Riffin’ is a free weekly video guitar lesson series by Nashville guitar guru Dave Isaacs focusing on the construction and development of killer guitar riffs. There’s a lot to learn in this series, so be sure to subscribe!
Video Guitar Lesson
We’ve explored a variety of intervallic and triadic shapes on the guitar neck, and by this point you should be beginning to see how these different forms can be combined to create a wider sonic and harmonic palette. In my last vlog we explored close-position major triad shapes, and in this installment I want to continue by adding the minor forms.
Once again, a little simple theory. Changing major sounds to minor is simply a matter of lowering a note by a half-step, or one fret. This applies to intervals as well as chords – a major sixth becomes a minor sixth when the upper note is dropped one fret. With chords, the 3rd of the chord determines whether a chord is major or minor. Remember that “3rd” refers to the third note of the alphabetical sequence that begins with the root (the note that names the chord). Refer back to your major scales if you’re not sure how to find this note, and keep in mind that a 3rd (as all scale degrees) has a distinctive sound you can learn to recognize by ear.
In terms of the shapes on the fingerboard, minor forms work just like their major counterparts. You probably already use the 6-string major and minor bar forms, where the root is on the sixth string under your index finger and we change major to minor by lifting the middle finger off the third string. This has the effect of lowering the 3rd of the chord as I mentioned earlier. Using the 5-string bar forms you probably also know, you can see and hear the same thing happen when you switch from, say, a B major chord (with the root on the 5th string, 2nd fret) to the corresponding B minor. Visually this one takes a little more thinking, since we have to rearrange the fingers, but if you just picture the form or look at a diagram it’s easy to see that only one note changes: the 3rd drops by a half-step.
Just as we did with the major chords, we can pull the triadic shapes out of the bar chords by simply playing three adjacent strings at a time instead of the complete bar form. The forms that come from our primary four bar shapes are very easy to see….the one that may be less familiar to you comes from our C/D shape chord. Play a D minor in open position, but leave out the 4th string root. This form can be moved up the neck like all the rest and works beautifully with the other minor and major forms. Now try an inversion by taking the F note (holding the open D minor shape, F is on the 1st string 1st fret, under your index finger) and lowering it an octave the the 4th string, third fret. This creates a shape on strings 4, 3, and 2 on frets 3, 2, and 3 respectively. This is a wonderfully rich-sounding form that works great as part of a melodic sequence of triads or as a textural sound to blend with other instruments.
Getting to know where each chord is located is simply a matter of relating the form back to the root note our original chord was built on. In the case of an E or A shape bar, this is easy. The C/D shape is a little trickier, but not difficult….viewing the major as a C shape next to a bar, the root would be under your pinky on the 5th string, even if you’re not actually holding the note down. Applying the visualization technique I mentioned earlier, you can easily see the 3rd of the chord drop when we switch to minor. If we’re looking at this form as a D major shape, there’s another root on the 4th string, two frets below the location of the 1st string note (or one fret in the case of the minor form).
Regarding this visualization technique: we guitarists get so wrapped up in our fingers sometimes that we can’t see past them to the forms underneath. Be able to look at the neck without touching it and imagine which notes would be held down. With this in mind, a change in fingering is simple and doesn’t make it appear that there are more notes moving than there really are. This is more of a pianistic way of approaching the neck and makes it much easier to relate chords to one another.
Lastly, I want to point out that while these videos introduce small ideas divided into categories, real music often doesn’t break down so neatly. We might mix full chords, two-note intervals, close-position triads, scale passages, and hammer-on or pull-off licks all in the same riff. Theory gives us a good way to simplify a complex system by labeling and categorizing sounds and shapes, but it doesn’t determine the notes you play….that part is up to your ears. As always, have fun and happy riffing!