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Someone I know who has been playing electric guitar for many years says this quite often, as a key difference between playing acoustic and electric guitar. He claims that even playing rhythm, you shouldn't be strumming all 6 strings but only two or three (typically by playing power chords).

I can see this having a point with certain amp/effect setups - it gets awfully muddy - but I'm not convinced it should be considered a rule. Isn't there a place for playing an electric with standard open acoustic guitar chords?

I'm very new to electric guitar so I'm trying hard to determine which things I'm told should be considered rules, and which is just that person's style of play.

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    You are correct, this does not apply as a general rule. – Meaningful Username Nov 13 '14 at 12:10
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    Just re the word "rules" .. Them's just guidelines .. there aren't really any rules in music, just advice for what normally sounds ok :-) – user2808054 Nov 13 '14 at 14:49
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    If someone ever tells you there's a rule in music, they are wrong. – Jasmine Nov 13 '14 at 16:17
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    "Would you buy a book called 'Suggestions of Acquisition'?" -- the first Grand Nagus. – luser droog Nov 14 '14 at 5:30
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    Whoa. Definitely not a rule. It depends on what/how you're playing.....and what you're playing it through. – lunchmeat317 Nov 14 '14 at 7:26

12 Answers 12

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The direct answer: No, this is not good teaching

There is very little difference between electric and acoustic guitar. Playing all 6 strings can be absolutely fine on either. Many barre chords are 6 string.

The question should really be "...shouldn't play all 6 strings together when using distortion"

When you use distortion you add in harmonics which generally act to muddy the sound, and if you choose the wrong notes you can end up with horrible discordant sounds.

That said, many bands use distortion perfectly well with barre chords, and even open chords, using the distortion to add acoustic textures.

  • I find add9 barre chords in 2nd inversion to be particularly bada** with heavy distortion. Double that 9 on the G string too if you want. – Floegipoky Nov 13 '14 at 21:13
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    Distortion has no regard for equal temperament so it usually requires special tuning to pull off - either a guitar tuned for a specific song, or layered guitars in the studio where each part is played only on 3-4 strings that are carefully tuned by ear for the desired harmonics. Just mashing a full barre chord is pushing the limits of good taste with even a hint of distortion (some might argue even without). – Darren Ringer Nov 14 '14 at 5:43
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    Some chords are particularly bad, but to be honest, some are beautiful with distortion - you just need to know what harmonics will be introduced by your distortion, and where they fit. – Doktor Mayhem Nov 14 '14 at 7:36
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    @DarrenRinger: "Rock and Roll, pushing the limits of good taste since 1950". I wonder how many rules of good-taste guitar playing Dave Davies and Link Wray rewrote just between the two of them ;-) Which of course is not to say that when a student does it they'll necessarily get anything other than an awful mess. – Steve Jessop Nov 14 '14 at 10:30
  • What you say is correct, but your answer is off-key. Distortion is irrelevant to the question. It's about learning to play guitar, not how to blow people's minds with a glorious power-ballade. Knowing when and how to use each string is something you develop over time, just as it is to know the same when dealing with effects or sharing the soundscape with other musicians. Honestly, there is no one way to go about it, but one typically learns to crawl before they learn to walk or run. – quickthyme Nov 14 '14 at 22:20
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The only rule is, "If it sounds good, it is good."

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    Even if it sounds bad, that can be good too. – webmagnets Nov 14 '14 at 17:16
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    If it sounds, it is. – NReilingh Nov 15 '14 at 1:46
  • - Duke Ellington – Todd Wilcox Sep 19 '15 at 12:33
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The very first thing to know, is to Never assume there is a certain rule you should or should not apply, of course some ways are better than others, but you can do and experiment everything you want, in music only comes to the ear is what matters.

In case you have heard AC/DC songs before, "Highway To Hell" for example, open chords are played, they thing here is what kind of distortion and what chords are you playing, some chords just sound awful distorted to some point.

Another thing is barred chords, where you do play all 6 strings but not in open positions, these are more common when playing a chord with distorted sound.

After all the key is how much the distortion is, try to roll back on the distortion and you can get some nice results... get a more "metal" distortion and good luck making the worst noise ever on open chords.

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Well, I don't see it as a key difference between electric and acoustic since I am not overly fond of just hitting all six on the acoustic either. And when playing the acoustic, I don't even have to share sound texture between lead and rhythm guitar.

