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Three Frets Up, and What You Find There

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Hi all,
We were discussing recently, in another thread, how in Country Blues guitar playing you can often get interesting-sounding effects that particularly suit the harmonic language of the blues by taking a chord shape, or just a part of a chord shape, and moving that shape up three frets.  I thought we could take a look at why this works in different contexts, how it has been used by various players in the style, and why it has ended up being used in some shapes but not others.  It seems to make sense to confine each post to a particular example of this movement rather than taking up the phenomenon in the larger sense all at once, so here goes.

Moving the I chord up three frets:  One of the most widespread uses of the "three frets up" idea involves moving the I chord of whatever key you're playing in up three frets, while maintaining the I note in the bass.  Here is an instance of that, in Washboard Walter's "Overall Cheater Blues".  Listen to what Washboard Walter's accompanist, John Byrd does at the front of the verse beginning at 1:23 of the rendition and running until 1:31.

John Byrd is playing the song out of E position in standard tuning, and in that four-bar passage from 1:23--1:31 he is taking an E chord played out of the D shape, 4-5-4, going from the third string to the first string, playing it in the first bar, moving that shape up three frets intact, 7-8-7, for the second bar,  taking it back down three frets for the third bar, and taking back up, once more for the fourth bar, to open that verse.  If we look at the notes involved when you do that, we can see the effect of moving the shape up three frets.  At 4-5-4 on the first three strings, John Byrd's notes in the E chord, moving from the third string to the first string are B-E-G#, or 5-R-3, expressed as voices of an E major chord.  At 7-8-7 on the first three strings, his notes are D-G-B, which expressed as notes in an E chord are flat7-flat3-5.  A chord consisting of Root-flat3-5-flat7 is a minor seventh chord.  So we can see that by moving a major I chord up three frets, you move from a I major chord to a I minor seventh chord, a more highly colored chord by virtue of containing a seventh, but also with an additional bite or snap because of the minor third note that it contains.  Rocking back and forth between these two chords as John Byrd did on "Overall Cheater Blues", then, sets up a rocking back and forth between major and minor in the song's tonality.

Another instance of this effect can be heard in Lil' Son Jackson's song, "No Money, No Love".  Here is the song:

Lil' Son Jackson played the song out of A position in standard tuning, and he begins the song strongly emphasizing the "long A" chord sound, 0-2-2-2-5, ascending from the fifth string to the first string.  At the :04 mark, he moves the shape up three frets, intact, ending up at 0-5-5-5-8, playing a fill out of that position until the :07 mark, at which point he moves the shape back down three frets, where upon he plays an answering fill.  He starts his first verse at the :14 mark, and moves the shape back up three frets for the beginning of the verse, holds there for the first bar, comes back down three frets for the second bar, returns to the "three frets up" position for the third bar, and comes back down three frets for the fourth bar.  In looking at the notes in the two A chords, the "long A" at the base of the neck and the position three frets up, we find this:  The "long A" chord, from the fifth string to the first consists of A (root)-E (5)-A (root)-C# (3)-A (root).  The position three frets up gives you A (root)-G (flat7)-C (flat3)-E (5)-C (flat3).  So, based on the voices that each chord has relative to its root, A, we find the "long A" chord is an A major chord, and the same shape moved up three frets while keeping the open A string in the bass is an A minor 7 chord.

What Lil' Son Jackson did in "No Money, No Love" once the first verse started is the exact opposite of what John Byrd did on "Overall Cheater Blues", for John Byrd alternated major-minor 7-major-minor 7 in the four bars of his verse, and Lil' Son Jackson reverses that alternation to minor 7-major-minor 7-major.  What Lil' Son Jackson played would have sounded great if he had simply moved the shape back and forth between the two positions, but he did much more than that, playing treble fills in both positions that sit comfortably and naturally under the hand and which also sound great.  In the three frets up position, he went from the eight fret of the first string down to a triplet from the fifth fret of the first string to the eighth fret of the second string and back, followed by the eighth fret of the first string resolving to the fifth fret of the first string.  The notes?  C-AGA-C-A, or flat 3-root-flat7-root-flat 3-root.  In the long A position, he starts at the fifth fret of the first string, plays a triplet from the third fret of the first string to the fifth and then third frets of the second string, followed by the fifth fret of the third string resolving to the second fret of the third string.  The notes?  A-GED-C-A, or root-flat7 5 4-flat 3-root.  So it is that he gets contrasting pentatonic runs from both positions that sound great and sit easily under the hand.  Hats off!

