Skip to content

Movable Triad Positions on the First Three Strings, for Guitar

There are 3 very simple chord positions that open up a world of fancy sounding (and fancy looking) flatpicking.  The D-position, the F-position and the Bb position.  With these three “SHAPES” we can make thousands of fancy moves and they work for every song in the whole world.  The trick is memorizing what chord D becomes when its scooted up 2 frets.  That’s easy it’s E!  F becomes G when its scooted up 2 frets and Bb becomes C when its scooted up 2 frets.  So if you learn what chord they become at every fret, a whole world opens up.

But before we go any farther, read the title of this article again.  “Triad Positions on the First three Strings.”  What we are learning here are soloing concepts that take place on the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd strings.  In other words, we won’t be strumming a chord on all 6 strings.

Another important thing in this lesson is that we will be cross-picking.  You can strum these positions as a chord or you can cross-pick these positions as individual notes known as arpeggios, and either way, they sound great!

We’re going to learn 2 exercises.  The first is a typical one-four-five chord progression in C covering 2 octaves. The second is this same exercise using the chord progression to Salty Dog Blues.

The procedure is simple.  If you know the 3 chord “SHAPES” and the crosspicking pattern which is 3-2-1-2,  then all you do is grab the chord at the correct fret, and play the pattern of 3rd string, 2nd string, 1st string,  2nd string, then move on to the next position.

For Salty Dog Blues, you play the F-position at the 3rd fret, D-position at the 4th fret, F-position at the 5th fret, Bb-position at the 5th fret etc.  What you have actually played is G, E, A, D, but in inversions that gradually move upward on the first 3 strings.  It’s easy!

After you’ve learned both exercises, see if you can apply the concepts to other songs.  Eventually you will know that the F position at the 8th fret is C and the D position at the 7th fret is F.  It wouldn’t be much fun to sit down and memorize these positions from a chart, but learning the positions in songs and chord progressions is a lot of fun and makes more musical sense.


Are you in a slump. Lets talk about breaking out of it

Do you sometimes feel like you’re not getting anywhere with your guitar playing?  You can play all your tunes and licks pretty well, but you’re just not making any progress?

Granted, if you’ve just started guitar recently, you haven’t had time to experience a slump yet.  Beginning is really the toughest stage of guitar playing.  It’s new and exciting, but it’s a time when you really have to force yourself to work hard, because you’re building a foundation.  Slumps can be compared to beginning, because after you’ve mastered a certain level of guitar playing, you have to force yourself to start work on the next level.

Unfortunately, there aren’t really any defined levels of guitar like there are “belt ranks” in Kung Fu, but when you’ve mastered a few dozen tunes and licks, and you’re starting to get a little bored, you might start to realize that you’re ready to move on to the “next level.”

So why not celebrate your slumps…  Hey, if you’re tired of your skills, then you must have mastered those skills!  This means that you’re ready to begin your next adventure.  In other words: being burned-out is a sure sign of mastery!

Throughout the 1970s, I carried on a periodic dialog with the great Dobro master Jerry Douglas, regarding plateaus in our progress.  Each time I’d run into Jerry at a festival, he’d mention being in a rut or having just broken out of a rut.  Boy, when he was in one of his productive times, it was inspiring for me to witness.  Being his protégé, I somewhat depended on him for inspiration when I was going thru a slump, and he always delivered.  He always seemed to be very enthusiastic about music when he was in one of his upswings and I was always excited to see it in his playing.

Whenever I’m going through a slump, it makes me feel like a one-trick-pony.  I worry that people will notice that I’m playing the same old stuff and I’m afraid that they’ll think I haven’t been growing.  In most cases, I’ve probably imagined it, but whether they notice or not, I sure notice and I think music is a lot more fun when I’m growing.

