple ideas off the top of my head:
Other string groups
This same pattern of 6ths can be found on the 2nd & 4th strings, based on the CAGED “C” and “A” shapes. This lick is in the key of D, and uses some chromatic approach tones:
Following chords using 6ths
Because these 6ths cover a large portion of the neck, it becomes fairly easy to follow chord progressions by connecting them where it’s convenient. The following lick uses 6ths based on the patterns we saw above, following them through a progression with an A, D, and E7 chord, returning back to A:
Real World examples of 6ths
I will finish off this lesson by showing a couple of real-world examples of 6ths in action. If you are aware of any other songs that use 6ths extensively, let me know and I may just add them to this page.
“You Enjoy Myself” by Phish has a section that uses 6ths extensively, starting at about 1:30 in the studio version. The first part of it uses 6ths over a G major chord:
And the next part of this section continues the use of 6ths as the chord changes to a D7:
“Operator” by Jim Croce features some beautiful acoustic work by Maury Muehleisen. Croce’s stuff was very influential to me when I was young, and is at least partially responsible for my love for acoustic guitar. Here’s a YouTube of the song, and below is the tab for the lick that you hear as he starts singing the verse.
Eric Clapton’s first lick on the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” uses 6ths over an E7 chord:
Jerry Garcia’s lick on the intro of “Black Throated Wind” also uses 6ths over an E7 chord:
Note 1: If you know some theory you may remember that standard chords are built using 3rds. If you flip a 3rd upside down, you get a 6th. So, for example: To build a C chord, you start with a C note and add the 3rd, which is E. The distance from that E up to the NEXT C would be a 6th. And then you add a G note on top of that E–and the distance from that E up to the next G would also be a 6th. So, depending on how you arrange the notes in your chord (how you “voice” the chord), 6ths can play a big role in chord construction.