Get More From Less With Tetrachord Soloing

Less is more with this four-note approach to improvising guitar solos.

Ultimate Guitar
If you're anything like me, whenever you find yourself thinking that your soloing is becoming stale, your natural inclination is to learn some new, more advanced concepts. Undoubtedly, some great things can come of this, and you should always be trying to increase your skills set on the instrument.

Expanding your acquaintance with chromaticism, polyrhythms, and counterpoint, for example, can take your playing to another level. But in this article, I am going to make a case for instead taking something you are already very familiar with and adding some restrictions to simplify it even further. This is a technique that I refer to as tetrachord soloing.

For the tetrachord soloing technique, simply take whatever scale you are playing and limit yourself to just four of the unique pitches in the scale. In the same way that a major pentatonic scale eliminates 2 notes from the full major scale (the 4th and the 7th), creating a tetrachord within a major scale eliminates 3 notes (any of your choosing).

When you limit yourself to only 4 notes for X number of bars in a solo, it creates a very strong harmonic focus for those phrases. Then, when you eventually reach outside of that limited set of notes, the newly incorporated notes that you have been purposefully avoiding have a greater significance and impact. Imagine playing a solo where landing on the 3rd or 5th sounds like an interesting note choice.

Let's look at the following 4-note grouping and discover its many applications:

1, 2, 5, b7

We'll begin by using the A natural minor scale. In this scale, the root is A, the 2nd is B, the 5th is E, and the flat 7th is G. Here are a couple of positions to play these notes on the fretboard:

Take some time to play around with these notes and begin hearing their unique sonority.

As you may have realized already, the four note grouping of 1, 2, 5, and b7 is not exclusive to the natural minor scale. This same intervalic relationship can be applied to the dorian mode and mixolydian mode, as well as several more exotic scales including the mixolydian b6 scale and the Ukranian minor scale.

Another way to get more mileage out of this tetrachord is to transpose it within the scale, rather than applying it to other scales. If we stay in A natural minor and move each note down a full step (A to G, B to A, E to D, and G to F), our new tetrachord also consists of notes found in the full scale (b7, 1, 4, b6). Another option is to transpose the original notes up by a perfect 4th (A to D, B to E, E to A, and G to C), giving us a third tetrachord within the scale with the same intervalic relationship (4, 5, 1, b3).

Note: The intervals at which you transpose a tetrachord to remain diatonic to your scale varies for each tetrachord you use. For example, and 1, 2, b3, 4 tetrachord cannot be moved up a whole step and remain in key like the previous 1, 2, 5, b7 tetrachord.

There are numerous tetrachords to try out, and I encourage you to do some experimenting. Find some sounds that you like. Find ways to connect modulating chord changes using a tetrachord. There's a lot to be gained by taking something you already know, simplifying it, and finding new, exciting applications for it.

About the author:
Charlie Button
is a musician, producer, and educator from Upstate NY. His name has appeared in such music publications as Pitchfork, MySpace Artist of the Day, Dead End Hip Hop, All About Jazz, and more. Visit Charlie's website for private and group Skype guitar lessons, as well as to sign up for his newsletter that contains free video lessons and articles such as this one.

8 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Very good lesson but it's not tetrachord. Tetrachord is a succession of 4 notes in a scale. Either first 4 or last 4. There are 5 tetrachords in classical music. Major (1, 2, 3, 4,), minor (1, 2, 3b, 4), phrygian (1, 2b, 3b, 4), harmonic (1, 2b, 3, 4). All scales in classical music are made with a combination of 2 of these (e.g. Major scale is made up of 2 major tetrachords, minor scale from minor and phrygian etc.). EDIT: I forgot one LOL. I think it's called myxolydian (1, 2, 3, 4#). It's basically a whole tone one Source: I am a classicaly trained musicianBut anyways very good concept for soloing, just wrong name for the thing (I hope tetrachord in english has the same meaning as in croatian which is derived from german and austrian school of music)
    Actually the 1,2,5,b7 is more closely related to myxolydian mode, which has the same notes as a major scale just with a flat 7 and the starting not is the 5th of whatever key you're in. (Not 1,2,3,#4...that belongs to Lydian mode) and myxolydian isnt a whole tone.
    Yeah, you're right. I was under the impression that tetrachord referred to any four-note grouping, but just did some research. Thank you for the clarification. I hope the concept is still clear to everyone, despite the incorrect terminology.