So don’t feel alone.  It happens to the best of the pros.  All you need is the occasional stimuli to help break the monotony and get you back on the road to progress.  Go out and buy a new CD of your favorite artist.  Go see a concert of your favorite artist.  Nothing is more exciting and inspiring than live music.  Assign yourself a project like a new solo, a new scale or mode, or some new chords.  Some people switch instruments when they feel like they’re in a rut.  Try piano or harmonica for a while.  Switch to electric guitar.  I’m a diehard acoustic guy, but switching to electric for a change of pace will give you more sustain, more volume, different tones, effects, and just something different to play with.  Believe me, when you go back to your acoustic, you’ll appreciate it even more, simply because you have taken a break from it.

You could say, gosh, I know a Country Song, Rock song, or a Christmas song, or a Jazz song that might make a good bluegrass song.  You never know what interesting discoveries you might make till you sit down and give it a try.

Some people change to a special tuning when they feel like they’re getting into a rut.  Joni Mitchell used to just start randomly turning her tuning keys till she heard a sound she liked.  Fiddle sometimes changes tuning and the same for  Dobro, Banjo and Mandolin.

Another thing you can do if you feel like you’re slipping into a rut is to go back and review old material that you may have forgotten about.  You might have a new lick that you can use in one of your forgotten tunes.  This could bring that old tune back to life.

I really like the idea of competition.  Guitar contests are everywhere and some are less competitive than others.  You might think that you’re not ready to compete, but you might be surprised that a regional or local contest draws a little less intimidating competition than a national contest.  I recently coached a first time triathlete for the Danskin Women’s Triathlon.  My protégé had never been involved in any competitive sports and had never exercised at the Triathlon level, but signing up for the event gave her a project to work towards.  Signing up forced her to push on to the next level.  Out of 120 in her age division, she was 4th out of the water and 15th over all.  She sat a goal, she practiced daily, and she succeeded.

The main thing to realize is that slumps happen to the best of us, and there are so many things at your disposal that can pull you out and take you to the next level.  Life is what happens while we’re busy making plans, so when you feel you’ve hit a slump, get busy and make some plans.







Musical Pig Latin

I’ve always preached that the do, re, mi scale is just an exercise and not very interesting.  But what if we just tried turning it into Pig Latin?  In other words, play a little game to break up the order of the scale in a pattern just to make it more interesting.  Now I’ll be the first to admit that the major scale has been used in some songs very successfully.  The Beatles’ “Hello Goodbye” comes to mind.  Its just straight up the scale and it fits in the song very nicely. Hel lo Good bye hel lo Good bye, is the same as: do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do.

But we’re not the Beatles, so just for fun, lets see what happens if we take the plain old major scale and turn it into Igpa Atlinla.  We’ll talk in terms of numbers first, and then later, we’ll lay it out on your guitar for the keys of G and C.  First we start up the scale playing 1, 2, 3.  Simple enough.  Then we go back to “1” and play it again.  Next we play 2, 3, 4.  Then we go back and play “2.”  Then we play our next set of three scale steps, which will be 3, 4, 5.

Ok now you can start to see the idea of this pattern starting to take shape.  We’re just playing three notes up the scale, going back to the first note, then we advance to the second note of the scale and play three consecutive notes, then we go back to the start of that three notes, then we take the next three, and so on up the scale.  We can do several octaves if we have enough guitar left or we can cap it off at one octave.  Its great for your fingers, its an interesting puzzle, and most of all, you can use it as a hot lick in any song and in any key.

Now aren’t I a clever guy for thinking this up?  Well, er, uh.  Actually this little pattern idea was one of the most popular Bluegrass licks in the 1970’s.  It was used by banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and guitar players and I dare say it was the 70’s “NewGrass” equivalent of the Lester Flatt G-Run.

So if you’re in your first year or two of guitar, or if your accumulated guitar experience is roughly the same, this little exercise will be an ideal next step in your progress.  One last little hint…alternate your pick direction, down, up down, up.  Musical Igpa Atlinla will get your chops together!

If you enjoy this workout and would like to take it further, maybe we’ll expand on it a little in a future blog.  In the meantime, you might be able to venture out on your own by trying it in other keys, trying it in decending order, and trying it up the neck in closed position.