A third example of moving the I chord up three frets can be found in Gabriel Brown's "Going My Way".  The track starts at the 32:00 point on the linked video.  Here it is:

Gabriel Brown is playing out of dropped-D tuning here.  He concludes his intro at the 32:09 mark, resolving to a D chord at the base of the neck, 2-3-2 on the first three strings, going from the third string to the first, A (5)-D (root)-F# (3).  At the 32:17 mark he hits the first accompanying chord of his first verse, and what he has done is move the D shape up three frets to 5-6-5, C (flat7)-F- (flat 3)- A (5), once again getting a I minor 7 chord by moving the I chord up three frets intact while keeping the low root in the bass. 
Gabriel Brown expands on the idea we've been talking about in his solo, though.  He concludes his second verse re-establishing his D chord at the base of the neck, around 33:16.  He opens his solo at 33:18 in the "three frets up" position, but at 33:22, he takes the shape an additional three frets up from the three frets up position, walking it back down to the three frets up position via the position sounding two frets above the "three frets up position".  What notes does he get at these higher positions, and how do they relate to the original I chord?  At the three frets up from three frets up position, he is at 8-9-8, Eflat (flat2)-Aflat (flat5)-C (flat7) an Aflat major chord, so he he is essentially playing a flat5 chord over the I note in the bass--no wonder it sounds like it's going to put hair on your chest!  The walk-down position, 7-8-7, is simply a G major chord, which has relatively less tension and sort of smooths the transition down into the "three frets up" position.  I think the sound Gabriel Brown gets with this move is pretty spectacular--tense, to be sure, but is it ever arresting!  And there's a logic to it, too--if three frets up sounds good, maybe three frets up from that will sound good, too.

If you think of the examples we've examined, in every instance, the chord position that was moved up was a self-contained, closed position, employing no open strings other than the root in the bass.  And this is the way you'll almost invariably see this move utilized, because if you take a position like a C or G chord at the base of the neck, you have to completely switch your fingering around to move the voices of the chord above the low root (some of which are open strings) up three frets while keeping the low root in the bass.  It's awkward as hell, and it would be especially difficult to rock between the base position and the three frets up position in these chords.  That having been said, there are plenty of opportunities to use the three frets up idea over different I chords that have not yet been utilized as far as I know, and there are some great sounds out there waiting to be discovered--sounds that will fit right into the style.

All best,


Wow John! Great post-- a lot to think about! I'm excited to see what other I chords people have experimented with to good effect!


Thanks for the good words, Zach.  One thing that occurred to me when I read your post is that apart from people playing slide, this three frets up device for moving between a I major chord and its I minor7 chord has been all but unused by Country Blues guitarists playing in open tunings like Spanish and Vestapol--this despite the fact that these tunings make the effect available in the absolute easiest way, technically.  Pick any three strings that give you a root, third and fifth in these tunings and move three frets up on those strings doing an index partial barre, and you've got it!  It's made additionally easy by the fact that in these open tunings you will have an open-string I note in the bass.  I've got to try it myself and see what kind of sounds you can get, and also what sorts of runs become available, along the lines of what Lil' Son Jackson did in "No Money, No Love".
All best,

Thanks John!

I wasn't aware of this. It definitely gives me some new ideas.

I especially liked the Lil' Son Jackson song. It was the runs that really did it for me.

Sent from my SAMSUNG-SM-G891A using Tapatalk

Thanks for posting that analysis, John, interesting stuff.  Hanging around here is like sitting in on a master class in country blues.


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