A guide to help you become a better student of the resophonic guitar

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Playing in the Minors

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In an earlier chapter I talked about the musical theory of how minor chords are formed. Now let's look at the practicality of actually playing them on the Dobro.

You'll recall that in the case of a resophonic, the pattern for a major chord is a straight barring across the fret where the third string is the root note. So for a D major, we can bar straight across the seventh fret--getting a D, F#, A. The pattern for a D minor looks like a chevron, the third and first strings "fretted" on the seventh fret and the second string "fretted" on the sixth fret. That would render a D, F, A. I know, unless you are using a  horseshoe for a  slide, it's going to be a bit hard to get that chevron pattern. So what do you do if you need to sit on that chord for awhile? Well, here are five solutions.


Solution 1: The easy minors

Some minors have patterns that use open and "fretted" strings that allow you to maintain a fixed slide position and pick the minor chord. The two I use the most are E minor and B minor.

A nice E minor is:
x x 2 0 0 x

As you can see, that pattern would give you E, G, B. Voilla! E minor.

Here is a workable B minor:
x x 4 4 0 0

That gives you F#, B, B, D which is an inversion of B, D, F#, which is B minor.

And these are common minors! E minor is the vi chord in the G progression (and the relative minor of G major), and Bm is the vi chord in the D progression. That opens up all the I, vi, IV, V progressions in the keys of G and D.

Solution 2: The minor seventh

Remember that a minor chord is a minor interval (3 half steps) and a major interval (4 half steps). To make a minor seventh, we just add another minor interval to the chord (the same way we make a dominant 7th). So the pattern is 1, b3, 5, b7.

OK, for starters, the flatted seventh doesn't have to be at the top, a rich-sounding seventh adds it at the bottom as in b7, 1, b3, 5.

Next, you can drop the root note if you need to (and trust me, you're going to need to) and still get a good, workable minor seventh. For one thing, the context of the song and the other instruments will establish the root note in the ear of the listener.

And here is why this is all cool.  If you "fret" the fourth, third, and second string along any fret, you are playing the b7, b3, 5 for the chord that would normally be played three frets down. Wait! It's not that bad. Play the fourth, third, and second string on the fifth fret and you are playing an A minor seventh! Technically, it's a C, but look at the notes: G, C, E. Well,an A minor seventh would be G, A, C, E. So all you've done is drop the root. Again, the other instruments and the context of the chord will establish that it is an A minor seventh.

So here is the "cheater's rule:" If you need to hold a minor, go three frets up from the fret you would play its major on--and play the fourth, third, and second strings.

For example, say you're playing a song in D and it has an F# minor. OK, you would play an F# by barring the eleventh fret. Go up to the fourteenth (or the second fret which is one octave lower) and play the fourth, third, and second strings.  (Advanced tip: One way to "sell" it to the listener is to start your chord on the true root and then slide down two frets to the flatted seventh and then hold the chord with a roll.)

Solution 3: Passive minors

If a 1, 3, 5 is a major chord and a 1, b3, 5 is a minor chord, what is a 1, 5?

Technically, it's call a fifth, but the important thing is it does not cause any dischord with the minor! So you can play a straight bar but just avoid playing the 5 and 2 strings and you are not "getting in the way" of the minor. I call that a passive minor. The only problem is that you are leaving out the money note--namely, the flatted third. Don't expect anyone to say "Cool sound," but they won't give you any dirty looks either.

Solution 4: Minor intervals

If you can cheat with a 1, 5, you should be able to cheat even BETTER with a 1 b3! What luck, the open tuning of the Dobro puts 3 half steps (minor interval) between the 5th and 4th strings and between the 2nd and 1st strings. This means that if you play the 5th or 2nd string as the root, you can easily play the minor interval by barring and playing the 4th or 1st string on the same fret.

The down side is you only have a two note chord, BUT, you can use an open string to establish the third note of the chord and get the following minors:

C minor  (C, Eb, G) 
x 1 1 0 x x

E minor  (E, G, B) 
x 5 5 x 0 x

G minor  (G, Bb, D) 
x 8 8 x x 0

Solution 5: Play a run through the chord

Here is where all that practice you put in on playing scales pays off. If you practice playing the relative minor scale every time you practice a major scale (like I advised in an earlier chapter on practicing) then you have a nice group of runs you can play for a lot of the minor chords. 

Let's say that you need to play an A minor. Remember that A minor  is the relative minor of C (because A is the 6th note in the scale of C) and a relative minor has the same scale as its relative major. So one way to handle the A minor is to play a bit of the A minor scale for that measure. For example, you could play the following:

It doesn't have to be all of those notes or in that exact order, although that run will work pretty good as is. The point is that if you have been practicing playing the C scale, then you should be able to get that run off pretty quickly and smoothly--you've been practicing it all along!

But what if the A minor is the ii chord of a song in G? No problem, this run doesn't play the F note, which would be F natural in the key of A min but would be F sharp in the key of G. So no conflict. If there were a conflict, you would just not play the conflicted note in your run.

The principle here is to use scale runs as a basis for playing ANY chord where a straight bar is not available or where it would be impractical. For example, I play "City of New Orleans" in C and there is a quick change from one measure with an A minor chord and then one measure with an F. I use the run I show above for the A min, but I don't want to jump way up to the 10th fret to bar the F. So I just use a portion of the C scale to run through the F.

Note: As an aside. I sometimes hear people make the mistake of thinking you would play the run through the F by playing the F scale. No, you want to play the C scale but play the notes that run through the F chord. If you played the F scale, you would play a B flat which would sound dissonant. that's why you want to play the C scale, that will give you the B natural in this run.


  1. I corrected an error to how I depicted the C minor on 10/30/12 at 11:00 pm EDT.

  2. Great post. Consider yourself subscribed.

  3. Thanks for that very helpful