Modulation…key changes within songs


You might think that Modulation is a pretty big word but, modulation is simply arranging a song to include a key change.  You might start the song in G, but change to A after the first verse.  If you feel like the word “modulation” is a little pretentious, you can just call it “key change.”

But why do we modulate?  Lots of reasons.  I’d suggest that the most “legitimate” reason is to introduce drama into the arrangement.  Ok, but why would we want to introduce drama?  Well, the plot might be starting to thicken in the second verse (for example).  It could be the verse where Johnny gets Pretty Polly down to the banks of the Ohio to see how long she can hold her breath underwater.  There’s a musical tension that we feel when the key suddenly jumps up a whole step from G to A, when Little Sadie is being stabbed or when Mary mysteriously evaporates in the back seat of the car.

But there can be practical reasons to modulate.  What if the guitar player knows a break in G and the sax player knows a break in Bb?  One well-known example is Hot Burrito breakdown.  This 30-year-old Country Gazette tune, changes from G to A and then back to G again.  Why?  Because the banjo and mandolin players had good solos worked up in G while the fiddle played it in A.  The sound of the “key change” wakes up the listener and keeps the arrangement alive.  It alerts the listeners that the next instrument is coming.

But how do we modulate?  Glad you asked.  This is where the creativity comes in.  You can change from one key to another simply by starting the next round in another key, or you can create a mini chord-progression that becomes a transition from the original key to the new key.  In Hot Burrito Breakdown, the transition from G to A was done by chromatically walking from G to A.  In other words: G, G#, A.  After the fiddle solo (in A) they simply reversed that idea by playing A, Ab, G.  If the key change goes from G to C (perfect 4th),  you could play G, G7, C.  Playing a G7 is a common transition when going from G to C, so why not use it when you’re modulating?”

How about Legend of the Rebel Soldier?  This Country Gentlemen Classic uses a different key for each of the three verses.  The sound of the musical pitch rising before each new verse enhances the drama of the story.  As a matter of fact, it’s the rhythm guitar of Charlie Waller that’s the beauty of this arrangement and the employment of Charlie’s rhythm guitar bass runs that tie the verses together.  Lets learn these two rhythm guitar bass runs from Legend of the Rebel Soldier.  The first verse is in G.  The bass run that takes the song from G to A is the following series of 8th notes starting on the 6th string: G, Gb, G, G#, A.  The second transition is from the 2nd verse (key of A), to the 3rd and final verse in the key of C.  The quarter note bass run starts on the open A-string, then B and C.  It’s simple and effective.

Another famous modulation that comes to mind is the Bob Wills classic San Antonio Rose” on the recording “Bob Wills for the Last Time.”  The twin fiddles played it in A (because that was the best key for the open strings of the fiddle), but the best key for the singer’s voice was Eb.  This created the musical problem, how do you transition from A to Eb?  I won’t tell you how they did it because I want you to figure that out yourself, but I will give you one hint.  (They devised a chord-progression of 4 chords). The result was a very appealing sound and everybody was happy.

So the next time your banjo player wants it in G, your singer wants it in A, and you (the guitar player) want it in C, don’t altercate…modulate.



Make your guitar an extension of your ear

Do you speak Spanish or for that matter, or any language other than English?  Do you speak that language as fluently as you do your primary language of English?  Do you know a few phrases in Spanish?  If you do, you know in your heart that you really can’t honestly say that you “speak Spanish.”

Ok, you already know where I’m going with this.  Do you speak “fluent” guitar?  Now what in the world could that possibly mean?  Wouldn’t one person’s definition of “fluent guitar” be totally different than another’s?  Probably so, but I’m going to give you my definition of “fluent guitar,” and by being so bold, I’m going to help you to become a really great instrumentalist.

A person does not have mastery over the language spoken on the guitar unless his guitar can carry on a “musical conversation” as well as he can carry on an “English conversation.”   If you can play a dozen fiddle tunes on the guitar, you are not a guitarist and you do not speak guitar fluently.  I am going to be so bold to say that you might know a thousand fiddle tunes on your guitar and still not be able to “speak the musical language of guitar” fluently.   I have the right to say this because it is entirely possible to have one-thousand Spanish sentences (or even paragraphs) memorized, but not be able to converse successfully in Spanish.  After all, it wouldn’t be practical to start a conversation on a street corner in Mexico, and be confined only to the one thousand sentences that you have so painfully memorized.

