Monday, July 18, 2016

Chords and Triads on the Bass VI

On the bass VI, fully voiced chords can sound sloppy and muddy, even with the EQ adjusted and the bass strangle switch (if you’re playing on one of the new Squier VM models) engaged. There’s just too much boom in there. But you can still play chords. You just can’t play the bass VI like it’s a guitar.


I’m a bass player, and only a mediocre guitar player. I’m self taught on the guitar, so I learned open and barre chords, but not much nuance around them. Playing the bass VI like a bass isn’t that hard, if you already play the classic four string style. But, the bass VI offers a lot of versatility, and isn’t really that great if all you’re doing is playing it like a four string bass. So, I decided to take some bass VI lessons from a guitar teacher, and that helped me figure out quite a few things about the instrument.


Here’s my first big take away from working with a guitar player to understand the bass VI:  Chords are a jumbled mess, but triads are clear and full without sounding boomy. For this post, I’m going to assuming you understand scales, basic chord shapes (particularly open chords and full barre chords). If you don’t, you’ll still probably get some use out of the triads I’ll show you, but you’ll definitely want to find some further resources on chord basics.


Playing only three notes, with no repeats, gets chords across with clarity, and the bass VI’s unique voice can make that sound pretty badass. I’m going to show you a few shapes so you can start playing your major and minor chords on the bass VI without the mud associated with trying to play full open or barre chords.


Let’s start by looking at the construction of a major triad.

Major Triad

A major triad is composed of the root, the 3rd, and the 5th notes of the major scale. So, we have the 1-3-5 pattern we seen in most chords. In most chord shapes on the guitar, these three notes are repeated in various patterns to create the full chord sound. In the open E shape, for instance, you have a pattern of 1-5-1-3-5-1.


“E Major Shape Barre Chord”
E A D G B E
_ _ _ _ _ _
1 _ _ _ 5 1
_ _ _ 3 _ _
_ 5 1 _ _ _
_ _ _ _ _ _


(Note: This is a vertical representation of the guitar neck, not tablature. In this post, the numbers represent scale intervals, not frets. No particular fret is assumed, as we’re talking about shapes, not specific chords, at this point.)


If we’re looking to pair down the number of notes in a chord as well as operate in the bass VI voice sweet spot, we need to find ways to play just three of these notes at a time. If you look closely, you can spot the first triad shape we’ll use in the open E chord pattern: 1-3-5.


You’re probably more used to seeing this pattern when the E shape is used as a barre chord. You might have even learned part of it as an “F” chord: 1-3-5-1.


“F Major Shape Chord”
E A D G B E
_ _ _ _ _ _
_ _ _ _ 5 1
_ _ _ 3 _ _
_ _ 1 _ _ _
_ _ _ _ _ _



Take out that top repetition of the 1, and you’ve got your first major triad shape. Here’s the pattern with scale intervals as numbers, and then again with just the triad we want.


“E Major Shape Barre Chord”
E A D G B E
_ _ _ _ _ _
1 _ _ _ 5 1
_ _ _ 3 _ _
_ 5 1 _ _ _
_ _ _ _ _ _



“E Major Shape Triad”
E A D G B E
_ _ _ _ _ _
_ _ _ _ 5 _
_ _ _ 3 _ _
_ _ 1 _ _ _
_ _ _ _ _ _


Rooted on the 4th (D) string, move this shape up and down the neck when you need a major chord. It’s played at the same position of the neck as an E style barre chord would be played, so you if you know all the notes on your E string, you shouldn’t have much trouble quickly finding the triad you’re looking for.


For instance, if you want to play an A major triad, keep your index finger on the fifth fret, just as if you were going to barre that entire fret.


Muting is a skill you’re going to need a lot when playing multiple strings on the VI. Use the side of your index finger to mute your first string, and either your thumb or the side of your ring finger to mute the 5th (and optionally 6th) string. This frees up your picking hand from needing to be completely clean when striking the triad.

Minor Triad

Now let’s add a minor triad to the mix. This works along the same principles as the major triad we constructed before, except now the 3 is flattened a half step to create a minor chord.


Just like the E major barre form before it, we can borrow from the E minor barre chord and end up with:
“E Minor Shape Barre Chord”
E A D G B E
_ _ _ _ _ _
1 _ _ 3 5 1
_ _ _ _ _ _
_ 5 1 _ _ _
_ _ _ _ _ _




“E Minor Shape Triad”
E A D G B E
_ _ _ _ _ _
_ _ _ 3 5 _
_ _ _ _ _ _
_ _ 1 _ _ _
_ _ _ _ _ _


Let’s throw in another option, though. Just like we found an existing triad inside the E minor chord shape, we can do the same thing with the A minor chord shape.


Here’s that A minor chord shape, with the numbers representing the scale tones of the notes. See that 1-3-5 pattern? By playing just that portion, you also get a nice and chimey minor chord. (It’s also the same exact fretting pattern you play one string below for a major chord.)


“A Minor Shape Barre Chord”
E A D G B E
_ _ _ _ _ _
_ 1 _ _ _ 5
_ _ _ _ 3 _
_ _ 5 1 _ _
_ _ _ _ _ _


“A Minor Shape Triad”
E A D G B E
_ _ _ _ _ _
_ _ _ _ _ 5
_ _ _ _ 3 _
_ _ _ 1 _ _
_ _ _ _ _ _

So far we have one voicing for a major triad and two voicings for a minor triad. If you haven’t already figured it out, why don’t you chart out the intervals and find a 1-3-5 triad in the A major chord shape as an exercise?


In my next post, I'll go over triad inversions and and add a bunch of new triads to the toolbox.


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