Let's Play With Polychords

Something of a follow on to my last lesson on arpeggios, this lesson will be focusing on chords with special mention to polychords.

Ultimate Guitar
Hey there, so after having a major internet fallout I am back with my new lesson, so as in the blurb, this lesson will be more for the rhythmically inclined and is pretty cool for composition. We get to work with space and diversify what we do without trying to overplay, so let's get going and at the end as before I will have an example of what you can do with the concepts. Ok, so what are chords to start with? They are stacked thirds, but let's just call them chords and are a group of notes that ring out and say arpeggios are single notes of chords. Now we have basic kinds of chords, Major, Minor, Augmented, Diminished. All of which can be extended. There are many lessons on how chords are put together with the 1st, 3rd, 5th notes of a scale here on UG so I suggest you take a look at those first if you don't understand the intervals used. So from my arpeggio lesson we concluded that the chord progression over major chords is major, minor, minor, major, major, minor, diminished, this is normally written as I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, vii. This pertains to the order of chords in key and capital and lower case? Capital-Major, smallcase-Minor. With me so far? There is another lesson that will be great a great supplement for this lesson, and that is on chord classes right here on UG. Now when we look at for example a G major bar chord, looking down the strings from low E to high e - G, D, G, B, D, G. Standard chord but what do we notice, we are repeating notes. This is not a bad thing but, say you are a metal player, with distortion this sounds messy. So what can we do? We can play only the notes of the scale, so our chord can look like this in its lowest voicing.
We now only played essential notes in the arpeggio to make our scale, this is still G major, we just aren't repeating any notes. I prefer doing this for chords because it sounds much better with distortion and means we aren't restricted to diads and powerchords. We can also extend this chord to include more notes to make a 7th chord.
D|-4-(major 7th; F#)
You can come up with a host of voicings in one position, most of them would end up being inversions which I think I'll cover in another lesson. This information is sparse because I want to keep it kind of short for my main topic, Polychords. What are polychords? They are two chords we can play that will give us an extended chord. The conventional voicings can sometimes be awkward to memorize or execute and some are impossible in standard tuning. Polychords serve to create more space for us to work with chords. Again I want to use C major, if you play C major then C major, you get a C major sound, however if we play C major, then E minor we get C major 7, because E minor (in key with C major) has a E, G, B. B is the only note here not contained in C major, so it is extending the chord to 7th. I know this is a tough article to follow, but I'm trying to lay it out as logically as possible. The way I build polychords is by taking the root chord - C Major - and taking another chord in the chord scale, so I want to use G major. So C: C, E, G and G: G, B, D. So we look at overlapping notes, the G, which is the 5th. We will use a G chord in a higher voicing than the C but you can do it the other way around and name it the same way I have, it will just sound different. So the G chord adds B (the 7th) and D (the second but we will call it the 9th because of its open voicing), so we play C then G we get CM(7)9. I will give you a complete list of major and minor polychords. Not all of these will sound musical but are important to work through. Fig.1
C + C    = C Major  
C + Dm   = C6(9)(11)
C + Em   = CM7      
C + F    = C6(11)   
C + G    = CM9      
C + Am   = C6       
C + Bdim = CM11     
Cm + Cm   = Cm                                                       
Cm + Ddim = Cm-6(9)(11) - This is Cm with a flat 6th and natural 9&11
Cm + D#   = Cm7                                                      
Cm + Fm   = Cm-6(11) - Same story here, Cm flat 6th natural 11       
Cm + Gm   = Cm9                                                      
Cm + G#   = Cm-6                                                     
Cm + A#   = Cm11                                                     
The minor ones are confusing so mostly just note the common extended chords (7th, 6th, 9th). You do not have to strictly follow the rules outlined here for chord spacing as you might notice in my example, your ear should rule everything you write, it only needs to sound good. I know there will be people saying but one guitar plays the base chord and the other plays the extending chord for harmonization, well do that then. This just creates more space on one guitar's line. This is totally transposable for any chord, so the intervals of 1st chord + 3rd chord gives you a 7th chord, this must be given priority. Now for the example, the chords are played arpeggiated but held out ringing, the progression is G, Am, C, Em. Fig.3
2 shapes for every chord, the first chord was a basic diad, so first the G, B, G then it was the A, C, A followed by C, E, C and ended with E, G, E. So we have those chords and think, how do we create more space and beef this out more, so the second chord in the progression, D, F#, G serves the 5th and 7th for the G major, then we played an E power chord with octave (E, B, E) after Am to create an Am9 chord. Followed by C major, then the next chord I kind of threw out there on instinct; B, G, B, which only accents the 5th of C and gives us our 7th in 2 octaves. Then finally our Em (E, G, E) and after we finished with a D5 power chord (D, A, D) this last chord gives the Em a 4th and a 7th and resolves nicely back into the starting G chord. Ok, thanks for sticking thiss through and I will answer any questions in the comments, please no offensive remarks, I did my best and this is how I use them, feel free to apply or use what you wish. Any requests will be taken for lessons.

