Think of the opening chord of Neil Young’s “Old Man”—a stark minor with a touch of dissonance. Fretted with just two fingers, that chord is a Dm9, and its edgy sound comes from what’s on top: two notes, E and F, a half step apart on adjacent strings. You don’t need to know any of this theoretically. You just feel the emotion and tension in the harmony, which alternates between that minor ninth and a comforting D major.
Weekly Workout is a series of monthly guitar exercises made up of interesting technical workouts that will get your fretting- and picking-hand fingers working in different ways, and offer musical studies that will help you visualize and explore the fingerboard.
That “Old Man” chord is one example of the evocative sounds you can create using chord voicings with notes that are close to each other—just a half step or whole step apart. Often referred to as cluster chords, these chords may have complicated suffixes like m(add9), add11, or m(b6), but you don’t have to be a jazz player to reach them. You can take advantage of open strings to add these close intervals, often with easy fingerings, and create complex, surprising harmonies that sound particularly great on acoustic guitar.
In this workout we’ll build a vocabulary of cluster chords by adding notes to basic major, minor, and seventh chords, mostly low on the neck. Along the way, we’ll check out additional examples based on classic songs by James Taylor, Bob Dylan, Janis Ian, Dave Matthews, and more in which cluster chords are central to the sound.
Week One: Adding the Ninth (AKA the Second)
To start, let’s focus on cluster chords that add the ninth (aka the second, depending on how the notes are stacked) to major, minor, or seventh chords. First play through the add9 chords in Example 1. In all these chords, the ninth is one step below the third. In Cadd9, for instance, the ninth is D (on the second string) and adjacent to the third, E (open first string). The same pattern holds for the add9 voicings of A, G, E, and D. The last Aadd9 shape in the example is the movable version of the Eadd9 shape, and it’s a stretch for sure but useful to know (and you can always use part of the shape, such as just the bottom three strings). The cluster in these chords has a soft sound; you can sub an add9 for a regular major for a noticeable but gentle sweetening of the harmony.
A similar set of chords includes the ninth/second but omits the third—so you’ve got a three-note chord with the root, second, and fifth, known as a sus2, and a close interval between the root and the second. Example 2 shows common sus2 voicings for D, A, and F. On the Asus2, for instance, there’s an A root on the third string next to the second, B.
When you add a ninth to a minor chord, the cluster is tighter—there’s just a half step between the ninth and the (minor) third, as in the m(add9) voicings in Example 3. In the Em(add9), for instance, the F# note on the fourth string rubs against the G note on the third string; the third Am(add9) shape shown is the movable version of this shape (again, a bit of a finger buster, but good to know). The Dm(add9) lacks the fifth and contains only the root (D), ninth (E), and minor third (F).
Beginners’ Tip #1
To orient yourself, hold down each chord shape and play the strings from low to high, listening for the cluster.
The minor chord shapes in Example 4 extend the harmony by adding the ninth to a minor seventh chord. The resulting chords are simply named m9 (the 9, in this case, implies the presence of the flatted seventh).
Don’t get too bogged down in all these numbers—just get lost in the rich sound of these chords, and check out a few more famous songs that use them.
The Em9 is a go-to James Taylor shape, featured, for instance, in the intro to “Something in the Way She Moves” (see the July/August 2022 issue), which alternates between A and Em9 shapes (capoed at the third fret). Example 5 shows the “Old Man” Dm9–D riff described at the beginning of the lesson. Example 6 is based on the Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” a showcase for add9 chords. The original uses A shapes that require some wide stretches. This version of the progression is in the friendlier key of G, and every chord is dressed up with a ninth or second—an essential part of the sound and mood of that song. Use a flatpick and palm muting for a more percussive feel.
That’s the end of Week One. The complete lesson features four weeks of workouts (plus a bonus exercise.) There are two ways to access the full video and musical examples: Join our community at Patreon.com/acousticguitarplus OR Buy the May/June 2023 issue at store.AcousticGuitar.com
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.