Alan Bond's Teaching Page
The Bluegrass 6th Chord
The mandolin player in most bluegrass bands has the rhythm job of playing chop chords. This is one of the fun parts of being the mandolin person in the band. You can create a powerful driving pulse and you can establish the speed. The solid chop of that big G shaped chord can be very satisfying to play.
In most bluegrass songs you get a few chords to mess with. There are a few ways of forming each chord shape, you can emphasize the high or the low strings when you chop, but generally we mando players aren't expected to do anything too exotic.
The bass and guitar players are also going through the same chord changes as you. All that sound from low bass notes up to your high chop make a giant dynamic range of beautiful music.
You the mandolin player might feel like adding some magic to that dynamic mix! That's where the 6th chord comes into play. By adding an extra note to that huge bass, guitar, mandolin rhythm machine, you can discretely fatten up the sound of the whole band.
There are some cute little 6th chord shapes you can use for a swing feel but they won't do for bluegrass. You need to be able to womp out a big chord worthy of being played next to that bluegrass G chord.
So here's the bluegrass 6th chord (pictured). It's a G6, but it doesn't even need the G note in it, that's how cool it is. The bass and guitar have the G covered so don't worry. Now technically you can get a G note in there but don't bother. Just play the three lowest strings of the mandolin with this chord and let the magic happen.
You won't want to play a 6th chord if other people are playing a 7th chord. The 6th note can work on the root chord of a chord progression. Us it to keep things moving within the progression. It can sometimes be used at the end a of a song as the last ringing note to give a 1950s kind of lounge music sound. Just what you need for bluegrass music.