Cluster chords for guitar

Cluster Chords On Guitar - Theory And Exercises With Tabs

This guitar lesson with tabs and theory is about cluster chord voicings. These are chords in which at least two notes are grouped together in order to create a sort of dissonance.

Cluster chords are sometimes quite difficult to play on guitar but they have a very interesting sound widely used in comtemporary jazz and neo-soul music.

What Are Cluster Chords?

Theoretically, a cluster is built when adjacent tones of a scale are played at the same time. Cluster chords contains three or more notes bunched together, these notes are 1 or 2 semitones apart. The result is a modern sound, slighly dissonant in certain situations.

Cluster chords are quite easy to play on piano cause the notes are close to each other therefore, piano players can play more than three notes. That is not the case for guitarists indeed, playing more than three notes requires to stretch the fingers. That's the reason why this lesson is about three-note chords only.

3-Note Cluster Chord Construction

First lets' take see how three-note clustered voicings are built. There are two main versions here they are : 

  • The first one is built with root (1), third (major or minor) and fourth which is 1 or 2 semitones from the third. Formula is 1 - 3 - 4. The tab below show the position for 3-note C major chord. It is made of C (root), E (3) and F (fourth). It can be named C major add11.

Guitar chord clusters 1

  • The second is made of root, second (major or minor) and fourth. These three tones are distant 1 or 2 semitones from each other. The formula is 1 - 2 - 4. The exercise below show how to play a clustered 3-note in C.

Guitar chord clusters 2

Seventh Chord Clusters

It is possible to create 3-note clusters including a seventh. Here are two options :

  • Starting from the third we get : third (minor or major), seventh (major or minor) and root (1). Interval pattern is 3 - 7 - 1. Here is how to play it on guitar.

Guitar chord clusters 3

  • Starting from the seventh we obtain : seventh (major or minor), root (1) and third (major or minor). Pattern is 7 - 1 - 3.

Guitar chord clusters 4

You will notice that there no fifth in these two voicings.

3-note Cluster Chords From The Diatonic Major Scale

Now let's built 3-note clustered chords from each note of the diatonic major scale (C major for the example) starting on the 4th and 3rd string of the guitar.

Chord Clusters - Formula 1 3 4

The progression below starts on the degree I (C). Each degree of the major scale is harmonized by stacking a third and a second:

  • The first chord is built by with a major third (C-E) and a minor second (E-F).
  • The chord of the degree II (Dorian) is built with a minor third (D-F) and a major second (F-G).
  • The third chord is built with min3rd (E-G) + 2nd (G-A).
  • Fourth chord : maj3rd (F-A) + 2nd (A-B).
  • Fifth chord : maj3rd (G-B) + min2nd (B-C).
  • Sixth chord : min3rd (A-C) + 2nd (C-D).
  • Seventh chord : min3rd (B-D) + 2nd (D-E).

Guitar chord clusters 1 3 4 within the major scale g string

The following sequence starts on the fourth chord of C (F Lydian).

Guitar chord clusters 1 3 4 within the major scale d string

Chord Clusters - Formula 1 2 4

This 3-note chord cluster implies stacking a second and a third on each note of the diatonic major scale. This voicing highlights the 9 and 11 of each chord :

  • Degree I : 2nd (C-D) + min3rd (D-F).
  • Degree II : 2nd (D-E) + min3rd (E-G).
  • Degree III : min2nd (E-F) + Maj3rd (F-A).
  • Degree IV : 2nd (F-G) + maj3rd (G-B).
  • Degree V : 2nd (G-A) + min3rd (A-C).
  • Degree VI : 2nd (A-B) + min3rd (B-D).
  • Degree VII : min2nd (B-C) + maj3rd (C-E).

Guitar chord clusters 1 2 4 within the major scale g string

Here are the same chords starting from F on the fourth string.

Guitar chord clusters 1 2 4 within the major scale d string

Chord Clusters With Seventh - Formula 3 7 1

The next four progressions are made of 3-note clustered chords (key of C) including a seventh. The formula 3 7 1 implies stacking a fifth and a second on each note of the major scale.

The exercise below starts on the 5th degree of C which related to the G Mixolydian mode. Be aware that the root of each chord is no longer the bass note. The root note is at the top of the chords, giving inverted voicings (with the third in the bass).


Guitar chord clusters 3 7 1 within the major scale g string

The next example starts on the degree I (C). Bass note on the fourth string.

Guitar chord clusters 3 7 1 within the major scale d string

Chord Clusters With Seventh - Formula 7 1 3

Here is another three-note clustered chord formula implying a seventh. It consists in stacking a second and a third on each note. This first example starts on degree I (C), root note in second step, bass note on the fourth string.

Guitar chord clusters 7 1 3 within the major scale g string

This last progression starts from A (Aeolian) on the D string.

Guitar chord clusters 7 1 3 within the major scale d string

Rootless Chord Clusters With Seventh - Formula 7 2 (9) 3

The two following exercices are based on the formula 7 2 (9) 3. These voicings have no roots and highlight the ninth of each chords, e.g in C major :

  • Degree I : Cmaj9 (B-D-E).
  • Degree II : Dmin9 (C-E-F).
  • Degree III : Eminb9 (D-F-G).
  • Degree IV : FMaj9 (E-G-A).
  • Degree V : G9 (F-A-B).
  • Degree VI : Amin9 (G-B-C).
  • Degree VII : Bminb9 (A-C-D).

The first example starts with Cmaj9 whereas the second starts with G9.


Rootless guitar chord clusters 7 2 3 G string

Rootless guitar chord clusters 7 2 3 D string

How To Use Chord Clusters On Guitar?

Here are five basic II V I exercices to improve understanding how to use cluster chords. The first tab contains two 1 3 4 voicings (Dminadd11 and Gadd11).

2 5 1 guitar chord clusters 1 3 4

This example requires the 1 2 4 formula (Dsus2add11 and Gsus2add11.

2 5 1 guitar chord clusters 1 2 4

Here 3 7 1 voicing is used for Dm7 and G7.

2 5 1 guitar chord clusters 3 7 1

7 1 3 formula for Dm7 and G7.

2 5 1 guitar chord clusters 7 1 3

And to finish, 7 2 3 for Dm9 and G9.

2 5 1 guitar chord clusters 7 2 3

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