Video Lesson: Bringing Sunny Sounds Into Shadowy Harmony

Playing melodies in parallel sixths evokes the sweet sound of classic Memphis soul. Here's how to use sixths in a variety of musical ways

If you’ve listened to some classic Memphis soul—Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, and so on—there’s a particular way of playing harmonized melodies on the guitar that you’ve most certainly heard. It’s a sweet, stirring sound, made by playing melodies in parallel sixths. What this means is that each melody note is supported by another note six scale degrees lower. To harmonize the melody note G in the key of G major, for example, you’d count down the scale from G until you were six scale tones lower. That lower note would be B. When you play the B and G together, you’re playing a harmonic sixth. Example 1 puts this idea into action with a four-measure figure inspired by the work of Steve Cropper—the session guitarist who played on loads of Memphis soul records in the 1960s.

Press photo of Booker T and the MGs

As you can see in Ex. 1, sixths lay easily on the guitar. That’s because the instrument’s standard tuning naturally features this interval. Strings 1 and 3 (E and G) happen to be tuned a sixth apart, as are strings 2 and 4 (B and D). As such, a sixth is nearly always within reach of wherever you happen to be on the fretboard. You’ve likely played some sixths yourself, even if you weren’t thinking of them in music-theory terms.

While it’s common to play sixth-based shapes in major keys—in soul and other styles—sixths are used less regularly in minor-key settings, for whatever reason. That’s a shame, because melodies in this interval can be just as beautiful and evocative in minor keys. In this month’s Weekly Workout, you’ll study several types of minor scales and will learn to play sixths through each scale in musical ways.

All of the examples in this lesson are in the key of E minor. This makes it easier to hear how the melodic ideas will sound in context, because you can hit your low E string for reference anytime. No looping pedal or backing tracks required.

Week One

There’s more than one type of minor scale to study. This week, you’ll get to know three of them: the natural minor, the harmonic minor, and the melodic minor. Each has its own unique character, which you’ll want to learn to discern aurally. Though there’s no absolute right or wrong when it comes to fretting-hand fingerings for sixths, many players finger same-fret note pairs with first-finger half barres and staggered-fret note pairs with fingers 1 and 2 (or 2 and 3). Experiment with different fingerings for each example here. Use whichever best support melodic fluidity as you move up and down the fretboard. As for your picking hand, fingerstyle or hybrid (pick and fingers) techniques tend to be most effective.


Example 2a shows the E natural minor scale (E F# G A B C D) played from E to E on the first string. It’s harmonized in sixths, with the lower intervals played on the third string. Play this example several times—ascending as written, as well as descending—before moving on to the next one. You’ll be ready to move on once you play it without looking at the page or at your fingers.

Example 2b is structured similarly to Ex. 2a but features the E harmonic minor scale (E F# G A B C D#) instead. Again, take your time with this. Don’t just sight-read it. Learn it well and be sure you can hear how it’s different from Ex. 2a. You’ll see the same framework once more in Example 2c, this time using the E melodic minor scale (E F# G A B C# D#) in its ascending form. (When played descending, the melodic minor scale is identical to the natural minor.)

Example 3 is an ascending melodic pattern in E natural minor. Apply the same patterns to the E harmonic minor and E melodic minor scales as well. Make up some patterns of your own too—some with smallish leaps, as in Ex. 3, and some with larger leaps. As with the previous examples, patience will pay off here. Strive for accuracy and flow—not speed.

Beginners’ Tip #1

The important thing this week is learning to hear the differences between the minor scale types. Record yourself playing each scale slowly, then listen back. Train your ears, not your fingers.

Week Two

This week, you’ll practice these three minor scales again, using more varied melodic patterns. Such patterns are really effective when it comes to familiarizing yourself with new scales and shapes.

Continue the pattern of Example 4 as far as you comfortably can on the fretboard. Once you reach that highest point, work your way back down. Stop once you get to the open first and third strings, if you’d like, or continue the pattern on the lower strings for an extra challenge. Likewise, Examples 5a and 5b may be expanded across the playable range of your guitar. Apply all four of this week’s melodic patterns to the other two scales—E harmonic minor and E melodic minor—as well.