On the other hand: how are you going to start off "A Hard Day's Night" without playing all six?

It's right that using distortion makes full-bodied chords an even worse idea (mostly because of cross-harmonic distortion, but also because of hogging all the frequency spectrum). But stuff gets more interesting for more separable notes and chord voicings, and an electric guitar does not need to revert to full chords in order to get heard.

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    As always when "cross-harmonic distortion" is mentioned as a problem, I'd like to remark that this is not in principle a problem of full-bodied chords – only, distortion makes the deficiencies of 12-edo tuning (in particular, its really not so good approximation of thirds) painfully obvious, that's why all full chords get so muddy on a distorted standard guitar. – leftaroundabout Nov 13 '14 at 14:38
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    @leftaroundabout: If one tunes the G string on a guitar about a seventh of a semitone flat, flat, an open E chord can sound very nice with distortion (frequency ratios 2:3:4:5:6:8), vs. 2:3:4:5.04:6:8 with equal note spacing). Unfortunately, tuning the G string flat will cause almost every other chord to sound horrible. – supercat Nov 13 '14 at 16:39
  • I once saw a video that dissects the intro to A Hard Day's Night - each instrument is actually playing a very simple chord, but they are all different chords and only one instrument has the fundamental. So, that's how you do it without playing all six strings ;p – Darren Ringer Nov 14 '14 at 5:46
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I often find myself playing all six strings on electric. More than I should, even.

I was listening to a Nile Rodgers tutorial the other day, and he talked about hearing cover bands play good times, hitting a lot of strings, and he says "No! I didn't play it like that! I played it like this!". It's hard to tell the difference, because he's talking and you can hear the pick noise in the microphone, but the message is clear.

Which is, in some styles, where you might be playing clean and wanting to hit all the strings, but you really shouldn't. Even when you have a relaxed hand, you want to have a disciplined stroke.

Should this be NEVER? Perhaps not. Should you give students awareness early on that backing off, controlling the number of strings you play and your place in the whole? Certainly.

3

That principle stems from the fact that electric guitars, in a band setting, share frequencies (specifically mids) with a lot of other instruments. It's right up there with the piano, keys, vocals, even some horns and of course, with other guitars.

So it is encouraged that as electric guitar, you should play differently i.e, find variations when playing chords. That way, you add to the sound of the band. If you play barre chords or open chords (again, in a band setting), you'll get lost in the mix; your sound would 'match' with other instruments and thus, not be heard.

But then again, music isn't something that has one definition. For example in some form of blues, the guitar is the main driving force. You can basically play a lot of things, and not worry of being lost in the mix. "Isn't there a place for playing an electric with standard open acoustic guitar chords?" kind of applies in blues/ blues-rock.

So to answer your question, yes, generally speaking it is good teaching. Because it opens you up to being creative with your playing. But it shouldn't be a rule for every other music setting in existence.

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6-string chords can work on an electric guitar. Increasing distortion greatly increases the chance that it won't sound good, but there are still situations where it can provide flavor. And that's not even considering alternate tunings.

But I think your friend may have been trying to point out something important that took me a while to learn. Playing any instrument is about balance, restraint, and nuance. No matter how heavy the tone, you should still be using controlled, precise movements and every note should have a purpose.

In other words, don't just play the strings because you can shape the chord. Play them because it gives you the result you want to achieve. You can play many songs with 5-6 note barre chords (and that's fine when starting out), but it's likely that you'll be missing out on a lot of detail which can only be achieved with smaller chords and individual notes.

  • While I like your answer, and have upvoted, I think the entire grunge movement, and punk, and others would disagree with "you should still be using precise controlled movements and every note should have a purpose" :-) – Doktor Mayhem Mar 28 '17 at 8:15
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If you are playing with other musicians, playing all six strings at once will tend to create a muddy mix where it becomes difficult to distinguish who is doing what. Depending on the style of music, that may or may not be a desirable outcome.

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An electric guitar can be used to play in many styles that would sound silly on an acoustic, or produce effects that an acoustic guitar simply can't match. Some styles and effects are apt to work much better when playing fewer notes than when playing more. As others have mentioned, distortion only works well when playing certain combinations of frequencies; major triads are apt to sound bad unless one can lower the third relative to the other notes in the chord (something which is apt to be difficult). Whammy-bar effects are unlikely to effect all notes evenly; that unevenness can add interest when there are two or three notes, but will simply yield a muddle if there are five or six.

