Part 2 of my mini series looking at how to build chord progressions on guitar using the diatonic scale. This part expands on the I IV V relationship, adding in the other chords from the scale.
Once you have this scale mastered, in all keys, that’s when the creativity really starts to flow, because rather than this scale limiting what you play, it merely becomes the foundation, a reference point.
I hope to expand on it over the next few months. You can follow my progress with this in the Guitar Songwriting section of fretjam.com.
I’ve uploaded a video to YouTube showing you one of the most important chord relationships in music. It’s known as I IV V (1 4 5) and can be used in any key when you learn how these relationships appear on the fretboard.
This is a great place to start when learning about using the diatonic chord scale in your songwriting. It should be see as an essential foundation element which you’ll later build on.
Today’s progression makes use of what is often referred to in music theory as a “backdoor cadence”. It’s about resolving your progression back to the major tonic, but via a VII subtonic, which replaces the standard vii diminished leading chord in the diatonic scale.
The VII chord is positioned a whole step (equivalent of two frets) down from the tonic chord. As you’ll hear in the example below, I enhance this “backdoor” tension-resolution by using a dominant 9th chord with a flat 5th, although even just a regular dominant 7th will give it the depth it needs. The result is a rather psychedelic and distant ambiguity.
Open D major
Open E minor 7 (Em7)
D major with F# bass note (D/F#)
G minor barre chord (Gm)
C dominant 9 flat 5 (C9b5)
A common way to lead in to this backdoor VII chord is through a minor iv chord. For a less tragic sound though, stick to the standard major IV chord. Or, to blues it up a little, use an IV7 chord.
The flat 5th VII7 chord is used a lot in jazz and blues, but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be strived for in other genres and styles. A good alternative to your standard V – I or vii – I resolution.
Try out different combinations – you don’t necessarily have to resolve from the VII chord. For example – D Gm C9 Em7 D – there, the back door is left open for the ii chord (Em7 in this example)!
When it’s just you playing with your guitar, without the convenient aid of a bassist, you should experiment with moving the chord bass notes around yourself.
By keeping a chord shape static as you apply a progressive bass pattern around it, using the lowest 2 strings of your guitar, you can create a defined movement with minimal finger changes…
B major movable chord
B major with E bass note (B/E)
A flat minor 7 shell chord (Abm7)
G major added 6 open chord (Gadd6)
So the B major chord becomes what we call a “slash chord” with an E bass note. As the note E is part of the B major key, it’s compatible. It was then just a case of finding a suitable next movement for that E string bass note, again, ensuring the new note is compatible with the static B major triad.
The vibrant open G chord provided a slightly unpredictable collapse down from the unstable Abm chord. Personally, I love the sound of moving down a semitone, from minor to major. If that major landing chord happens to resolve naturally back to the tonic (or even a new tonic), then it gives it a kind of logical after-thought. In this case, I felt the G major chord could resolve nicely back to the B major tonic, even though it lies outside of the traditional diatonic framework.
So do try working those bass lines around static chord shapes and see if you can weave them into your progressions, as opposed to crowbarring! Your mind should be a pool of ideas, free of closed intentions. Let your fine balance of intuition and exploration craft the chord progression.
2) A chord progression that solely uses chords built around the degrees of the harmonic minor scale (known as a modal chord progression).
Harmonic minor is a modal system as well as just another scale for using in your solos. When building chord progressions around this scale, we use the degrees of the scale as the chord root notes and build the appropriate chords on each of these degrees, giving us a chord scale.
However, harmonic minor is a very tense scale, so to make our chord progression flow more melodically, we need to be quite selective of which chords and tones we use from that parent harmonic minor scale.
Take a look and listen below. This is a very typical harmonic minor progression in the key of Eb (E flat), and so it will be compatible with solos in Eb harmonic minor.
E flat minor (Ebm)
A flat minor (Abm)
B flat augmented 7 (Bbaug7)
F diminished (Fdim)
F diminished with B bass note (Fdim/B)
B flat augmented 7 (Bbaug7)
E flat minor Major (EbmM7)
So, we begin on the root chord, or tonic (i), of Eb harmonic minor which is obviously Ebm. You’ll notice I end with a more flavoured minor Major 7th chord (the major 7th being a key tone from harmonic minor) which gives us that rather dissonant, dark quality.
Another important chord in harmonic minor progressions is the dominant V chord (in this example: Bbaug7). By augmenting the dominant 7th chord in this position, we can enhance that V tension before returning back to the i tonic. It’s common to exploit this tension by playing phrygian dominant (also known as the Spanish scale) over the V chord, which is simply harmonic minor starting on its 5th tone.
In this example, I extend this unresolved tension by moving to another staple harmonic minor chord – the diminished ii chord in the scale. This begs to collapse back into the V chord (well, it does the way I hear it!).
So harmonic minor is all about seeing how much tension you can squeeze out of harmonic minor’s tones (grouping them together to create chords), with the minor tonic being the only real resolution point (although you could argue the minor iv chord – Abm in this example – provides a “safe” resting point).
I’ll be expanding on the theory behind harmonic minor, as a modal system, on my main site, but in the meantime, try and get a feel for the sound harmonic minor offers, both as a lead scale and a chord scale. The chord shapes used in this example are movable, relative to where the minor tonic lies.
Hope this helped, Edward and everyone! Any questions, use the comments function below and I’ll expand (not literally).
A simple, two chord phrase that gives you some really beautiful voicings that wouldn’t be attainable in standard tuning. At the core is a chromatic/semitone movement between minor and major which I always feel has a certain psychedelic quality, especially if it’s extended to 7th/9th chords.
B minor 7 (Bm7)
B flat 9 (Bb9)
The final chord you hear is just the 6 open strings (and you shouldn’t feel “lazy” about occasionally making use of this vibrant convenience!).
If you’re playing electric, whack on the distortion and you’ve got that nimble drop D powerchord fingering at your disposal, which makes this tuning a good combo for your more arty, melodic rock and metal.