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Jazz Boot Camp: Quartal Harmony 101

Dig into the ambiguously beautiful sound of stacked fourths.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Advanced
Lesson Overview:
• Learn the principles of quartal harmony.
• Create quartal voicings on several string sets.
• Construct quartal harmony from the Mixolydian, Dorian, and Aeolian modes.

Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

It’s inevitable that at some point jazz guitarists will want to look for something outside of the standard harmonic repertoire and begin investigating more interesting sounds. This desire for something new could evolve out of growing tired of one’s harmonic vocabulary or from encountering compositions that go beyond standard chord structures. One way to open the harmonic palette is by including quartal harmony.

I first heard quartal harmony on recordings by Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Such pianists as Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, and Mulgrew Miller were my introduction to these structures. I began to identify those same structures in the guitar playing of Jim Hall, Joe Diorio, Lenny Breau, Vic Juris, and Steve Masakowski—as well as a number of other musicians. The openness of the chords, along with the tension they can create, was very modern to my ear and drew me into learning more. In this lesson, we’ll look at the principles of constructing quartal harmony and how to incorporate these voicings into your playing.

First, let’s define what we’re talking about. Quartal harmony is created when sonorities (or chords) are built using primarily fourths instead of the typical thirds. However, when using quartal harmony sometimes you’ll find a need to include another interval, such as a fifth or a third. These other intervals are acceptable because a fifth is simply an inverted fourth, and the inclusion of the third interval helps in defining harmonic movement within a key (such as a IIm–V progression), as well as specifically defining a particular sonority relating to chordal alterations or extensions.

We’re going to cover quartal voicings for Mixolydian, Dorian, and Aeolian modes based on a common starting note. Our first mode is E Mixolydian (E–F#–G#–A–B–C#–D), the fifth mode of A major.

Ex. 1 demonstrates a series of three-note voicings on the top three strings in E Mixolydian. These are presented ascending and descending, starting from the lowest possible voicing. I’ve also given the fingerings for the next adjacent string set as well in Ex. 2. I’d encourage you to move these structures to the remaining string groups too. If the beginnings and endings of some of the following examples seem unresolved, that’s acceptable for now because here we’re simply trying to get the shapes under our fingers and the sound in our ears.

Click here for Ex. 1

Click here for Ex. 2

Next up are E Dorian (E–F#–G–A–B–C#–D) in Ex. 3, and E Aeolian (E–F#–G–A–B–C–D) in Ex. 4. Here, I’ve given you just the top set of strings—it’s up to you to transfer the voicings to the lower string sets. Also, it’s easy to expand these into four-note voicings. Simply add a note either a fourth below the lowest note or above the highest—depending on where you are on the fretboard. Later in the lesson we will use some of these over a few common progressions.

Click here for Ex. 3

Click here for Ex. 4

Before we move on, it’s important to note that even though we are looking at voicings specifically intended for E Mixolydian, E Dorian, and E Aeolian, there are other applications for this material. Any of these voicings can be used for other modes that appear in their respective keys. For example, the voicings for E Mixolydian can be applied to any mode found in A Major: D Lydian, B Dorian, A Ionian, etc. The same applies for the modes associated with E Dorian (key of D Major) and E Aeolian (key of G Major). The reason this works is due to the ambiguity of the structures and the lack of roots found in them. Experiment with changing the bass note in which you play these voicings over. Now that we have investigated the modal application of these shapes, let’s look at how to incorporate them into functional chord progressions.

Once the basic horizontal movement of the quartal shapes is under your fingers, it’s time to investigate the vertical movements. In the following three examples you can see how a quartal voicing moves across the fretboard, rather than up it. Fig. 5 covers E Mixolydian, Fig. 6 is in E Dorian, and Fig. 7 is E Aeolian. I’m using three-note voicings here because smaller structures are easier to move across the fretboard at a variety of tempos.

Click here for Ex. 5

Click here for Ex. 6

Click here for Ex. 7

You should begin to see that quartal voicings have a chameleon-like quality to them, and depending on the context, can be perceived in a few different ways. Check out the first chord in Ex. 8. Here, it’s being interpreted as a C6/9, but if we change the bass note it can also work as a F6/9, Am11, Dm11, D7sus4, Gm11, Gsus(add9), or several others. I encourage you to take any voicing presented and experiment to find your own unique uses.

Let’s carry this idea of a single structure wearing many hats a little further. In Ex. 8, we have the chord progression to the classic “On Green Dolphin Street.” The voicings were intentionally kept on the top four strings to help you see the plurality of these structures. Experiment with other quartal structures to see if you can retain the same shape on a particular string set.

Click here for Ex. 8

So far we have been looking at modal examples, but now let’s move into applying quartal voicings to IIm–V–I progressions. Ex. 9 illustrates many ways to incorporate quartal harmony into a more functional progression that is found in countless jazz standards. The first eight measures are mostly diatonic, while the final eight explore more altered sounds over the V7 chord. These examples are just the tip of the iceberg and you should experiment with them to come up with your own variations.

Click here for Ex. 9

Ex. 10 offers quartal harmony within the context of a minor 12-bar blues. In the first two measures I’ll use shapes from E Dorian, and in measure five and six I’ll pull out voicings from A Dorian. I return to E Dorian in measure seven and finish with a typical IIm–V7 turnaround. Notice that many of the voicings are similar and the bass line determines the harmonic movement.

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The final example covers a bunch of major and minor II–V progressions. Ex. 11 borrows from the “Autumn Leaves” chord progression and once again proves that context is king when it comes to quartal structures.

Notice the chromatic activity in measures two, three, and five, as well as the chordal sequence in measures 13 and 14. This helps outline the chordal functions of the piece and gives the accompaniment forward motion.

Click here for Ex. 11

As you can see, the uses for these voicings are almost infinite. In moving forward with this material, try finding ways to sneak these voicings into your repertoire by mixing them in with your existing chord vocabulary. Don’t forget that these can also be used as arpeggios to develop your melodic ideas as well. Finally, to truly understand how the masters make these sounds work, devote some time to listening.