Polychords, Slash Chords,
and approaching them on the guitar:

I was taught that in a jazz context, so called "slash chords" (not to be confused with chords played by the guitar player from "Days of Guns & Roses") take two forms:

  1. A chord (usually a triad) over a bass note, indicated by a diagonal slash with the chord on top and the bass note on the bottom
  2. A polychord (two different chords sounding simultaneously), indicated by a horizontal slash with one chord on top and the other chord on the bottom

In actual practice, most "polychords" are simply a different way of looking at a fairly complex chord. For example, C13(#11) could also be written as D over C7. This practice is particularly common among piano players, who can think of the top chord in the right hand and the bottom chord in the left hand for the sake of convenience. Guitarists often have a harder time quickly decifering these type of polychords for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that we can only play six notes at a time (provided we're playing a six string guitar). Guitarists usually find the "chord over bass note" thing more convenient.

The other use (and I suppose, technically more "correct") of polychords and chord over bass notes is the juxtaposition of two different tonalities against each other. Of course, this also is a bit of a gray area, since if you put your mind to it, you could probably take just about any polychord and relate it to SOME scale. Here's a couple of examples of seemingly unrelated chords being related diatonically upon closer examination:

  • F# over C: could be related to the C auxilliary (half whole) diminished scale

  • C over Ab min: could be related to the C (or E or G#) augmented scale (C, D#, E, G, G#, B). Ab minor is Ab, Cb, Eb. Notice enharmonic equivalents D#-Eb, B-Cb, and G#-Ab.

In the case of the first chord, one could call it C7(b9/#11) instead of F# over C. For a guitarist, the former name may be easier to comprehend quickly. In the case of the second chord, One could perhaps call it Ab min/maj7(add#9/b13). This chord symbol is rather lengthy, and it doesn't immediately evoke a commonly known or played tonality. In this case it would seem to make more sense to use the polychord notation of C over Ab min, even for non-pianists.

As for usage, the idea of polytonality in general is pretty prominant in a lot of late romantic period and early twentieth century classical music (Stravinsky did some pretty cool stuff with polytonality in such pieces as The Rite of Spring and History of a Soldier.) Some jazz players that have made use of this stuff include Herbie Hancock (especially his stuff with Miles in the early to mid sixties), Keith Jarrett, and Bill Frisell, just to name a few.

I've heard a lot of guitarists gripe that polychords are too difficult (or even impossible) to play on guitar, so why bother trying? While guitarists don't quite have as easy access to the "chromatic universe" as pianist, there are certainly ways around this problem:

  1. use of open strings where applicable
  2. use of right hand thumb, one finger to cover two adjacent strings on the same fret, or use of the inside of the idex finger to fret a note on the first string (then playing another note with the tip of the index finger, often on the 2nd string one fret higher than the note on the first string- for example, play an E on the second string 5th fret, and bring the inside of the index finger over to fret a G# on the first string. This still leaves 3 fingers to play other notes.
  3. don't forget the old standby -- the barre for two or more notes on the same fret
  4. the Tal Farlow technique (though I'm sure others have used it as well) of using a right hand finger as a "fifth finger" and strumming the chord with an upstroke of the thumb. This technique requires you to put down your pick if you're using one.(unless maybe you can tuck it between your little finger and palm).
  5. if a particular polychord seems impossible to play in a keyboard-like "stack", try one or more notes in a different octave.

One example that uses several of these techniques together would be to play Eb over A as follows:

  • 6th string: C# on the 9th fret
  • 5th string: open A
  • 4th string: Bb on the 8th fret
  • 3rd string: Eb on the 8th fret
  • 2nd string: G on the 8th fret
  • 1st string: open E

In this case, I'm taking advantage of the open E string to play the fifth of A up an octave. Note that all 3 notes of the Eb triad could be barred.

Here's an alternate example using yet another open string:

  • 6th: C#, 9th fret
  • 5th: open A
  • 4th: Eb, 13th fret
  • 3rd: open G
  • 2nd: Bb, 11th fret
  • 1st: open E

This gives you a little different sound than that old clunky drop 3 voicing. The dissadvantage of this technique is that, unlike drop 2 & 3 and many other systems for voicing chords, you pretty much end up having to memorize a lot more specific voicings as opposed to one shape that can be easily transposed into 11 other keys. But, as one of my teachers used to be fond of saying, music's hard & tricky.

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