Cyberfret.com: Free Online Guitar lessons - Home

Classic Internet Guitar Lessons

These lessons have been floating around the web for years and were not written by the cyberfret staff. Therefore they are offered AS IS with no warranty, no money back guarantee, no technical support, no ads, and no pretty background (just plain gray and text, the way it was back in the old days, AND WE LIKED IT) The author of the material is at the top of each lesson. This is part of the history of guitar lessons on the Internet...

Title:  Polychords
Level:  Advanced
Style:  Theory
Instructor:  Kevin Morgan


A polychord is a "stacking", both literally and harmonically, of
two "adjacent" chords within a key.

For example, in the key of G, one of the seven possible polychords
is C/D.  By C/D I mean a chord in which a C triad is played on the
6th, 5th, and 4th strings, and a D triad on the 3rd, 2nd, and 1st
strings.  One such way of playing this is (in psuedo-tab):

            2
            3
            2
            2
            3
            3

Where the 6th and 5th strings are fretting with the thumb, the
4, 3 and 1 strings are fretted with a 1st finger barre, and the
2nd string is fretted with the 2nd finger.  (yes, it's awkward;
work at it a bit.  It's IMPORTANT that the 1st string ring out
too; don't accept less than all 6 strings ringing!).

Before we go futher with more polychord possibilities, you are by
now asking "what good is this"?  It's a new tool.  Play the polychord
and listen.  It's a unique sound, and creates a unique emotional
feeling, which after all is the whole point of music, to create
feeling in the listener.  Knowing polychords well gives you an
opportunity to inject them in your music, be it compositions, be
it free improvising, be it chord substitution when playing changes,
etcetera.

Another interesting use of polychords is as a means of "inventing"
interesting arpeggiated lead lines.  By directly arpeggiating the
polychord tones, or otherwise using all six (or fewer) of them
in close succession, your lead line starts to also take on the
"mood" of the polychord.  You get interesting intevallic leaps.
(Be sure to base your polychord lead lines on a theme, with either a 
theme-variation or question-answer type of phrasing, as I'm sure you 
always do!!  And of course you should probably resolve your lead lines
to a chord tone of the actual underlying chord you are playing over.
For example, someone's playing a D7.  You go for a lead line using
this C-D polychord.  Ending on a D-F#-A-C will give more or less
resolution and sense of "yea, that fit's", while ending on a non
D7 chord tone will give alot more tension.  Since your already creating
some serious tension with the polychord already (playing a C over D7!),
you should probably initially work with resolving to a D7 chord tone.

Of course, a jazzer probably wouldn't call this a "polychord".  
They might view it as an inversion of D13, where the 7-9-11 are
played "in the bass" and the 1-3-5 are played in the treble.  Or,
as a C with add 9, add 11, and add 13 (how do you write this,
C+9+11+13?  There is no 7, but perhaps folks would just write C13
anyway?  I don't know).  Could be, could be.  Viewing it as stacked 
triads ("polychords") is just a different mental model.

Another term for this concept is "upper structure triads", the idea
that the base chord is always a simple triad, be it major, minor,
or diminished, and extensions are just triads "on top", such as
5-7-9, or 7-9-11, or 9-11-13.  Polychords we are defining here as
being 9-11-13 played in the bass (strings 6-5-4), played over a
simple triad 1-3-5.

Enough theory, on to more fun stuff!

For playing lead stuff over polychords, whoa, you've got lots of
stuff to work with!!  Using our C/D polychord again, you can
play C lydian, D mixolydian (okay, the same notes BUT you are emphasizing
different chord tones), D blues.  Hey, whole tone scales thrown in
for a moment or two sound cool too!!  Experiment.

How many polychords are there in a key?  Seven.  The C/D in the
key of G is, from a theory/any key point of view, just IV/V.  Okay,
so the total set of polychords are:

  I/II  II/III   III/IV   IV/V   V/VI   VI/VII   VII/I

Now how do we find them on the fretboard?

Note that the 6-5-4 component of the C/D polychord is, of course, just
a C triad in 2nd inversion (the 5th is a G, and it's in the bass, so
it's 2nd inversion).  Do you know all 2nd inversion triads in the
key of G on the 6-5-4 string set?  I.e., staying with this form of
5th of the chord on the 6th string, root of the chord on the 5th
string, third of the chord on the 4th string, play ALL the chords in
the key of G.  We were just playing C at frets 3/3/2 on strings 6-5-4,
so slide up to the D (the V chord) at 5/5/4.  Now slide up to the
Em on 7/7/5.  The F#dim is at 8/9/7.  And so on.  Can you play all
7 chords in the key this way, up and down the neck, in time with
a metronome.  No problem.

So now you have 1/2 of the 7 polychords.  Next step: do the same
work on the 3-2-1 string set.  Our starting point was D, the V chord,
in our C/D polychord.  We used a 2nd inversion form (5th on 3, root
on 2, 3rd on 1).  Next chord "up" is Em, which is at frets 4/5/3 on
strings 3-2-1, etcetera.

Now put these two chords together!!  The reality is, the fingering
is tough.  Doable, but tough.  You frequently need to use the trick
of one finger fretting two strings.

Now the way out of the conundrum.  Drop the 6th string out of the
equation.  You are dropping the 5th of the "top" (bottom?  I don't
know) polychord (in the C/D example, we are dropping the G, which is
the 5th of the C triad).  That's okay, because we still have the
third (on the 4th string) giving us the "quality" of the chord (minor 
or major), and we have the root (on the 5th string).  

Now work out the fingerings.  They are quite reasonable, and we now
have a whole new set of cool chords within the key, with a very
different vibe/feel from regular old major, minor, 7, 9 type chords.
Try a 2 chord vamp using two of these polychords, record it for
5 minutes or so, then jam over it.  You got billions and billions
of scale and arpeggio possibilities to work with.  Don't forget
whole tone scales!!  (I usually do, don't be like me).

By the way, just to give you a sense that you indeed are on the
right track, the Em/F#dim polychord, dropping the 6th string, is:

          5
          7
          5
          5
          7
          x


So that's polychords in a nutshell.  As I started with, another tool
to put into your bag.

Keep on jammin'!!


-Kevin Morgan
 kmorgan@cup.hp.com

==============================================================================
FUTURE LESSONS
--------------
No  Name                           Style               Level         Instructor
 26 Power Chords                   Heavy Metal Rhythm    B        Ky MacPherson
 27 The Tonic                      Heavy Metal Rhythm    B        Ky MacPherson
==============================================================================

Guitar Lesson a Week Maintainers
Editor: Norm Carpenter                           Distributor: Kevin Elphinstone
Lesson Submissions To:                   guitar-lessons-editor@vast.unsw.edu.au
Mailing List (Un)Subscriptions To:      guitar-lessons-request@vast.unsw.edu.au
Lessons Archived At:    ftp.vast.unsw.edu.au[149.171.224.9]:/pub/guitar-lessons
                       bugs.specialix.co.uk[192.65.144.4]:/public/netsrc/guitar


back to the Classic Internet Guitar Lesson Index