copyright © 1995 Vance Gloster Last Modified: Oct 1, 1995
This lesson originally appeared on StickWire - the Official Chapman Stick Mailing List.
Reproduced here by permission. This article can be reprinted only in its entirety.

Theory On Tap
Lesson 11: Polychords

by Vance Gloster (with some great editing by Rick Bellinger)

What Is A Polychord

In its simplest form a polychord is a chord played over a note (or notes) that are not the root of the chord. Polychords are often used to voice some of the more complex jazz chords. On The Stick it is not as easy to play a complex chord with a tight voicing as it is on the piano, so polychords are a primary way of playing such chords. Often polychord voicings sound lean and modern (especially when only a bass note and a chord are played) compared to full voicings of chords.

A First Easy Example

In order to understand polychords more concretely let's play one! With the bass side of The Stick play a C note. The C is on the 7th string, 5th fret in standard tuning. Simultaneously play an E minor chord on the melody side. Here is how to play an E minor chord in standard and half-baritone tuning.

    Standard Tuning	     Half-Baritone Tuning
    |---|---|---|---     |-O-|---|---|---
    |-O-|---|---|---     |-O-|---|---|---
    |-O-|---|---|---     |---|-O-|---|---
    |---|-O-|---|---     |---|---|---|---
    |---|---|---|---     |---|---|---|---
        ^                    ^
        |_____ 7th fret _____|

In this diagram the "|" represents a fret, the "-" represents a string, and the "O" represents a finger. If it looks like garbage, try to view it in a fixed-width font like Courier.

This chord is actually Cmaj7. It turns out that the notes of an Em chord together with a C are the same as those in a Cmaj7. For this chord, putting the bass note together with the chord still has all of the notes of the full chord. For some of the more complex chords some notes get left out.

A Notation for Polychords

In sheet music polychord voicings are often written something like "Fmaj7/Bb", or "Fmaj/Bb bass", to mean an F major 7th chord with a Bb (4th) in the bass. In the last Theory On Tap lesson (#10) Jeff discussed this notation. But for this theory discussion it is most useful to use a different notation. The ear hears the tonal center of a chord (or even a polychord) in the bass, so it makes sense to root our view of a polychord in the same place. We also need a notation that shows the relationships without regard to key. In this article I will describe polychords using the following notation:

Maj 3 min

The "Maj" on the left means you start with a major chord. The "3" in the middle means you go up a third from the chord to find the root of the second chord. It's a major third, because this interval is based on a major scale. For consistency I always use a major scale even if the chord is minor. A minor third would be indicated by "b3". The "min" on the right means the second chord is a minor chord. This notation describes the example in the previous section. In that example a C major chord could have been played in the left hand while an E minor chord (E is the 3rd of the C major scale) is played over it.

Some Of The Most Useful Polychords

Here are some of the chords you see in sheet music and hear in songs a lot, along with their polychord equivalents. I personally do not normally play chords with the left hand when doing polychord stuff (just the bass notes). Of course in the more complex chords some notes are left out by doing this, and you should be careful that the important notes are included. I like the spare sound of the chord without all of the notes, but some styles of music (like old-style traditional jazz) come out better with full chords.

Chord Polychord Example
Maj7 Maj 3 min CMaj7 Em/C
min7 min b3 Maj Am7 C/A
dom7 Maj 3 dim G7 Bdim/G
dom9 Maj 5 min F7 Cm/F
Maj9 Maj 5 Maj DMaj9 A/D
min9 min 5 min Em9 Bm/E
Maj6 Maj 6 min C6 Am/C
dom11 Maj b7 Maj G11 F/G
dom13 Maj 6 sus b2 G13 Esus b2/G
dom7+9 Maj b3 sus b2 E7+9 Gsus b2/E

To get folks started, here are chord shapes for the right hand that you can use. The diagram is as before except the "R" indicates the root of the chord (this note should be fingered as well).

     Minor		Major		  Diminished	      Sus b2

|---|---|---|---  |---|---|---|---	|---|---|---|---  |---|---|---|---
|-R-|---|---|---  |-R-|---|---|---	|---|-R-|---|---  |---|-R-|---|---
|-O-|---|---|---  |-O-|---|---|---	|-O-|---|---|---  |---|-O-|---|---
|---|-O-|---|---  |---|---|-O-|---	|---|---|-O-|---  |-O-|---|---|---
|---|---|---|---  |---|---|---|---	|---|---|---|---  |---|---|---|---

Of course with the normal Stick tunings (except the Crafty one) you can shift these shapes over a string in either direction as well as up and down the neck.

Beyond Traditional Chords

While polychords are a good vehicle for implementing traditional chords on The Stick, this is not their only use. As composers, both legitimate and popular, strive to create new sounds some have begun using a polychord approach. This involves discovering new sounds that do not map to traditional chord descriptions. Here are some examples:

Polychord Example Comment
Maj 4 Maj F/C This gets used in a lot of mainstream ballads
Maj 2 Maj D/C This is the final chord of Chicago's 25 or 6 to 4 and it is pretty dissonant
Maj 3 Maj Bb/F# Dissonant and used in orchestral and film music

Here is a short polychord fanfare that ends with this last chord. Here it is in standard notation:

Am Bm/G C/F D/E Bb/F#

These chords are as follows:

normal minor
Maj 3 min
Maj 5 Maj
min b7 Maj
Maj 3 Maj

In my own compositions I have been doing a lot of work using polychords that use a Sus 2 chord on top (not a Sus b2 as talked about above). I was using this long before I came to The Stick, but it is a particularly easy chord to play on a Stick. It looks like this:

     Sus 2 

Like all the chords shown, this shape can be played either on the melody strings or the bass strings. The simplicity of this shape makes it a good one to use while playing bass with the same hand.

I would encourage all of you to explore your own realms with polychords. Stuff written by Joe Zawinul of the Weather Report (like Birdland) contain lots of good examples of how you can use polychords in composition. Good luck!

Lessons: Intro | 1 | 2 | 3 - Part I| 3 - Part II| 4 - Part I| 4 - Part II| 5| 6| 7| 8| 9| 10| 11| 12|
rick bellinger San Diego, CA

copyright © 1995 Vance Gloster
Licensed under the GNU Copyleft licensing agreement. This piece may be freely distributed in its original, unaltered form without charge. It may not be sold, or included in a collection that is sold, without permission from the author.

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