On the other hand, electric guitars can also be used for many styles which would be equally at home on an acoustic; if an acoustic guitar would play a chord with five or six notes, there's no reason an electric guitar shouldn't do so as well. Most guitars have a pickup selector which can switch between a "clearer" sound (neck pickup) and a "fatter" sound (bridge pickup). While the fatter sound of the bridge pickup may become muddled when strumming larger chords (I like the sound of plucking notes individually while letting earlier notes ring), the clearer sound of the neck pickup when passed through a clean amp, should sound much fuller with 5-6 string chords than with 3-4 string ones.

  • are bridge and neck pick ups juxtaposed? – Tim Nov 13 '14 at 20:06
  • @Tim: I don't think so. On my guitars, the clearer sound is on the neck pickup. When I want to emphasize the bass strings, I use little metal bars to bridge the top four pairs of magnets on the humbucker pickups (softening the treble strings). The effect of adding the bars to the neck pickup is noticeable when the switch is set for the position I would describe as giving the "clearer sound". Maybe we differ in how we interpret "clearer" and "fatter"? – supercat Nov 13 '14 at 20:23
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I agree with Dr. Mayhem, you shouldn't strum all 6 strings with distortion. When you play clean, it sounds great. But, with distortion, you lose some of the frequencies, and a lot of the notes get muddied. Its better to play power-chords or 3 note chords with an electric guitar. They just add more to the overall mix of the music.

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    I have to disagree. One of my favorite sounds (which I'm always trying to work into a song) is an inverted sus2 chord using all six strings and a medium-high level of distortion. An example on D of this would be 5 5 7 7 5 5 (barre on 5, ring and pinky on 7). It just sounds pretty awesome. There's also an open E5 made by 0 7 9 9 0 0 (lowest to highest) and inverted open A5 of 0 0 7 9 10 0. You just have to play the right six string chords. – Todd Wilcox Sep 19 '15 at 12:39
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Like any good wine taster can tell you, the palate is in the mind, not the taste buds. One needs to train their inner ear so that sonic finesse and accuracy can be achieved.

The question is not asking whether or not this is a rule one must always follow, but rather if this is "good teaching".

From a teaching perspective, YES, this is a good practice to enforce. When students are first learning to play an instrument, they are still learning good form and proper technique and are not ready to start thinking "out-of-the-box" quite yet. (Generally speaking; this assumes that the student is at a beginning level in music.) Typically, it's much more effective for the sake of learning to start out working with less and then gradually build from there. Learn to identify the notes you hear, and develop a good habit of only playing the notes you truly intend.

If later, once you actually know what you're doing, you decide to use all 6 strings to unleash an emotional wail upon the listener, then it will be on purpose, and you will have created true artistic expression.

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Raphael's answer is patently false. This stems from using distortion and/or overdrive on an amplified instrument. Power chords (or specifically the interval of a fifth) create a strong implied "almost major" overtone when distorted (asymmetric distortion; symmetric distortion creates additional harsh overtones which is why most people prefer the former). That implied major tone isn't in temper with the instrument itself and so sounds bad played against other intervals.

Players that play clean, jazz players for instance, and some very lightly distorted rock bands (the stones come to mind here, the who, zepplin) or guitarists that are playing effects other than distortion (Fripp, Satch, Vai, etc) often play much more complex rhythm sections than three string chords or power chords.

Tonal reinforcement is common in pretty much every type of music ever written, from punk rock to jazz to orchestral music. Multiple instruments often play the same exact notes in the same tonal range to reinforce that part of the texture. Standing out from the group has very little to do with it. This is even common in early piano and harpsichord music (Mozart K471) where the fundamental is repeated over three octaves to reinforce it (you hear the octave overtone anyway, so those notes aren't "distinct").

  • Saying "patently false" is a bit harsh, but I think it is fair to say that distortion generally requires using fewer strings, while cleaner sounds work better with more. I use chords of 5-6 strings almost exclusively (sometimes strummed as a group, or 1+4, or five individual notes, or three individual notes followed by the last two together, etc.) My reason for using an electric rather than an acoustic isn't that I want the "electric guitar sound", so much as that cheap electrics have better actions than cheap acoustics. – supercat Nov 14 '14 at 23:26

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