Week Three

And now, for a completely different sound, you’ll learn the ins and outs of the eight-note minor-sixth diminished scale (E F# G A B C C# D#) shown in Example 6a. One unusual quality of this scale is that it can be used to build a pair of chords that recur in alternate succession—Em6 and F#dim7, as Example 6b illustrates.

The next two examples show how these two chords can be used to support a simple melodic phrase. The melody is stated alone in Example 7a; in Example 7b, it’s richly harmonized, using the E minor-sixth diminished scale. The harmonization method is this: Whenever the melody note is any one of the four chord tones of Em6 (E G B C#), use an Em6 voicing with the melody note on top; when the melody note is any one of the four chord tones of F#dim7 (F# A C Eb), use an F#dim7 voicing with the melody note on top.

How does this all relate to the sixths you’ve been practicing in previous weeks? You’re about to find out! As you’ll see in Example 8a, each four-note chord from Ex. 6b can be broken into two pairs of sixths. That means that you can reduce Ex. 7b from four-part harmony to two-part, while maintaining a similar quality—see Example 8b.


Week Four

In these final figures, you’ll learn to apply the previous weeks’ concepts to a different sort of minor scale—minor pentatonic (in the key of E minor, once again, for ease and convenience), shown in Example 9a. Because of this scale’s five-note construction (E G A B D), it’s not possible to harmonize every scale tone in sixths. While this may seem to be a downside, it’s actually a plus—because it will lead to some interesting non-parallel harmony.

The first interval pair in Example 9b is a sixth (G and E). The next two pairs are sevenths (A and G, B and D), followed by another sixth (D and B), another seventh (E and D), and finally a sixth (G and E). Play this example a few times to familiarize yourself with this unusual sound, focusing your ears on the top line first. Then play it again and see if you can focus on the bottom line. Finally, play the example once more and try to hear both lines simultaneously.

Example 9c starts with the interval pair of a fifth (A and E). Most of the other pairs here are fifths as well. Only the B-and-G pair (measure 1, beat 2, and measure 3, beat 2) are sixths. Still, this harmonization is a not-too-distant cousin of Ex. 9b and is worth exploring as you study minor-key sixths.

Example 10 is a folkish melody that utilizes the harmonies from Ex. 9b. The previous examples have all been played over the I chord. This one brings a couple of other harmonies into the fold, as indicated by the chord symbols.

Beginners’ Tip #4

If this example’s character appeals to you, try composing your own pentatonic etude—in E minor or any other minor key. New musical concepts tend to stick more permanently when your creative “muscles” are engaged.

Playing melodies in harmonic sixths musical notation and guitar tablature, examples 1 - 6b

Playing melodies in harmonic sixths musical notation and guitar tablature, examples 7a - 10


Take It To The Next Level

While all of the examples in this lesson are presented in the key of E minor, be sure to practice this material in other keys as well. The next logical step would be A minor, because you can use the open A as a bass-note reference (as you did with the low E) while playing sixths on strings
1 and 3 or 2 and 4—as shown in the example here.

But don’t stop there. There are 12 minor keys in total. Get to know the scales and intervals in all of them. If there’s a minor song that you love to play, practice it in every key—sans capo. When you can easily play scales and intervals in any key and can apply this lesson’s concepts to a favorite song in any key, your level of fluency with sixths will be very high.


Playing melodies in harmonic sixths musical notation and guitar tablature, take it to the next level

Adam Levy is an itinerant guitarist based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared on recordings by Norah Jones, Lisa Loeb, Amos Lee, and Ani DiFranco, among others. He is also the founder of Guitar Tips Pro.

Adam Levy
Adam Levy

Adam Levy is a first rate sideman, singer-songwriter, educator, and journalist. Check out his excellent lessons in Play Guitar Like the Great Singer-Songwriters and String Theories.

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