Bing Hodneland logo



List Bestselling Books


List Bestselling DVDs


Sheet Music Plus Featured Sale
In Association with

All the information on this site is free. But if it is of value to you, I appreciate a tip.

Previous page:

Lesson 25 - Polychords

Next page:
Previous page: Lesson 24 - The Minor Scale Next page: Lesson 26 - Power Chords

Lessons of The Week was a series of guitar lessons circulated in "News", in the pre-web days of the Internet. 29 lessons were written before it died out, and I happende to write the first three. They represent a little bit of internet history, as they may have been the first guitar lessons written for the internet.

The lessons were all written in txt format - they were written around the same time as Tim Berners Lee were sitting in Switzerland specifing the first version of html. I have converted them to html, and may have added a few links from the lessons.

Lesson: 25
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 pseudo-tab):


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 further 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 a lot 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:


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:


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

Keep on jammin'!!

-Kevin Morgan

Previous page: Previous page: Lesson 24 - The Minor ScaleNext page: Lesson 26 - Power Chords Next page:

Previous page: Next page:
Previous page: Lesson 24 - The Minor Scale Next page: Lesson 26 - Power Chords