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Guitar 101: Learning Harmony Through Six-Note Hexatonic Scales, Part 2

Last time we learned how to combine two completely different triads (three-note chords) to create a six-note hexatonic scale. Using E major and F# minor triads to illustrate, we generated the blissful, gospel-flavored E major hexatonic scale (E F# G# A B C#) and looked at some neat examples of the many things you can do with it. As I mentioned at the end of the lesson, there’s a virtual mother lode of cool and unusual hexatonic scales waiting to be unearthed. All you have to do to find them is combine any two triads that don’t share any common tones (hint: combining E major and E minor won’t give you six different notes because both triads contain E and B).

A good way to begin this exploratory self-study is to take the E major and F# minor triads from last month and change only one note in one of the triads. For example, substituting the note C for C# in the F# minor triad yields F# diminished (F# A C). Now look what happens when we alternate this triad with E major (E G# B) up the neck to create a chord-scale (see FIGURE 1).

As you can hear, the result is a somewhat darker- and moodier-sounding hexatonic scale (E F# G# A B C) that’s also very pleasing to the ear, albeit in a bittersweet kind of way. (To hear this six-note scale in isolation, play only the notes on the high E string.) This hauntingly beautiful scale—I like to call it the "sentimental scale"—is reminiscent of Western art music from the Romantic period (late 19th century).

FIGURE 2 shows a repeated flowing single-note run in E that starts out with the major hexatonic ("gospel") scale (E F# G# A B C#) we looked at last month then changes to the "sentimental" scale with the substitution of C for C#. Listen to the way the musical "color" changes as the underlying scale mutates. This is something you may want to experiment with when composing or improvising a melody on a blank harmonic canvas (such as a groove or drone in E).

For the sake of comparison, and as a productive self-teaching exercise, try taking all of the E major hexatonic examples from last month and changing every C# note to C natural (we already did this with FIGURE 1) to create similar licks using the E "sentimental" scale. In fact, it would be well worth your while to take each new hexatonic scale you learn and try plugging it into any of the examples presented in this column. You’ll get a lot more mileage out of these exercises if you try adapting them to different scales!

FIGURE 3 is an expressive-sounding ascending triplet pattern that alternates between E major and F# diminished arpeggios. Notice how musically satisfying it is to the ear to hear the harmonic "ebb and flow" (tension and release) as the two triads alternate, with the pattern eventually resolving to the perceived tonic, E. This also happens to be an excellent technical exercise that gives both hands a good workout while offering you a way to learn and review a variety of diminished arpeggio shapes without losing your mind.

Now that we know how to go about creating different hexatonic scales by pairing unlike triads, let’s try generating another one. To do this we’ll first go back to E and F#m. This time, instead of lowering the C# note in the F#m triad to C (to produce F# diminished), we’re going to raise it to D. This gives us a cool and rather bright-sounding hexatonic scale built from E and D major triads (see FIGURE 4); I like to call this the "leprechaun" scale because it sounds clever and "tricky," especially when you use it to play licks like this (see FIGURE 5).

This gymnastic melody, which, incidentally, was inspired by the old fiddle tune "The Irish Washerwoman," requires some deft flatpicking, a quick position shift and a formidable stretch, so approach it slowly at first using a light touch until you feel you can play it comfortably, then try pushing the tempo up a notch a time.

You can also think of this scale as the E Mixolydian mode (E F# G# A B C# D) without the sixth (C#). The six-note version still retains the essence of the Mixolydian sound (with the major third, G# and the lowered seventh, D) while offering you a fresh approach to phrasing.

As an interesting and useful review, FIGURE 6 shows all three hexatonic scales we’ve learned thus far played back-to-back in a short, one-octave repeating lick. Notice how the line’s harmonic "flavor" completely changes as you alter only one note.

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Over the past 30 years, Jimmy Brown has built a reputation as one of the world's finest music educators, through his work as a transcriber and Senior Music Editor for Guitar World magazine and Lessons Editor for its sister publication, Guitar Player. In addition to these roles, Jimmy is also a busy working musician, performing regularly in the greater New York City area. Jimmy earned a Bachelor of Music degree in Jazz Studies and Performance and Music Management from William Paterson University in 1989. He is also an experienced private guitar teacher and an accomplished writer.