Tuesday, March 3, 2015

6 Chords Explained

Q: Hey Chris, thanks for all the great content on both your blog and your site. I’m also going to get both your books as well. I have a question: I’ve been listening to and trying to play some of Brian Setzer’s big band stuff lately. What is the deal with the 6 chords? You don’t hear them so much in other genres but Brian seems to love them. Is there anything I should know about these chords? 

A: Brian is really a great musician. I have the greatest appreciation of him because he has really come a long way. I mean, he was great back with The Stray Cats but he has really stretched a lot with his big band thing and you can tell he has really been studying over the years - Pretty rare with successful musicians. Anyway, getting to your question regarding 6 chords.

Although 6 chords pop up in all sorts of music, as you have noticed, they are very popular in Rockabilly and older traditional Jazz (that's why you get a lot of them with Brian - his big band is a combination of both). They are a good replacement for any major chord. When we harmonize the I, IV and V chords, we get major triads. If we harmonize the same chords to 7th chords, we get a maj7 (I) chord, maj7 (IV) chord and a dominant (V) chord. But, when we harmonize the three major chords to 6 chords, we get three major 6 chords. Therefore, you can play a 6 chord as an alternative for any of the three diatonic major chords (including the dominant chord). Before we get into the minor versions of the 6 chords, I want to describe the tonal characteristics of the major 6 chord first.

As you probably know, the 6 chord is spelled 1-3-5-6, the 6th is major. Play this common voicing, it is spelled 1-3-6-1 (it doesn’t contain the 5th, but you don’t really need it). Play it over an the open A note on your 5th string so you get a good sense of the chord:


How does it sound? Super major right? Almost more major than a normal major chord. The major 6 sort of pushes the chord to a brighter place. There is another good reason for this. You may have noticed, the chord looks a lot like a Dmaj7 chord as well:


You sort of get two major chords rolled into one, an A major chord and Dmaj7 chord.

But you can also see it as an inverted F#min7 chord right:
A6 = A-C#-E-F#
F#-7 = F#-A-C#-E

So you see, 6 chords are interesting because you can hear and visualize them different ways. Somehow major and somehow minor.

Min6 Chords

Let’s talk a little about the min6 chord. The minor 6 chord is technically spelled 1-b3-5-6 (notice the major 6). There is a complication here though. If we take the three diatonic minor chords, the ii, iii and vi chords and harmonize them to min6 chords, we find that only the ii chord harmonizes to a true min6 chord. The other two have minor sixes, which makes them into minb6 chords. These are nice chords, just a little less common. But the thing that you really have to keep in mind here is that, unlike the three major diatonic chords, you can’t replace any minor chord with a min6 chords. You can only really do this with the ii chord. You can, of course with a little common sense replace the iii and vi chord with minb6 chords (just be weary of melody notes and context).

As the maj6 chord looks like an inverted min7 chord, let’s see what the min6 chord looks like:

Dmin6 = D-F-A-B
Bmin7b5 = B-D-F-A

Since the maj6 looks like an inverted min7 chord, I bet you were expecting the min6 chord to look like an inverted maj7 chord right? Nope, looks like a min7b5 chord. That is why the min6 chord sounds a lot less simple than the plain old major 6 chord. Regardless it is a nice replacement for the ii chord and you can think of it as a ‘dorian’ chord.

Common Progressions

A lot of time they pop up in progressions like this (the root of the minor chord moving down in half steps):

Diatonic Chords

When we look at the whole diatonic system harmonized as 6 chords we get this:

C6 – Dmin6 – Eminb6 – F6 – G6 – Aminb6 – Bdimb6

(Bdimb6 sounds a lot more like G7/B, which is a lot more likely).

Difference between 6 chords and 13 chords

The difference between the two chords are simple, the 13 chords contains 7ths. A lot of people worry about where the 6th is placed (above or below the 7th in the chord) but I don't think it makes any difference.

By the way, the 9th and 11th have no bearing on 13th chord, they are total options.

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