Don’t be a prisoner of the pentatonic box. Time to break out!
• Create blazing pentatonic licks that span the entire neck.
• Understand how to move a motif through the scale.
• Learn how to develop variations on simple licks.
Let’s start with a simple idea in Ex. 1 . It consists of four sixteenth-notes from the A minor pentatonic scale (A–C–D–E–G) in the 5th position. Once you get this phrase under your fingers, the rest of the lesson will come together nicely. The picking I use for this lick is a downstroke followed by a pull-off, another downstroke, and then one upstroke. I’ve seen many people start with an upstroke and change it up. It’s your call.
Now that you have the idea let’s break out and head up the neck. In Ex. 2 , we move to the 8th position. If you want to think in terms of the pentatonic scale, we are moving each note in the motif up to the next available scale tone, with the same picking pattern. Put the two ideas together and start playing them two times each. We are going to keep going up.
Ex. 3 is based out of the 10th position and begins with a C on the 2nd string. Experiment with fingerings on each one of these. It helps to have a few different ways to come in and out of each escape route.
For Ex. 4 , Ex. 5 , and Ex. 6 we continue up the pentatonic scale. Learn how to visualize the scale that surrounds each fragment—it will help considerably when putting these into practice. Also, notice that Ex. 6 feels very familiar. It’s our original motif transposed up an octave.
Now it’s time to put everything we’ve learned so far together. In Ex. 7 , I’ve written out a longer lick that connects each of our previous examples. As you can hear in the audio, I’ve taken liberties with the phrasing by ghosting some notes and palm-muting others. These come out naturally in my playing, but find the ideas and concepts that pop out in your playing and lean into them. That’s a major step in finding your own sound.
You’ve now made it through five different escape routes moving through five positions of the A minor pentatonic scale. In the heat of a gig you can pull any one of these out as a “repeater” that works up the crowd (think of all those fast licks in “Freebird”) or as a way to seamlessly transition to a different pentatonic box.
I altered our original motivic pattern for Ex. 8 . I took our exact phrase from Ex. 1 and expanded it on the second repeat by reaching up and grabbing the A with my pinky. Yes, it’s a stretch, but it allows you to squeeze yet another variation out of this lick. Don’t worry, when you try this out with the previous licks it’s a bit easier since the frets are closer together.
Now, imagine you’re stepping out front to rip a dozen or so choruses on an over-caffeinated version of “Train Kept A-Rollin’” when you bust out Ex. 9 , which is simply a “repeater” version of Ex. 8. And the crowd goes wild.
These have been heard in everything from Southern rock to metal and nearly everything in between. Make sure to practice these evenly with a metronome and experiment with them on other string sets and in other keys. Escaping from the box is something we all need to do at various points in our journey. Use this newfound freedom for good. You’ll be glad you did!
Just because you live on the low end of the fretboard doesn’t mean you can’t add melodic and harmonic interest to your progressions.
• Add color and movement to everyday chords.
• Increase your chord vocabulary.
• Improve your rhythm.
Last updated on April 28, 2022
So-called "cowboy chords" have been fundamental to the guitar since its invention. In this lesson, we'll look at easy ways to spice up these everyday grips so they'll add interest to your playing, improve your rhythm , and liven up even the most predictable of progressions.
What is a Cowboy Chord?
Speculation abounds regarding the origin of the term "cowboy chord," but here's an explanation that makes sense to me: In many 1940s movies, such actor-musicians as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry portrayed cowboys who played guitar and sang. In these musical scenes, the actors strummed first-position, open-string chords and seldom strayed beyond the 3rd fret.
However they earned this nickname, cowboy chords remain essential to all guitarists—from beginners to pros. Unfortunately, many players rarely get past the most basic shapes shown in Ex. 1 . That's a pity because by just moving a finger or two—or sometimes simply lifting a finger off the fretboard—you can add color, tension, movement, and zest to your playing. Let's make that happen now!