So a “fluent guitarist” is one who can instantly play anything that he can instantly hum.  A “fluent guitarist” (by my definition), has as much instant ability to produce a melody on his guitar, as he does humming with his vocal chords.  I’m sure you can hum any melody you’ve ever heard, but I bet you cannot play any  melody you’ve ever heard on your guitar.  I’m here to tell you that if you are guilty of this crime, that it will haunt you till you formally sit down and address this challenge.

The way you address this project is by trying to peck out every song you have ever heard, and write its name down on a tally sheet after you can play it through adequately.  Perfecting it is unnecessary and will somewhat defeat the purpose.  When I first started learning to sing as a child, I remember the teacher spending time with each phrase of the song and slowly building till we eventually learned to sing the whole song.  Why?  Because our vocal chords hadn’t really learned exactly how much to tighten or loosen to produce just the right high or low note.  We had not (at that stage) mastered the musical instrument called the human voice.  By the time we were older we all could control this process of tightening and loosening our vocal chords and we didn’t really need to learn to sing a simple melody by slowly being introduced to it one painful note at a time.  By this time we had mastered the language of melody using the musical instrument that we call the human voice.

So in other words, most of you have the musical voice mastered, the English language mastered, but you are like an American with a Spanish/English dictionary when it comes to your guitar.

Now you simply need to try to pick out: American the beautiful, Star Spangled Banner, Jingle Bells, Leave it to Beaver theme-song, Bonanza, Oh Where oh Where has my little dog gone, Easter Parade, Take Me Out to the Ball Game, Happy Days are Here Again, Hungarian Rhapsody, Beethoven’s 5th, Yesterday, Etc.  It just doesn’t matter where you get these melodies or what style of music they are.  They could all be the background music for car commercials.  All that matters is that you do so many that you get better and better at picking them out.  The more you try, the more your intuition will develop.  The more you try, the closer you will be to mastering the guitar.  Your hands will eventually go to the right note just as your vocal chords do now.  You don’t have to search around for words to put together a sentence, but when you were a baby, you spoke in one-word sentences.  So, are you a baby guitarist?  You’ve mastered the English language and you can master Spanish or Guitar if you work on them diligently enough.  By the time you’ve logged 100 silly tunes to your tally sheet, you will already see that the hundredth song is falling into place quicker than the first.  Why?  Experience!  I’d venture to say that by the time you’ve logged a thousand songs that you will be speaking totally “Fluent Guitar.”  Can you imagine a better prerequisite for learning the licks of your heros?







Sharpening your musical ear by singing numbers instead of words

Could you sing “Will the Circle be Unbroken” using the musical scale numbers instead of the words?  If not, you really don’t know where you are in the song at any given point.

Lets sing the words first so I can show you what I mean:

Will the cir-cle…be unbro-ken…by and by lord by and by…

there’s a better…home a wait-ing…in the sky lord in the-e sky.

If I were to sing it with scale numbers, we’d sing:

5 6 1 1…3 2 1 3…3 2 1 2 1 6 5…5 6 1 1…3 5 5 3…1 2 3 3 2 3 2 1.

Sound stupid?  Believe me, this will make you powerful!  Very powerful!

Did you know that the first word in the song (will) was the 5th note of the scale?  If the answer is no…then you don’t know music as well as you thought you did.  I know you know the do, re, mi scale, you’ve learned it from your guitar teacher and from the movie “The Sound of Music.”  Do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do.  Or 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.

Will is 5.  The is 6.  Cir is 1. cle is 1.  That’s the first phrase.  So what is the second phrase?  Be is 3. Un is 2. Brok is 1.  en is 3.  Will the circle be unbroken is: 5, 6, 1, 1, 3 2 1 3.  Wish I could sing this to you in the blog, but you know the song so push away from your computer and sing.

