Modal Chord Progressions on the Guitar
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Recently I have spent a lot of time with two of my private students, studying the modes on the guitar. What I find really interesting about guitarists and their views on learning and using the modes is the confusion surrounding the whole process. I can understand why though, as I felt exactly the same when I was growing up and trying to get my head around the whole idea of modes and what they really mean.

In this lesson I want to let you in on a little secret about the modes and a way to visualise them, which makes it all come clear. This method of learning the modes is how I teach them in my ebook- Be the Guitarist™, which has proven to really help guitarists all across the globe.

Image credit to Alex Fam Photography

Image credit to Alex Fam Photography

So what we need to achieve is the ability to build chord sequences around the major scale modes. Why do we want to do this? We want to do this to broaden the amount of sounds we can produce from our guitars, and to keep music fresh and interesting. The thing about the modes is the range of sounds they can bring to your playing if you understand how to make modal chord progressions and complement them with modal melodies.

So do the modes only produce exotic sounds?

No. The modes are often viewed as producing a Steve Vai like sound or a Spanish sound, but they can be used in popular music very effectively. The most recent popular song I have discovered to use the modes is Daft Punk Get Lucky which uses a mode known as Dorian. This song was number one in the UK charts and is as pop/funk as you could get.

Before we start

The modes you are about to learn and find out how to incorporate into your playing are based on the major scale (also known as the Ionian mode), which we have heard for our life time in nursery rhymes and popular music.

The Chords of the Major scale

Each note of the major scale can have a chord built from it, which forms the root of the chord you will be playing. If you haven’t yet learnt your major scale then I would advise you to have a look at my ebook. In my ebook you will learn how to play your major scale, at first in one position on the fretboard so you can begin to understand the concept of the major scale modes.

The major scale has a structure of chords built under it, which states that the 1st, 4th and 5th notes of the scale should have a major type of chord built from them. It also states the 2nd, 3rd and 6th notes should have a minor chord built from them. The 7th note should have a diminished chord built from it (this chord doesn’t play a huge role in popular music.

Below is a Roman numeral based representation of the major scale and the chords to be built from each note within in the scale. The first line (Ionian) is the major scale and the lines underneath are the modes that belong to the major scale. You will notice the addition of the number ˜7 and the word ˜dominant and diminished™, these are the extensions of the basic triad that we build off each note. The extension comes into play to make the basic triad (major, minor or diminished) a little more interesting. If you take away the extensions you see this pattern of major, minor, minor, major, major, minor, diminished.

I major, II minor 7, III minor 7, IV major 7, V Dominant 7, VI minor 7, VII diminished









Ionian Major 7 Minor 7 Minor 7 Major 7 Dominant 7 Minor 7 Diminished 7
Dorian Minor 7 Minor 7 Major 7 Dominant 7 Minor 7 Diminished 7 Major 7
Phrygian Minor 7 Major 7 Dominant 7 Minor 7 Diminished 7 Major 7 Minor 7
Lydian Major 7 Dominant 7 Minor 7 Diminished 7 Major 7 Minor 7 Minor 7
Mixolydian Dominant 7 Minor 7 Diminished 7 Major 7 Minor 7 Minor 7 Major 7
Aeolian Minor 7 Diminished 7 Major 7 Minor 7 Minor 7 Major 7 Dominant 7
Locrian Diminished 7 Major 7 Minor 7 Minor 7 Major 7 Dominant 7 Minor 7

The important thing here is to not get worried by the series of chords in the table. If you first just study the top line for Ionian, you can learn the pattern of major 7, minor 7, minor 7, major 7, dominant 7, minor 7, diminished 7 and learn each of those chords built off the corresponding scale tone.

I want you to notice that the chords simply shift one over for the modes underneath the Ionian. So Dorian’s root chord is a Minor 7, which was the second chord (II) of Ionian. Dorian’™s second chord (II) (Minor 7) is the third chord (III) of the Ionian mode. If you then look at the Phrygian you notice that its first chord is the third chord of the Ionian. Take a look at Lydian and you see its first chord is the fourth chord of the Ionian. This pattern continues to filter down the modes , so the Mixolydian’s first chord is the fifth chord of the Ionian, Aeolian™’s first chord is the sixth chord of the Ionian. Finally, the Locrian’™s first chord is the seventh chord of the Ionian.

If you already know how to play all those types of chords all over the fretboard, then great, but if you don’t, then this information with full diagrams is available in Be the Guitarist (my ebook).

What’s great about this bit of knowledge is that you can create modal chord progressions by taking a look at the table, picking a key to play in and creating a chord progression of your choice. You can look at the table and think in terms of Roman numerals and say I want to play a Phrygian I, IV, II for example and then experiment with changing the pattern you wish to create, for example try V, II,I in Phrygian instead.

As this series on modes continues I want to explore how to apply the modes to the modal chord progressions and the type of sounds you can create. At this stage I want you to learn the major scale and understand the harmonic structure that I have mentioned already. If you want access to all the mode diagrams you will need if you wish to follow my lessons, then please see my ebook package Master Guitar™.

In the next lesson we will look at applying the modes to specific chord progressions and using them over backing tracks so you can hone in on your improvisational skills.

The modes only have their unique flavour because of the combination of the modes melody and chord progression combined. It is all about the notes you target within the mode you are playing over the specific chord progression you play. Understanding the sound of the modes is the key thing here.

Thanks for reading and let me know how you are doing in the comments.

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