Cowboy Chords Ex. 1
Just Move a Finger
These days it seems like every other hit song features the prosaic I–VIm–IV–V progression. Now there's nothing wrong with the progression itself. In fact, the reason we hear it so frequently is because it sounds good, and it has been used masterfully by everyone from George Gershwin to the Rolling Stones and the Police. But the aforementioned songwriters knew that to make the everyday unique, you need to add some spice.
That's exactly what we've done in Ex. 2 . This example demonstrates two basic concepts: The first is that you can add color to the most basic chords, in this case C–Am–F–G, by moving, removing, or adding a finger to each voicing. This second concept is particularly interesting because even though we keep moving the same notes on the 2nd string against the first three chords, the quality of these chords keeps changing. For example, when you let the 2nd string ring open on a C chord, it becomes a Cmaj7, but when you let the same string ring open on an Fmaj7 chord it becomes the much more sophisticated Fmaj7#4. Now that's spice.
Cowboy Chords Ex. 2
Ex. 3 uses the same progression (I–VIm–IV–V), this time in the key of G, but now all the movement happens on the 1st string. Once again, we find ourselves with some very elegant harmonies. The Gmaj7 in measure one is particularly noteworthy because it sounds quite mournful, as if longing for something. Lost love perhaps? Maybe that's why the Smiths, Jim Croce, and the Sundays have all used it to complement melancholy lyrics.
Cowboy Chords Ex. 3
Ex. 4 expands upon the "move a finger" idea by moving several fingers to create a melodic motif in the D and G chords. It also gives movement to the A7 chord by shifting shapes up and down the neck. We'll expand upon the latter idea in the next example.
Cowboy Chords Ex. 4
Spice Up Your Blues
Ex. 5 appears to be a common 12-bar blues, and form-wise this is true, but the uncommon movement we've applied to the E7 and A7 shapes adds considerable harmonic sophistication with very little effort.
Cowboy Chords Ex. 5
Going Outside the Key
Up to this point, all of the examples have been completely diatonic , meaning all the notes we've added to the basic triads have been in the same key as the chord progressions. But what happens if we add some notes that are not in the home key? Well, now things get really spicy, though no more difficult to perform. Ex. 6 is an ingenious example of how to add variation when you're stuck on one chord for more than a measure or two. Notice how tense the progression becomes when you play the Em#5 and yet completely relaxes when you conclude on the Em. This particular progression, both descending (as shown) and ascending (just play in reverse order) was used numerous times by the Beatles, most notably in "Eleanor Rigby," "Hey Bulldog," and "Savoy Truffle."
Cowboy Chords Ex. 6
Speaking of the Beatles, Ex. 7 is a progression they learned from "Don't Ever Change," written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King and recorded by the post-Buddy Holly Crickets. Once again, the tension created by the D augmented chord resolves very nicely into the D6 on the way up, and into the D triad on the way down. By the way, if you just play the D to Daug over and over again, you'll find yourself playing the verse to Eddie Money's "Baby Hold On."
Cowboy Chords Ex. 7
Add Some Bass
So far, all our examples have focused on movement and color in the higher registers, but you can also add spice to the bass notes. Ex. 8 is a folk and folk/rock staple, used by everyone from Simon and Garfunkel to Led Zeppelin and, despite the obvious chord names that are written here, it's relatively complex harmonically. You see, in this folk context, it is best to name the chords using the bass-note slash, i.e., Am/G–Am/F#–Am/F. But in different contexts, particularly in jazz, those last two chords could be named F#m7(b5) and Fmaj7, suggesting that adding a bass note can radically alter—and enhance—the harmonic quality of any given chord.
Cowboy Chords Ex. 8
Ex. 8 featured a descending bass line, but in Ex. 9 we'll turn that around and have the bass ascend while we're playing an Em chord. Notice how we've included a non-diatonic note, Bb, at the end of the progression. This adds tension that's released by the final Em.