What would the notes be on your guitar?  Open 4th string, 2nd fret 4th string, open 3rd string, open 2nd string, 2nd fret 3rd string, open 3rd string, then open 2nd string.

Now lets analyze that first string of numbers up above.  5 6 1 1.  We started on the 5 of the scale and started walking up the scale to 6, then we skipped a note (7) and went up to 1 (which is the same as 8).  Then the second phrase was: “be unbroken.”  3 2 1 3.  What was that all about?  We descended down the musical scale 3, 2, 1 and then back up to 3 again.  We were just walking down stairs then leaping back up the stairs, skipping the 2nd step.  So when A.P. Carter wrote this song, he was just playing around with the musical scale, running up a while, down a while, and skipping a step every now and then, when he felt like it.  Sort of like Tom Hanks dancing all over that floor piano in the movie “Big.”

So where did “Will the Circle be Unbroken wind up at the end?  Right! It went: 3, 2, 1.  It ended on 1.  If you sing “Will the Circle be Unbroken” in scale numbers, you’ll know exactly where you are in the song at any point you choose.  This means that you are never “musically” lost.  You might have a great voice and be able to sing in tune real good, but do you know which note you’re singing?  If not, you might be in the same situation with your guitar playing as well.

I have an easy and fun solution to rid you of this problem.  I’ll sing you two more songs with the words, and then with the numbers, then suggest a few more songs for you to try on your own.

How about Mountain Dew?

Oh they call it that good old mountain dew… a-and them that re-fuse it are fe-ew….

I’ll hush up my mug… if you’ll fill up my jug… with that good old moun-ta-in dew.

6 6 5 5  6  1 1 2 1 3…3 2 1 1 6 1 1 1 6 5…

5 5 5 6 1… 1 1 3 3 2 1…1 1 3  3 2 3 2 1…

Isn’t it scary how similar Mountain Dew is to Will the Circle be Unbroken?  About 75% or more!  And we might have never realized it, if we hadn’t analyzed them with scale numbers.

How about:

Roll in my sweet baby’s arms…roll in my sweet baby’s arms…

Lay round the shack…till the mail train comes back…and I roll in my sweet ba-by’s arms.

3 3 3 3 1 6 1…3 3 3 3 1 1 2…

1 1 1 3…3 3 4 4 1 6…6 6 5 7 1 2 3 2 1.

Wow, did you notice the last 4 notes of all 3 songs were identical!  So as far as the last 4 notes are concerned, they are all the same song!  This may seem like a beginner exercise, but I betcha even some of the pros couldn’t do this.

Now I’d like for you to try: What a Friend We Have in Jesus, Salty Dog Blues, Blue Moon of Kentucky, Home Sweet Home, I Saw the Light, Amazing Grace, Way Downtown, Swing Low Sweet Chariot and Long Journey Home.  Feel free to choose your favorite songs instead if you like.  The more you do, the easier it will become.  By the time you’ve done a dozen or so, your ear will start to develop.  You’ll literally know where you are musically in every song you encounter, and this will help every facet of your life as a guitarist, singer, and musician.

This exercise is one of the many chapters from our 2-hour video called: UNDERSTANDING THE FORMULA OF MUSIC MAKES IT SO EASY.  It’s the background that every musician needs, and its as easy as watching TV.  Give us at 800-543-6125.

So if you wanna be a great musician, all you gotta do is train your fingers and your ear.











A Musical Meditation Volume 2: How let your guitar seduce you

Last issue we got a little playful.  We made up some easy generic chord progressions and we just let ourselves experience the way the guitar felt in our hands, and the way it sounded to our ears.  It was nice because it wasn’t tedious.  It was kind of therapy, kind of subliminal ear training, and a bit of a chord changing workout all at the same time.  The simplicity of those exercises warmed us up, allowed us to slow down from the speed race that is so common in modern flatpicking guitar, and it allowed us to discover nuances, phenomenons, and sensations that occur when an exercise is very basic.

