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  • Writer's pictureJay EuDaly

Dorian 4th-Clusters

I love chords in general and am especially fond of the “impossible chord that occurs quietly in the background“ - as Paul Desmond said of Ed Bickert’s comping - but using chords as an in-your-face part of a solo is something I’ve been in awe of ever since I was first exposed to Wes Montgomery back in the day.

There’s a lot of information that goes into chord soloing and the years of studying the Theory of Harmony with John Elliott is what really put it all together for me.

Shameless plug: John’s “Theory of Harmony” makes up a great deal of the content of my method, Vertical Truth: Chordal Mechanisms for the Guitar.

Having said that, I’m going to show you something that I didn’t get from John but worked out on my own. It’s one of the concepts I’ve incorporated into my chord soloing from which I’ve gotten a lot of mileage; Scale Tone 4th Clusters. Some people call them, “4th chords.”

A working knowledge of modal theory would be helpful here but you don’t have to understand modes to benefit from what I’m going to show you.

I’m going to show you these chords as they are used over an A-7 chord, and the corresponding scale/mode we’re harmonizing is an A Dorian.

Each chord will have 4 notes and be a stack of 4ths. That's why I say that these chords are, "Fourthy."

The first thing is to visualize the Dorian Mode along the 4th string. That means that these chords will occur on the top set of 4 strings (strings 4-3-2-1):

If you take the above diagram literally, i.e. the root starts on the 1st fret, you would be in Eb Dorian but it could be any key; it would just depend on where you start.

We're going to spend the rest of this lesson in A Minor, that is, A Dorian.

So here is the harmonized scale in A Dorian with 4th clusters:

Something that's derived from the above that a lot of students overlook is that you need to be able to start from the I chord and descend:

When you mess around with these you might let the 5th string (A) ring open so that you get the tonal center "set" in your ear.

Now I'm going to show you how I relate these shapes to visualized roots on the 6th and 5th strings and their respective octaves.

  • This presupposes you can find octaves all over the neck. If you can't do that, you can download my 5-Lesson Foundational Series right here, for free with no strings attached. These 5 lessons will enable you do do just that; find any note, anywhere, without memorizing note names on every string.

Keep in mind the 6th and 5th-string roots are not played - they are positional markers to be visualized. The red lines represent my "line of sight" - how I visualize the chord shape in relation to the root on the 6th or 5th string:

  • For more advanced students: If you've been through Vertical Truth - Unit 7: 9th Chords, you will recognize these shapes as 6/9 or 13/9 chords. For instance, the III chord above is Amin6/9. The VII is Amin9/13. The I, II, V and VI chords are root position major 6/9 shapes without the root. However, they are here visualized from a different root than they would be if they're major.

Now to be really functional with this concept, you need to have the same chords worked out on the middle set of 4 strings (strings 5-4-3-2). Here they are, still in A Dorian:

Now for visualizing "line of sight" from 6th and 5th-string roots.

Note: Sometimes the root from which you visualize and the bass note of the chord shape are on the same string.

Functional Areas

”Functional Areas” is my term for little parts of a scale or pattern that are easy to access because they are a symmetrical pattern on the fretboard &/or are just easy to finger. I spend a lot of improv time in Functional Areas.

On the top set of strings there is a Functional Area around the VII chord. The 2 chords on either side of the VII (V, VI and I, II) all have the same shape:

Another functional area which winds up being the same thing is playing the V and VI on the middle set of strings and the I and II on the top set:

If you play V, VI, I, II in order you will hear that it's Minor Pentatonic.

Another exercise I've found useful is to group the chords in pairs by string set:

  • Note for more advanced students: What I've shown you here is based on A Dorian. If you understand modal theory, you could multiply all the above by a factor of seven. For instance, these same shapes in the same sequence would also apply to a D7 chord, i.e. D Mixolydian or an E-7 chord, i.e. E Aeolian, and so on.

What's left is for you to noodle around with these chords. Chord soloing is just like single-note soloing; you have to spend time building up a vocabulary of chordal phrases just like you build up a vocabulary of single-note phrases.

Of course, when I chord solo, I don't limit myself to these 4th clusters; I draw from everything I know; triads, 7th and 9th chords and all their respective inversions, alterations, substitutions etc.

Nevertheless, these 4th clusters have become an integral part of my chord soloing.


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