After reading my last few articles I’m sure you’re wondering, “why do you need to understand chord structure and chord progressions in a song?” As steel guitarists we are responsible for guiding a band through a chord progression. Understanding the DNA of a chord allows us to select appropriate fills and interesting solos. It is our job to give the audience an enjoyable experience, after all the audience is the hero in each performance! We must find ways to take the audience on a sonic journey full of emotions. When we are successful we will see the audience come back for more, which allows us to continue playing music.
As you are aware, we use a variety of tunings to allow us to play specific songs. Believe it or not, tunings are determined by examining the chord structure and melody of a song. Sure, you can play any song on any tuning but some tunings are more effective than others. We are all familiar with the C6 tuning made famous by Jerry Byrd. Jerry used what we know as a “split tuning” when utilizing his C6/A7 tuning. When we examine this tuning, we see that it is made up of two chords. The top five strings (high to low: E, C, A, G, E) make up the C6 chord, while the bottom four strings (high to low A, G, E, C#) make up the A7 chord. This means we have two chords immediately available simply by laying our bar across the neck of our guitar. As I mentioned in past articles, extensions of chords are included in the identifying symbol when a note is added on top or above the chord’s triad. When we look at both C6 and A7 chords we find that we have an added 6th note in one and an added 7th in another. To stay consistent, lets spell these two chords out. A C6 chord would include the notes C-E-G-A which means we utilize the I-iii-V-vi notes. The A7 chord is made up of the notes A-C#-E-G which includes the I-iii-V-vii. So, how do we work this onto the guitar neck while finding a use the two chords together in a musical way? Well, we use inversions. Let’s take a look at the A7 chord. Our sixth string is tuned to the third (iii) note of the scale. From here we assign the fifth (V) note of the scale to the fifth string, the seventh (vii) note is on the fourth string, and the root (I) is placed on the third string. This spells out our first inversion of the A7 chord (iii-V-vii-I). When we analyze the C6 chord found in this tuning, we find that the third (iii) note is on our 5th string, the fifth (V) note is on our fourth string, the sixth (vi) note is on our third string with the root (I) on our second string. In this particular tuning we place the third (iii) note on the 1st string and tuned an octave higher than that on our fifth string. This tuning allows us to utilize multiple chords and string pairings to allow many harmonic variations. As we become more comfortable with this C6/A7 tuning, we find that there are many other opportunities for us to play other interesting chords. Make sure to take full advantage of this tuning as many professional players use this and other variations of the C6 tuning as their musical workhorse. This tuning is also a great way to exercise your music theory knowledge and can lead to a better understanding of other tunings!
Once we understand our tuning of choice, we are able to move on the other tunings which help us fill our toolbox. In my studies with Kumu Alana Akaka I’ve been exposed to the C6/A7, C13, D9, and B11 tunings. Each tuning utilizes a different color pallet which can help us communicate with our audience. I recommend examining each tuning you use so you can make the best decision when performing a piece of music. I’ve found that writing tunings, chord options, and note primers have helped me understand my guitar and has allowed me to add a personal touch to arrangements. If you are looking for a fresh look at your instrument, or you want to revisit the basics, I recommend an in depth study of your tunings.
I hope this article is helpful to all our readers here at Steel Trappings. If you’d like to experiment with the C6 tuning and play something outside of your normal repertoire, I suggest taking a look at Andy Volk’s new book, “Hot Strings!”. Andy’s book features transcriptions of many popular Steel Guitar instrumentals from the Western Swing era. This is a great way to pick up new techniques and add new material to your set list. You can find “Hot Strings!” And the rest of Andy’s catalogue at www.volkmediabooks.com . Also, I will be attending the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Festival in Fort Collins, Colorado from September 21-23. I invite our readers to come say hello! As always, I extend a Mahalo to Kumu Alan Akaka, Addison Ching, and Andy Volk for everything you do within the Steel Guitar community! I hope everyone is safe and in good health!