It might surprise you to know that Tony Rice has spent more hours getting the feel of the instrument than he has learning millions of fast hot licks.  In other words, this concept “aint” just for beginners.  Tony is not just interested in lots of notes.  He’s also interested in quality.

My swim coach actually spends more time “lying around” in the water than he does swimming laps.  People think he’s crazy.  “That weirdo has been out there treading water with his eyes closed for the past 3 hours!”  Why?  Because he’s actually “making friends” with the water.  He’s learning its characteristics, its reactions to his movements and his reactions to its movements.  Well, you might find it interesting to know that “weirdo” holds the world record for the best swim times for all 4 competitive swim strokes in his age division. (never mind his age).  He even had a streak in the 90’s where he beat his own record 7 consecutive years!  He’s the only guy I know who chooses not to “fight” the water.   In fact, he might just be the “Tony Rice” of swimming.  I think we can all agree that Tony doesn’t “fight” the guitar.  Lets just surrender and admit that to a small degree (every now and then), we are fighting our guitars.

So maybe this little activity merits one more article.  Ok, last time we used the key of G.  So this time lets try it in C.  Strum 4 beats of C, 4 beats of F, 4 Beats of G, then 4 beats of C.  Now that was therapeutic.  How about doing it again, but this time with your eyes closed.  This might eliminate some distractions, which will allow you to listen just a little bit closer.  Did you make any discoveries?  What were they?  If you’d like, write them down in a diary.  *By the way, you don’t have to make each chord exactly 4 beats long.  You can stay on each chord as long as you like to create variation.  I’m just here to get you started and to plant seeds.  The whole concept here is for you to deviate in any direction you’d like to go in.  So start with me, use my ideas as a guide, but change it all up to suite your preferences as you go along.

Ok, lets do it again, but this time, lets hum a little melody as we strum the chords.  Doesn’t have to be fancy, just close your eyes and see where it takes you.  If you can hum something that sounds like its compatible with those chords, this means that you are really getting familiar with the sound of those chord changes.  (At least enough to be able to anticipate a compatible melody).  Believe me, this is developing your ear and increasing your awareness of many things.  If you find that your humming gets pulled to “Wabash Cannonball,” “I Saw The Light” or some other familiar tune, see if you can pull it away to a different melody (without sounding out of tune with the key).

Now lets put a C in between each chord to come up with: C, F, C, G, C.  Don’t hesitate to take it around twice or as many times as you’d like.  Ok, are you good at whistling?  Works just as good as humming.

Next lets try sneaking the relative minor into the mix: C, Am, F, C, G, C.  That’s pretty close to the progression of “Billy in the Lowground.”  It’s also the chord progression for many of the 50’s pop tunes like “Dream” by the Everly Brothers.  Don’t be surprised if you find yourself humming a familiar tune but you didn’t realize that was the chords to that tune.  Now lets try: C, C7, F, C, F, G, G7, C.  A ragtime chord progression in C could be: C,  A, D, G, C.

Next lets substitute D for the A-minor.  So we’ll play: C, D, F, G, C.   Then we’ll throw in an extra C and we’ll have: C, D, F, C, G, C.

Now lets go backwards around the bases. (very common in chord progressions).  C, G, F, C.  Ok, how about: C, G, C, F, C, G, C.

How about the key of D.  Strum: D, G, A, D.  Then try: D, G, D, A, D.  How about backwards: D, A, G, D.  Then try: D, D7, G, D, A, A7, D.  A ragtime progression in D could be: D, B7, E, A, D.

Ok, you get the picture and I hope you’ll take it beyond the confines of this little schedule that I’ve written.  I further hope that you’ll make discoveries beyond the ones that I’ve alluded to.  Allow it to be a little meditative, a little focused, and even a little hypnotic.  As a result, you’ll be a little more relaxed with your instrument, your ear will be a little more acute, and people will think you were born with a guitar in your hands.        As a companion to the above experience, I recommend our video called: “Understanding the Formula of Music Makes it So Easy.”



Check out our web site!