Lesson on Polyphonic Guitar

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The Polyphonic Guitarist

Are you a monophonic or polyphonic player?

As guitarists, we have a tendency to get caught up in speed and single note lines. Ask any guitarist to solo and odds are it will be single note lines played on the high strings.

There almost seems to be an installed switch for most guitarists. On position for rhythm and one for lead. This is partly due to the fact that guitarists separate these two tasks instead of connecting them.

The long hard truth about guitar is there isn’t a real separation between rhythm and lead. I suppose you can become a great rhythm guitarist and not play a lot of lead. You can’t become a great lead guitarist and not be excellent at rhythm however.

You can only really start to unlock the guitar when you don’t have borders around your playing. Instead, allow free passage.

Contrary to the rumors you’ve heard, rhythm guitar isn’t so simple. It’s not Guitar Lite 1.0.

Polly Wants A Cracker

In this lesson, I want to talk about Polyphonic Soloing. The idea of playing more then one note at a time.

Some of you may be familiar with double stops. Or sixths. And even 3rds. These are three common intervals guitarists move around. Often guitarists learn these shapes and then check out.

It’s much more powerful to have your eyes wide open when driving though the mountains. Awareness of what you’re playing gives you power and control.

Dig In

Let’s say we’re playing over a G chord. Our first thought would be to play a G major scale over the chord. After all, it’s where the chord comes from.

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What if we were to focus on one anchor note from the chord and play on top of it.
For this example I may play a G note on the D string 5th fret.

Surrounding that G note, there are other notes also from the same scale. This will give us a variety of intervals.

I see a D on the G string (that’s a 5th). I see a B on the G string (that’s a third). That’s just two options for playing polyphonic solo.


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If we wanted a major 2nd to ring, we may have to grab that A note from the G string:


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Lesson application:

Instead of playing 5 or 6 notes chords, lets work through some chord progressions that consist of only two notes.

We can get many exercises out of this.

Exercise 1:

For every chord, play the root and 3rd of the chord. Try to focus yourself on one set of strings at a time. For instance, maybe spend a week playing 3rds for chord progressions on the D and G strings.

Music is a vast sea. You must learn to sustain yourself in shallow waters for ultimate growth and survival.

Exercise 2:

Play the 3rd (on the bottom) and the 5th (on the melody) for every chord. Follow this around for a week.

Ideally, you go through all your intervals this way, Instead of just practicing scales .

In Flight

Let’s talk about chord progressions.

There are many ways to look at playing over changes. We’re going to discuss two.

Playing Diatonically (relating everything to the key signature) and Tracing Chords related to their own parent key.

Example 6 shows a G to C progression where I focused on notes that are only in the parent G scale.




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Non Diatonic


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While playing over the G chord, I chose notes from the G major scale. While playing over the C chord, I chose notes from the C major scale.

Two different sounds.

I also applied these two examples one a G to D progression.



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Non Diatonic


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Again, I think it’s important to have your anchor note be a chord tone at first.

Deep Sea

Once we start to get a handle of our a root note as our anchor, we can swim into deeper waters. Example 10 starts with the 3rd of the chord as an anchor and uses diatonic tones.

Example 10 and 11 starts with the anchor on the 3rd, but isn’t diatonic when we move to the C chord.



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Non Diatonic


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How to Practice

Let’s develop a simple practice routine to expand your abilities in polyphonic playing.

For 5 minutes a day, trace a simple chord progression. Perhaps a Simple I IV V. In the key of G, that would be G C D.

Let’s play each chord for 2 bars at a slower tempo. Somewhere around 84bpm. You will retain more information if you move through these exercises slowly. Save fast chord changes and tempos for later. You wouldn’t jump in the deep end of the pool if you’d never swam before, would you? However, many guitarists take the plunge off the diving board without their swimmies on.

Daily Exercise 1

For 5 minutes per day, trace the chords with the root as the anchor and playing melody notes on top that are diatonic. If you’re playing in the key of G, only use notes from the key of G.

Daily Exercise 2

For 5 minutes a day, trace the same chord progression with the root as the anchor, but use notes that are related to the key of each chord.

Over the G chord, you’ll choose notes from the G scale.

Over the C chord, you’ll choose notes from the C scale.

Over the D chord, you’ll use notes from the D scale.

Casual Attire

The key here is not to get fancy. Focus on simple lines. You don’t need to play every note in the scale. Perhaps the first week you simple put you attention on 3rd and 4th over the chords.

Really get to know those sounds.

Each week we can add a new interval to play over chords or move our anchor to a different string. Don’t do both at the same time. Spread it out.

The idea is to see all the relative notes that sit around the anchor note. Don’t see the guitar as a steady succession of notes. See them as combinations.

Eventually, you can get fancy. For now, speed is not your friend. In fact, speed will slow your progress. The quickest way isn’t always the fastest way. Chew on that thought!

Feeling Loopy

I’m a big believer in using a looper for practice. For far too long musicians have practiced with no accompaniment.

Practicing solo doesn’t give you a good gauge of what it’s like to blend with others. It’s for this reason I keep a Pigtronix Infinity looper set up at all times while I practice. Sometimes, I keep a loop saved of a solo section I need to practice for a gig.

Here is an example of me playing over a loop and developing simple Polyphonic Melodies.


Remember, science has proven it takes between 30-60 days to develop a new habit. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t see an instant transformation. It will come in time.

For more info on Guitar Lessons feel free to contact me.

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Guitarist Mark Marshall located at 51 Macdougal St #264 , New York, NY . Reviewed by 11 customers rated: 4.9 / 5
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