Cowboy Chords Ex. 9
These exercises have been specifically designed to get you into the habit of adding variation to your everyday cowboy chords. They're also, as good exercises should be, rather formulaic. While you play through them, remember that when making up your own progressions, you don't need to add movement to every chord. Maybe you insert movement in the verse but not in the chorus, or vice versa. There's no need to overdo it: A little spice can go a long way toward making your songs and arrangements a lot more inventive.
This article was last updated on May 17, 2021
Simple shapes can lead to memorable parts.
- Learn how to visualize triads all over the neck.
- Develop an understanding of inversions.
- Create memorable and melodic guitar parts.
Mapping major and minor triads up and down the guitar neck can open new possibilities in your playing. It can also help you learn note locations on the fretboard, find new ways to play chord progressions, and inspire creative improvisations and compositions. But where do you begin?
If you’re a beginner or intermediate player who views areas on the neck as unknown grey areas, learning to map out triads can really help. It’s important to practice them slowly and systematically so you can build up positive muscle memory in the fretting hand while making sure you’re spelling triads correctly. In terms of a practical approach, it’s best to break down triads into four separate string groups. In other words, you’re only going to practice and play three adjacent strings at a time. For our purposes, think about string groups as 1–2–3, 2–3–4, 3–4–5, and 4–5–6.
First, let’s look at a D major triad. The individual notes that spell a D major triad are D–F#–A (or scale degrees 1–3–5 of the D major scale). In Ex. 1 I’ve mapped out all three inversions of a D major triad on the top three strings. An inversion is simply a rearranged voicing of the same three notes contained in a triad. You’ll notice that the very first shape is probably one you already know and play often: the tried-and-true cowboy chord D with no open strings. That D chord shape has an A in the lowest voice. Since the 5 (A) is the lowest note of the chord we refer to it as a second inversion shape.
As we move up the neck, those notes cycle around to new positions, creating new shapes, and placing a different note in the lowest voice. Notice the second shape. It is also a D major triad, but the root is now in the lowest voice. This is a root position triad. Next, the third shape gives us the 3 in the lowest voice, or a first inversion triad.
In Ex. 2 , you’ll see triads in D major for the remaining string groups: 2-3-4, 3-4-5, and 4-5-6.
To point out the obvious, when it comes to practical applications of triads when playing songs and chord progressions, you’ll need a little more knowledge than just major triads. You can, however, cover a lot of ground simply knowing both major and minor triads.
What’s the difference between a major and minor triad? Simply moving one note–the major third–down a single fret. In our examples, we will be moving the F# to F natural. In Ex. 3 you can see how this changes the shapes on the top three strings.
How to Practice Triads
While there are many ways to practice these exercises, I have seen students have the most success with a combination of two methods:
Play-and-Say . Play the chord, say out loud the name of its inversion, then arpeggiate through the chord saying the note names as you play them (“D major triad, second inversion, A, D, F#”).
Apply to a song or chord progression : Take a common chord progression and use triads on one string group instead of playing open chords.
Once you have a good knowledge of major and minor triads, you can start to mix and match inversions, weaving them together to play common chord progressions. In Ex. 4 , we see a simple chord progression in D: D–Bm–Em–A. Let’s start by looking at this progression on the top set of strings. (I’ve written them out in half-notes in order to demonstrate the shapes more clearly. It’s up to you to invent strumming or picking patterns.)
Naturally, we want to move this progression around the fretboard. Ex. 5 is the same progression on strings 4–3–2. Here’s a tip: For these shapes I simply moved whatever note was on the 1st string down an octave to the 4th string.
Experiment and Explore
Try playing Ex. 4 and Ex. 5 backwards to hear the progression descending. Next, try jumping around to different inversions and octaves while still following the order of chords in the progression. This works well for electric guitar players looking to create unpredictable and complementary guitar parts while someone else plays open chords. Experiment with using various effects. Delays and reverbs can be especially fun when playing around with high-voiced triads. Arpeggiate through the triads, play them as punchy chop chords, add and remove notes with any spare fingers to create counter melodies—whatever sounds good to your ears.