How to Use the 6th String on the Guitar

Published Categorized as Guitar lessons, Other Lessons and Tips

Such a long neck, and how thick the neck can seem! So many frets, the way they shine and gleam, threateningly scheming against my fretting hand! Dots everywhere, like the eyes of serpents which hiss, the fret buzzing when you haven’t quite played a note correctly.

At first, when initially holding a guitar in your lap, these might be representative of some of the thoughts racing through the mind. And it certainly is intimidating! Such a hallowed instrument, found in the annuls of popular music since its creation, and likely ever-present in some of your own favourite music through the ages; The fretboard looking so similar with no real signs or signifiers to hold onto, each bar of the fret repeating one after another all the way along the entire length of the neck; The six strings coursing along these very frets like razor wire. Why wouldn’t you feel at least somewhat uncomfortable to begin with?

Even if you are already comfortable with the fretboard and you know guitar string names, enough that the mere sight or thought doesn’t have you hyperventilating, it can still be difficult to use all six of the strings at once, spread wide as they are across the entire width of the guitar’s neck. There are, however, plenty of small tips and tricks that seek, with your dedication and due diligence, to subtly rewire the way your brain processes these sensory inputs and reworks the way you are to interpret and react to them from here on out.

So, if anything from the perturbed spiel above has resonated with you, I implore you to read on, to find something of yourself reflected back at you in these exercises and, through them, to improve and better at least one aspect of your playing and approach today!

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Naming the Open Guitar Strings

To begin with, whether using an app or a related device, we ought to begin from standard tuning, so do tune up to this. Though I would always be the first to encourage anyone to experiment with methods that are not prescribed by some sort of so called musical authority, in this instance it is useful to get a feeling for this tuning and tonality, if you are intending to perform in any way within the Western musical canon.

From the thickest string to the thinnest, standard tuning will look and sound as follows:

  • E (Low) – 6th String
  • A – 5th String
  • D – 4th String
  • G – 3rd String
  • B – 2nd String
  • E (High) – 1st String

So, having tuned accordingly, I hope you are already beginning to have some thoughts about these sounds, their notes, and their relations to one another. You ought at least to be able to see (and hear) the fact that at either end of the neck is a string pertaining to the same note, E. Thus, any note that you play on the one string can be duplicated exactly on the same fret simply be switching to the opposite string, or even by playing them simultaneously!

This is already a lot of information to be taking in, especially as this will be so vital to your learning that you will end up forgetting it, the knowledge so well-worn that it elides surface consciousness, transferred to the realm of the subconscious and muscle memory. A tried and tested method for remembering the order and sequence of the strings is to use a mnemonic, ascribing each string with a word of your choice that, in order, elucidates a sentence.

As a student, my teacher impressed upon me his own creation: Every-Adult-Dog-Growls-Barks-Eats. Fond as I am of the nonsensical language of the subconscious of late, I would be more inclined to something such as: Eat-Apples-Dressed-Gold-Before-Evening. I hope this goes some way to impressing upon you that these can be anything of your choice and will work all the better the more personal they are to you and your own experience. Spending too long thinking of one would be rather futile for, as mentioned, these will soon vacate the realm of your conscious mind.

Notes on the Fretboard

A useful way of grappling with the notes of the fretboard comes in the form of a music theory mantra: the most important notes to process in one’s mind are the naturals, those unaffected by augmentation or flattening. For Western music, these are: E – F – G – A – B – C – D.

Below I will notate how to play this series of notes ascending on the low E (6th) string:

Now that this has been demonstrated, try to find these natural notes on the other strings of the guitar. Engaging your mind and ears here, processing these notes and using your own initiative and intuition will cement this learning within you good and proper. Use your ear to suss out the note of the same sound and pitch on the following strings, and then think about the relationship of these notes to each other. Consider the pattern they follow, in terms of frets ascended and descended, and try to map this out on the other strings.

The more astute of you will notice that the notes here are those of the C major scale, so by learning these natural notes across the length of the fretboard you will be learning the C major scale across the the entire length of the fretboard, the notes themselves repeating after the twelfth fret, usually the one decorated with two dots on the fretboard’s front and side, because by this fret we reach the octave, from which every note, no matter the instrument, will repeat.

Using the 6th String

A little tip that will gain you a lot of mileage in constructing chords for yourself, as well as in extending chords harmonically, is the aforementioned fact that both E strings are mirrors of each other. Thus, if you know what the root is you can very easily double up the harmony on either of the strings, if you aren’t already playing them of course. If the song or present chord is major, then we can even play the note below the root, the major 7th, to add some harmonic intrigue. The same goes for the minor, only this time we would add the note two below the root, the dominant 7th.

The main thing to take from this, above all else, is not to be scared of the 6th string, or any of them for that matter. Contrary to their reptilian description earlier in this article, they won’t bite and aren’t to be avoided or afraid of. You’ve nothing to lose but the chance to create something amazing, so at every stage I would implore you to experiment and try new things, try letting your fingers free, though striking a balance between experimenting and analysing and understanding the results of these experiments, why in your eyes they do or don’t necessarily work, is a vital shortcut to quickly finding styles of playing that you are more fond of and/or more comfortable in.

Final Tones

So, with these strings under your belt and at your behest, you ought at least to feel a little more at ease with the previously frightening expanse of the guitar fretboard. Standard tuning, while burdened with limits of its own, is the base from which to understand guitar tonality. No matter how we might adjust this tuning, in extremis or more subtly, the way that these strings progress up or down in pitch and are structured ought itself to be a microcosmic representation of Western harmony itself: perfect 4ths separating them, from E to A to D to G, until it no longer suits, and the infamous curveball major 3rd between the G and B arises. Harmony, though so incredibly mathematical as to seem pure and omniscient, is essentially manmade, and so any authority that might attempt to impress upon you its inherent purity and impregnability should always be questioned. The fretboard is a free plane, for you to forge upon it your own artistic destiny.

FAQs 6th String on the Guitar

What are the six open strings on guitar?

Tuned to the Western standard, the six strings from thickest to thinnest will be E – A – D – G – B – E. This is most easily remember, at least initially, with a handy mnemonic, more effective the more of yourself can be found in it, whether or not you fabricate the whole thing yourself or see something of yourself in someone else’s.

Why are there six strings on a guitar?

Evidence suggests that the guitar began evolving from the Lute, itself a four stringed instrument, or at least ones that look and behave in a very similar way. Over time, more strings were added to accommodate for more advanced performances, more sonic experimentation, and at base more methods through which the musician and/or composer might best express themselves on the instrument.

By Nate Pallesen

Nate is just your average (above average) guitar player. He's no Joe Satriani, Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page - wait this site is about acoustic guitars (sorry) He's no Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins, or Michael Hedges, wait? who!? He's no Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton or Ben Harper - more familiar? Anyway you get the point :-)

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