14 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Wow. So many incorrect things here. Those "non-musical" chords that you never specifically mentioned are incorrect chords. You don't know why they sound "not musical" because you don't know what you're doing. No major chord should ever have(unless you know what you're doing) a diatonic 4th in the chord. Why? Because that 4th is half a step away from the 3rd of the chord which causes dissonance. The 3rd of any chord defines that chord. Even when used with Dominant chords the 4th(11th) is raised half a step. Play a C7 with a raised 4th and you'll recognize the sound. Also, C6, C7, C9, C11, and C13 are names for dominant chords not major chords. C + Dm = is Cmajor6(9,11,13) (C E G D F A) not C6. Polychords is more of a pianist's way to approach extended chords and even then its real world use is limited. I mean, do you really want to think about 2 chords instead of 1? Look up chord extensions, learn some simple fingerings and you're set.
    While i agree with your criticism in general, i do think the polychords serve a purpose. And its pretty well conveyed in the title: Lets play with polychords. Its a way you can approach chords in a different way, to come up with interesting new chords/progressions. But yes, it's kind of a pain to do on guitar.
    C6 is not dominant as it has no 7th. It is major. You can write it as C6. C E G A
    Sorry, not sure I get this. So say, for example, I want to "add" AMaj and Em together. The 1-3-5 of AMaj is A, C#, E, and the 1-3-5 of Em is E, G, B. So AMaj (in this case, I could swap them, right?) goes in the bass, and Em just fits above it? (sorry, don't know how to post tab) So in tab, from low E to high e, it'd be 5-4-2-0-0-x?
    Well Deadds, The thing nobody seemed to pick up is that I am not using it as a way to extend chords, I am using the 2 separate chords to get the prevailing extended chord. They are played separately as a way to create more space without sounding like I didn't do too much work. Same way that I have seen fusion guitarists look at modes as being 3 different extended arpeggios played around each other.
    That was something I knew I was forgetting. Sorry about that When you play like the Em in the bass you are essentially playing an inversion It fits excatly right nomatter which way you play it. This was mostly to show how chords fit over each other in key so you don't have to name what you are playing essencially, why complicate things But you have the right idea. So now that would be an A7add9. This is such an easy way to to work with extensions. Also if you played the chords separatley then the prevailing harmony will give you the chord sound
    wait. Isn't that just an A9? As far as I know it would be an add9 only if the seven wasn't there. The A9 should include 1-3-5-b7-9 unless otherwise noted, for example A9(no7) or Aadd9. Just like an A11 would include the b7 and 9 as well and so forth.
    I think there's some good stuff in here, you just need to take some time to sit back, read through it and really think out the sentences and make a clear and concise lesson plan! Perhaps instead of a lengthy paragraph, space your chord groupings out and label everything! Also, as important as your ear is in the overall scheme of things, many of the greatest melodies and compositions have been written without ever having been played beforehand, and many individuals like to know the technical reasons of 'why' catchy tunes sound good! Cheers
    Thanks I know I overselled this lesson, I'll be more concise in future lessons
    So my next question would be, how, if at all, do polychords relate to inversions? Could you say, from my example, that you are playing an E minor chord over an A major chord (Em/AMaj) or is that just stupid?
    This is great stuff! I also like to mentally do the opposite of your table showing the sum of two chords. That is, pull out the imbedded chords hiding in extended chords. They can suggest alternate soloing scales and suggest the triads you can use while creating complex rhythm structures.