Use Chord Partials — And Do More with Less!

If you’re itching to outline progressions in a more colorful way, this lesson is for you.
Publish date:
Image placeholder title

The term “chord partials” is a broad umbrella under which you’ll find items like harmonic intervals, shells, double-stops and triple-stops. Many of these terms come from violinist lingo. For instance, when a fiddler “stops” two strings at different points to harmonize a line, it’s called a “double-stop.”

In rhythm guitar, these scaled-down shapes plays a key role in styles ranging from blues, jazz and country to funk, modern rock and metal.

But how do you create interesting rhythm parts from these chord fragments? If you’re itching to outline progressions in a more colorful way, this lesson is for you.

Let’s begin this study of chord partials by exploring 3rds, 6ths and 10ths—intervals resulting from two different scale tones placed three, six and 10 scale tones apart, respectively—in the key of G major (G A B C D E F#). When played simultaneously, these intervals create a partial chord, or harmonic interval.

Many popular rhythm riffs that feature 3rds (Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl,” Van Halen’s “Feel Your Love Tonight,” and Sugar Ray’s “Fly,” for example) move this interval diatonically—sticking to pitches with the scale—along a sting pair, as in FIGURE 1 measure 1. Interestingly, if you take the two notes of a given 3rd (G–B) and invert them (B–G), you get a 6th interval (FIGURE 1 measure 2), which is another common chord partial. And in yet another alteration, if you displace the higher note of a 3rd, you get a 10th (FIGURE 1 measure 3).


Image placeholder title

Let’s examine some familiar rhythm figures that use these intervals. In slow blues, where boogie patterns and big 7th chords don’t cut it, guitarists often use 3rds-based riffs—inspired by organ vamps—to stake out harmonic territory.

FIGURE 2 illustrates one example, covering the opening bars of a G blues. For a different effect, try the sliding 6ths in FIGURE 3, which is reminiscent of the Allman Brothers’ take on T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday.” Tenths are a staple in the rhythm work of former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante, who uses his pick to navigate the tricky strings skips of 10ths in “Scar Tissue.”


Image placeholder title


Image placeholder title

FIGURE 4 demonstrates one way that he might use 10ths as substitutes for standard barre chords over a G–D-Bm–C progression. FIGURE 5, meanwhile, depicts a jazzy 10ths move—outlining a G7–C7 change—similar to something you’d hear in a solo flight from Joe Pass or Tuck Andress.


Image placeholder title


Image placeholder title

Tenths have also popped up in heavier bands’ offerings, as an alternative to common major and minor chords. For instance, instead of standard E, A or D shapes, partial chords comprising only a root and a 10th might be used (FIGURE 6). FIGURE 7, modeled after the verse riff from Metallica’s “Unforgiven,” throws these heavier 10ths into action.


Image placeholder title


Image placeholder title

Combining notes that are five scale steps apart produces a 5th, a.k.a. rock’s ubiquitous power chord. It’s a partial because it has no 3rd, and it’s ambiguous because it doesn’t imply major or minor.

FIGURE 8 measure 1 shows power chords built from each note in the E minor pentatonic scale (E G A B D). Measure 2 reverses the intervallic relationships, creating 4ths, and measure 3 combines 4ths and 5ths into power-chord voicings with the 5th in the bass.


Image placeholder title

Fourths and 5ths make perfect partial chords for heavy rock riffing, since their “hollow” sound doesn’t produce nasty overtones as larger chord types often do when played through an overdriven amp. Check out the crunch of FIGURE 9, a figure informed by classic 4ths-based riffs like ZZ Top’s “Tush,” Judas Priest’s “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’” and Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.” For more melodic riffs, trying combining 3rds, 4ths, 5ths and 6ths, as in FIGURE 10.


Image placeholder title


Image placeholder title


Jazz guitarists often play only 3rds and 7ths, or guide tones, to imply chords. These partials trim the fat from 7th-chord forms and thus keep the harmony from getting too congested when interacting with a pianist.

FIGURE 11A employs guide tones over the opening bars of a G blues, using B/F (3rd/b7th) for G7 and E/Bb (3rd/b7th) for C7. In FIGURE 11B, guide tones outline a Imaj7–VI7–iim7–V7 “rhythm changes” progression in Bb, using D/A (3rd/7th) for Bbmaj7, B/F (3rd/b7th) for G7, Eb/Bb (b3rd/b7th) for Cm7, and A/Eb (3rd/b7th) for F7.


Image placeholder title

In funk, hefty dominant 7th and 9th shapes may also be stripped down to their bare essentials. For example, G# and D alone can imply E7 (E-G#-B-D) [FIGURE 12A]. For minor-key applications, the funk-rock phrase in FIGURE 12B uses C (b3rd) and G (b7th) guide tones to outline Am7 (A-C-E-G), “pinkie double-stop” style. This figure is inspired by Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxey Lady” and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Subway to Venus.”


Image placeholder title

Contrary to the ear-pleasing sounds of 3rds, 4ths, 5ths and 6ths, dissonant chord partials—tritones, major 7ths, and minor ends—will strike fear into the heart of listeners. The tritone, or infamous b5 interval (once regarded as the “devil in music”), is arguably the most popular of these sounds.

In FIGURE 13, the tritone is highlighted in a riff reminiscent of Kings X’s “Black Flag” or Alice in Chains’ “God Smack.” Also, nothing sounds nastier than unloading intervals like the major 7th (E-D3) and minor 2nd (D#-E) over a grinding open low E string, as in FIGURE 14.


Image placeholder title


Image placeholder title

Beyond blues, jazz, funk, modern rock and metal, a wealth of chord partial innovations came from Sixties R&B and classic rock icons like Steve Cropper, Curtis Mayfield, Jimi Hendrix and Keith Richards, among others.

In FIGURE 15A, D and G triads are played on string set 2-4 in homage to Cropper’s soul­ful rhythm work (“Dock of the Bay,” “Knock on Wood”) and Joe Walsh’s riff in the James Gang’s “Funk #49.”

FIGURE 15B illustrates another common triad move: alternating between a major key’s I (A) and IV (D) chords over an unchanging bass note (A). (The A in the bass does not appear in the figure.) These fragmented chord sounds surface in the riffs of the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards (“Brown Sugar”), Steve Miller (“Rock N’ Me”), the Eagles (“Life in the Fast Lane”) and even Kiss (“Shout It Out Loud”) and Van Halen (“Runnin’ With the Devil”).


Image placeholder title

In many pop, classic-rock, and R&B tunes, nothing sounds tastier than chord partial moves like those of Curtis Mayfield (“People Get Ready,” “Ten to One”) and Jimi Hendrix (“Little Wing,” “Castles Made of Sand”). Instead of using harmonically dense barre shapes, these songs contained chord sounds derived from pentatonic scales; for instance, notes from the G major pentatonic scale (G-A-B-D-E) might have been used to etch out double-stop fills intended to embellish an otherwise simple G chord, as in FIGURE 16.


Image placeholder title


When playing electric in a country-pop band, consider comping behind the vocalist (or soloist) using sounds that emulate a pedal steel-combining bends with stationery chord tones and using a volume pedal to manipulate the sound envelope [FIGURE 17]. This vocal-like approach can be heard in James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James,” as played by Michael Landau on James Taylor: Live. You’ll also find it supporting a fiddle solo on the Dixie Dregs’ “The Bash,” featuring Steve Morse. Be sure to slather some reverb and delay onto your clean­ toned Tele or Strat for the proper effect.


Image placeholder title