Guitar Chord Progressions
In this 4-part series, I'll show you how studying fairly simple music theory can help you become a songwriting factory on guitar. Bear with me on this 1st part as we need to get to grips with the basics first before you can start to look at making your own chord progressions. This is an excellent primer for the more in-depth Guitar Songwriting Course.So what is a chord progression?
Basically, it's a sequence of chords that take you on a journey. A chord progression can consist of just 2 chords, or 22, it's completely up to you!
Before we start though, make sure you familiarise yourself with the 7 modes of the major scale
and how they work together, because the modes work along side relative chords as part of the diatonic scale we're about to build. Learn more about guitar modes here.
It's also useful to know a bit of chord theory before we start.Here's the deal
- you give this your best shot, right to the end of this page, read every word, try your best. If you're completely lost by the end I'll explain exactly what to do.
Alright...Chord progressions - 1 scale, 7 modes, 7 chords
Most of the songs you hear today, especially the more popular, mainstream songs, follow a formula. This formula is mostly what keeps music from being a senseless mess.
It's the formula that gives music a key center
. If you hear musicians talk about a song being "in the key of _ major/minor", they're indirectly talking about the formula you're about to learn.
You see, chords are built from scales, and if you build chords on each degree of a scale, you get a chord scale
We'll come to that in a minute. Let's just recap the modes of the major scale first and their order
(this is important for knowing intervals on the fretboard of your guitar).
- 1st Mode - Ionian, the elementary major scale
- 2nd Mode - Dorian, a minor mode
- 3rd Mode - Phrygian, a minor mode
- 4th Mode - Lydian, a major mode
- 5th Mode - Mixolydian, a major mode
- 6th Mode - Aeolian, the natural minor scale
- 7th Mode - Locrian, the "odd one out", a diminished mode
Now, in the final guitar modes lesson, we learned that each mode starts on the relative degree of the major scale. E.g. the 3rd note
of the major scale is where 3rd mode
Phrygian starts. We call these starting points "root notes", because when you build the relative major or minor chord
around its mode, the 1st note of that mode becomes the chord's root
Each mode has a relative chord type, based on its tones, and in the example we're going to be looking at: major, minor or diminished.
The minor modes build minor chords and the major modes build major chords. 7th mode Locrian builds diminished chords (that's why it's the odd one out).
Let's first learn the chord scale to get its "formula" in our heads. In the next lesson we can look at actually creating chord progressions from this initial scale. It'll be much clearer that way, I promise.
So, starting with basic chord triads
(e.g. E major, E minor), we can play each mode's relative chord, with the same root note intervals, just like the modes from 1-7. What we get is a chord scale
= Whole step
(2 fret spacing on the neck) H
= Half step
(1 fret spacing on the neck). This was covered in the intervals lesson.
Here's the chord scale of E major
(because we start on E major as relative to mode number 1
, Ionian, which is the same as the major scale)...
Yeh - about the roman numerals... there is a good reason in that they won't get confused with the numbers used in chord symbols (you'll know what I mean if you've been through the chord theory lessons). The numbers can also represent the equivalent mode number
the chord is built from.
Look at that string of chords - I
(1) is the first chord from the first mode - Ionian builds major chords
. We then follow the intervals like we would with the notes of the first scale/mode - Ionian. It's all relative
- Each Ionian note interval marks the start of a new mode, so they also mark the root notes
of their relative chords!
Now, the lower case numerals (ii
) are from the minor
modes, and the diminished
mode (Locrian). Basically, if it ain't a major then it gets a lower case numeral! This reminds us, when writing a progression (e.g. I
) which chords are major, and which are minor (diminished is technically minor with a flat 5th).
See how they are like simplified chord versions of the modes at their natural, major scale intervals? Because we're only using triads (3 note chords) at this stage, they are the simplest chords we can use. Note:
You can learn more about how to construct guitar chords here.
So, if we were to just use barre chords to play that chord scale above, this is what we could play (note: this is NOT a progression. Well, it is
, but it's pretty dull because it's just the chord scale in its natural sequence!)... Click the tab to hear
Just sounds right as a scale doesn't it? It's essentially the major scale in chord form, but remember each of those chords is the relative chord of their mode
. Each chord marks a new degree of the major scale, just as each mode does. The 5th mode, Mixolydian is a major mode in its purest form, so its relative chord becomes... yep, major! The tones that make up Mixolydian are the same tones that can make up your 5th degree chord.
Thing is, triads are OK as chords, but I like to use more interesting chords like 7ths (4-note chords) in my chord progressions.
So what happens if we make the relative chords
in that scale 7th chords?
The intervals stay the same, the overall type of chord
stays the same (e.g. major, minor) but we add the 7th tone to each chord
If you're scratching your head wondering what "adding the 7th tone" means, you need a chord theory fix! Access the guitar chord theory lessons here.
If we are
using 7th chords, you need to remember how the 7th is used for each chord in the scale, based on where it lies in its relative mode...
- Ionian and Lydian both build major 7th chords (e.g. Emaj7) because the notes in their scales involves the 7th in its "natural", major scale position.
- Mixolydian (5th mode, therefore 5th chord in scale) builds dominant 7 chords (flat 7th, e.g. E7) because there's a flat 7th in its scale. A major chord with a flat 7th is called a dominant 7th chord!
- The minor modes, Dorian, Phrygian and Aeolian also have flat 7ths in their scales making them minor 7th chords.
So, bearing this in mind...
If we started the scale on C# (C# Ionian would be our first mode) then its relative 7th
chord would be... C#maj7
Let's follow the sequence in the below diagram, from the first (tonic) chord in the scale, C#maj7
... Click on the diagram to hear the sequence
So it's exactly the same chord scale as before
in its purest form, the only thing we've altered is the fullness of the chord
(e.g. instead of just C#, it's now C#maj7. Instead of just Fm, it's Fm7). This is a great exercise for building chord progressions - start with the basic 3 note triad chords
and add notes to each chord from their relative mode scales
(e.g. Mixolydian has a flat 7th, sure, but why not try adding other tones from that mode as well)...
We're jumping way ahead of ourselves anyway - more on that soon
Right, I think we deserve a break!...A lot to take in...
You're probably thinking "OK, but when are you going to show me how to make my OWN chord progressions!?" Patience! In the coming lessons I'll show you exactly how to use this chord scale to create your own major and minor key progressions on your guitar.
For now, trust me, learn that chord scale's intervals - you should be able to play it starting from any
chord using this whole-step and half-step interval structure. But, if you're really
struggling at this stage... Deep breath
- go back to the main guitar theory page and see what you've missed before this lesson. It's important to learn this stuff in the order I've presented it, but I understand you may have arrived at this page from a search engine. You must take your time with all this.