LESSON: Quartal Pentatonics – Part 1 Cool Chords from Pentatonic Minor

Quartal Pentatonics. Yes it does sound like something you’d activate on the Starship Enterprise but basically in this series of articles we’ll be looking at how to create interesting harmonies and arpeggios by thinking of the notes of our well loved Pentatonic scales stacked vertically across the neck.


What exactly is a Quartal? Well typically chords are constructed by what’s known as stacking in 3rds. Taking a starting note we make our chords by adding the 3rd note (counting our starting note as one) away within whatever scale we are making our chords. For example the C major scale has the notes C D E F G A B so creating our C chords from that scale we’d be adding E then G, then B etc to our root note C to create our little family of C rooted chords.

In Quartal harmony instead of adding a notes in steps of a 3rd we add them 4th away instead. So if we looked at C major again our C chord would be adding F, then B, then E etc. (C D E F G AB C D E F G A B C)

What does this mean when we apply this concept to our Pentatonic scales?

Pentatonic Minor Quartals

Let’s start off by looking at the A Pentatonic Minor scale up to the 17th fret:

A Pen Min Neck

A guitar in standard tuning is mostly tuned in perfect 4ths, e.g E to A string is a perfect 4th interval apart, A to D, D to G etc. It’s just the G to B strings that differ in that they are a Major 3rd apart.

This means we can easily visualise stacking in 4ths with our Pentatonic Minor scale by finding the note up on the next string and closest to the fret we are already on, visually this means we get:

Quartal Pentatonics - A Pen Min Neck

In tablature this would give us:

Quartal A Pentatonic Minor

Quartal A Pentatonic Minor

Note I’ve not put in any chord names for each of these forms, they are best thought of as chords derived from A Pentatonic Minor and therefore as various harmonic flavours of A minor.

If you’ve just had a play through those chord forms up the neck you’ll have immediately felt how awkward some of them are to play, plus they are a little too ‘chunky’ sounding. Typically more usable forms can be obtained by concentrating on the middle 4 strings, top 4 strings or even just three string forms.

For example if we play through the middle 4 (ADGB) strings we have:

and here are the top 4 (DGBE) string forms:

Spicing up a Static Chord Vamp

Let’s now have a look at how we can use these chords to spice up a static or modal chord vamp. Here we have a short vamp based around an Am11 chord.

Quartal Pentatonics - Static Chord Vamp

Pretty groovy but what if we wanted a little more variety to change things up a little. Let’s see what we can do with our quartal forms.

Quartal Pentatonics - Static Chord Vamp with Quartals

This creates a little more interest for the listener but still keeps that overall A minor tonality because we are playing notes contained within A Pentatonic Minor. In fact if you look at the intervals of a Pentatonic Minor scale (1 b3 4 5 b7) it outlines a m11 chord (1 b3 5 b7 11).

These pentatonic quartal forms are a great addition to your chordal palette, especially if you are accompanying or ‘comping’ for someone. They allow you create a little more interest, rather than just playing the same chord over and over again, as well as provide some ‘modern’ sounding voicings for harmonising melodies etc.

Try it for yourself

Here’s that little groove loop for you to try out these Pentatonic minor quartal forms for yourself. See if you can create simple melodies with the top note, try 3 and 4 string forms etc. It will all help to assimilate them into your own playing quicker and in a more musical way.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series where we’ll be looking at Pentatonic Major Quartals!

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September 24, 2019

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