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).
I can’t believe it’s been over a month since my last update. Apologies!
Anyway, here we have a progression that makes use of the diminished chord a semitone up from the IV chord (in this case, the IV chord is Amaj7). Take a look and listen first and hear how the diminished 7th chord interacts with the chords either side of it…
E major open chord
A major 7 (Amaj7) open chord
B flat diminished 7 (Bbdim7) open chord
E major open chord
B 9 suspended 4 (B9sus4) movable chord
This is actually quite a typical movement used in a lot of pop songwriting. The use of the diminished chord destabalises the progression following the Amaj7 IV chord, which acts as a safe “resting point” away from the E major tonic chord.
This instability is resolved simply by moving back to the tonic.
I just find it more interesting to sometimes use these slightly more tense chords in progressions that would otherwise feel “safe” and “middle of the road”. Of course, sometimes a straightahead E major / Amaj7 (I / IV) yo-yo is effective enough (especially if you want to keep the backing chords simple for some lead improv).
Diminished chords have a fascinating role in music, and I’ll most likely be using them in different contexts in future posts.
Today’s progression uses simple “rise and fall” dynamics (or ascend/descend, however you want to phrase it). It’s pretty self explanatory, so first take a listen…
B major added 9 (inversion) (Badd9)
E minor added 6 (Emadd6)
F sharp added 6 / 11 (F#add6/11)
B dominant 7 (inversion) (B7)
E major added 6 (Eadd6)
E minor added 6 (Emadd6)
So there’s an initial climb up to that F# V chord before collapsing down, eventually further than the point we started on the fretboard. By using an inversion of that tonic B major chord, rooted on the 3rd of the chord as opposed to the root note, we can bring the opening closer to the rest of the “climb”, giving the sequence more apparent cohesion. Sometimes you may want more disjointed movements, so it’s good to understand that distinction.
For the theory buffs out there, the second chord in the progression, E minor, is a good example of turning the IV chord into an iv – major into minor. It then loses the natural stability of the IV chord, allowing you to create a more tragic expression, which I’m sure you’ll agree is what was accomplished here!
The use of the open B string came in handy as well, as a “drone string”, giving yet more cohesion to the sequence.
Another thing to note is, when the progression descends from its peak F# major chord, the movement on the D string is chromatic, which is useful in giving the progression some intrinsic harmony. Try building chord tones around chromatic sequences, on any of the strings, and you’ll be surprised at how it can guide you through some intricate harmonies.
All this is food for thought of course, and there’ll be times when randomnly plonking your fingers at various places on the fretboard will yield epic results, but you should always be asking yourself “what more can I do with this?”
I’ve been playing around with descending chord shapes over the past few days. Many guitarists know the E and A form barre chords, but few experiment with chord shapes that descend from the root/bass fret. You can get some very nice voicings from these shapes, as demonstrated below…
A major 7 (Amaj7) movable chord shape
A 7 suspended 4 (A7sus4) (open high e)
A major 7 (Amaj7) movable chord shape
E minor 9 (Em9) (open low E)
By alternating the open A bass with an open E bass, this provides us with a convenient way to variate the sound of these shapes. Of course, if you’re playing with a bassist, they will most often define the bass note for you, but on your own it’s something to think about more consciously.
When the open A or E strings are compatible, give them a pick and see what effect they have on those movable shapes. Just by adding a new bass note, you can change the whole feel of the chord.
Today, as with a lot of progressions I’ve shown you, I’m using a mixture of movable chord shapes (no open strings) and open “floated” chord shapes (with open strings). The idea is to use the tones that are available simply from the tuning of the guitar.
For example, in the first chord, I chose to leave the D string open, because it added a bassy 9th tone to the chord which gave it more depth. All I did was un-barre my index finger and remove my 4th finger from what would have been a standard barre chord shape…
C major 9 (Cmaj9) open chord
C dominant 7 (C7) (inv) movable chord shape
F major 7 (Fmaj7) movable chord shape
F minor major 7 (FmM7) open chord
The second chord, an inversion of the tonic C major chord, uses a bass note one semitone down from the following Fmaj7 chord, so it provides that leading movement to carry the progression up to that stable IV chord.
That safe IV chord is then shattered into minor misery using a more tragic minor/major 7th chord (a minor chord with an added major 7th – the major 7th provided conveniently by the open high E string). This is a common transformation of the IV chord, as the resolution back to the tonic I chord becomes all the more satisfying.
So I suppose a good point to come out of today’s progression is to experiment with turning major into minor and vice-versa. You can extract completely different emotions from your music by doing so.