Poly Chords

Lesson for advanced guitarists about poly chords.

Ultimate Guitar
A polychord is a "stacking", both literally and harmonically, oftwo "adjacent" chords within a key. For example, in the key of G, one of the seven possible polychordsis C/D. By C/D I mean a chord in which a C triad is played on the6th, 5th, and 4th strings, and a D triad on the 3rd, 2nd, and 1ststrings. One such way of playing this is (in psuedo-tab):
Where the 6th and 5th strings are fretting with the thumb, the4, 3 and 1 strings are fretted with a 1st finger barre, and the2nd string is fretted with the 2nd finger. (yes, it's awkward; work at it a bit. It's important that the 1st string ring outtoo; don't accept less than all 6 strings ringing). Before we go futher with more polychord possibilities, you are bynow asking "what good is this"? It's a new tool. Play the polychordand listen. It's a unique sound, and creates a unique emotionalfeeling, which after all is the whole point of music, to createfeeling in the listener. Knowing polychords well gives you anopportunity to inject them in your music, be it compositions, beit 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 thepolychord tones, or otherwise using all six (or fewer) of themin 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 linesto 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 usingthis C-D polychord. Ending on a D-F#-A-C will give more or lessresolution and sense of "yea, that fit's", while ending on a nonD7 chord tone will give alot more tension. Since your already creatingsome 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 areplayed "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 C13anyway? 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 ideathat the base chord is always a simple triad, be it major, minor, or diminished, and extensions are just triads "on top", such as5-7-9, or 7-9-11, or 9-11-13. Polychords we are defining here asbeing 9-11-13 played in the bass (strings 6-5-4), played over asimple triad 1-3-5. Enough theory, on to more fun stuff! For playing lead stuff over polychords, whoa, you've got lots ofstuff to work with! Using our C/D polychord again, you canplay C lydian, D mixolydian (okay, the same notes but you are emphasizingdifferent chord tones), D blues. Hey, whole tone scales thrown infor a moment or two sound cool too!! Experiment. How many polychords are there in a key? Seven. The C/D in thekey 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, justa C triad in 2nd inversion (the 5th is a G, and it's in the bass, soit's 2nd inversion). Do you know all 2nd inversion triads in thekey of G on the 6-5-4 string set? I. e., staying with this form of5th of the chord on the 6th string, root of the chord on the 5thstring, third of the chord on the 4th string, play ALL the chords inthe 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 theEm on 7/7/5. The F#dim is at 8/9/7. And so on. Can you play all7 chords in the key this way, up and down the neck, in time witha metronome. No problem. So now you have 1/2 of the 7 polychords. Next step: do the samework 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, rooton 2, 3rd on 1). Next chord "up" is Em, which is at frets 4/5/3 onstrings 3-2-1, etcetera. Now put these two chords together! The reality is, the fingeringis tough. Doable, but tough. You frequently need to use the trickof one finger fretting two strings. Now the way out of the conundrum. Drop the 6th string out of theequation. You are dropping the 5th of the "top" (bottom? I don'tknow) polychord (in the C/D example, we are dropping the G, which isthe 5th of the C triad). That's okay, because we still have thethird (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 nowhave a whole new set of cool chords within the key, with a verydifferent vibe/feel from regular old major, minor, 7, 9 type chords. Try a 2 chord vamp using two of these polychords, record it for5 minutes or so, then jam over it. You got billions and billionsof scale and arpeggio possibilities to work with. Don't forgetwhole tone scales!! (I usually do, don't be like me). By the way, just to give you a sense that you indeed are on theright track, the Em/F#dim polychord, dropping the 6th string, is:
So that's polychords in a nutshell. As I started with, another toolto put into your bag. Keep on jammin'! -Kevin Morgan.

25 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Cool! Your explaination on how to build polychords is simple and easy to understand. This may be a stupid question to you (and maybe to me too once I start analizing the polychords) but I'm just getting into chord substitution, do you have any info or basic rules to substitute polychords for given chords? I know the rules are "there are no rules for taste" but hopefully you know what I mean.
    metallica100 wrote: i hate theory i think ill come back when im ready for this stuff
    i hate it too i read all this stuff but i dont have any idea of what are u telling me :$
    So...besides the fact that these are stacked triads...how are these different from slash chords...or is that a different name for them?
    Hello all. This the Kevin, as in the dude that wrote that lesson oh, may 15 years ago? (And no, I'm not nor ever was a member of the "UG Team", don't know why they say they are the author at the top, oh well.) I guess it's survived and found it's way into a number of guitar web sites. That's cool, I didn't copyright it or anything. I gotta give credit to who taught this stuff to me, namely Joe Deloro, an awesome rock guitar instructor in San Francisco. Keep on rockin!!
    Pretty sweet. It'll take a while to get used to figuring them out, forming them, and actually substituting them for regular chords, but in the end I think it'll be worth it.
    So PolyChords are like two chords in one? That's sweet? But i still dont know the answer to what i asked...can someone tell me?
    this is really vonfusing, but i'll get it eventually. only one question at the moment - are there any specific rules on keeping it within key? or do you just use trial and error?
    i am the kid
    kl lesson man but i have 1 thing 2 ask when u mix 2 chords do u keep the in min ie c/d would be c major c e g and D minor d f a being that the 2 chord in c is minor do u know what im trying to say
    patmann3 wrote: You're a ***** son of a ***** that should go **** your Mother!!!!! I'm talking of course about the igenuity of modern day nano technology as it can produce self igniting aluminium! Who gives a **** I hear you ask. Well, for one thing the advance in nano technology could result in a bomb capable of destroying at least half of the entire solar system!
    huh? anyway cool lesson it was easy to understand but that means i must have missed something
    if u want a c13, it is quite simple to play the 7th instead of the 5th, which will give u a 13 chord. that is, in c, playing a b instead of a g. could cause some fingering problems though, depending on what inversion of the triad u were using in the first place
    You're a ***** son of a ***** that should go **** your Mother!!!!! I'm talking of course about the igenuity of modern day nano technology as it can produce self igniting aluminium! Who gives a **** I hear you ask. Well, for one thing the advance in nano technology could result in a bomb capable of destroying at least half of the entire solar system!
    This lesson is totally underated, It has to be the only one to even mention poly's. Bravo. 5stars
    It would still be a C13 even with the 7 omitted. And you could just bar the 2 and place fingers on the 3's instead of using your thumb :p