How To Solo Over Guitar Chord Progressions

Many guitarists spend time mastering chord progressions, but it’s also important to learn how what scales to use for solos, lead riffs, and even melody lines.  Chord progressions serve as support for these lead playing styles, so I put together some information for guitarists interested in playing lead.  These lessons will have a large impact on songwriting and guitar solos for all guitar players.  I’ll include everything from basic scale theory to more advanced modes to use over chord progressions.

Lead guitar player

It’s good to start with a recap of scales, keys and chord progressions.  This way everyone is on the same page moving forward.  Trust me though, it’s not a long recap.  I suggest checking out some of my other posts if you’re just starting out on the guitar and need some more time on the introduction subjects.  Check out the intro here at http://www.ultimate-guitar.com/lessons/for_beginners/putting_it_all_together_scales_keys__progressions.html.

Scales, Keys, Progressions
I have struggled for a long time to be able to understand the concepts of scales, how they relate to chord progressions, and what a key really means. After taking lessons, reading books, and still feeling like a mid-thirties musically challenged learner, something finally clicked for me.
Here is one of the positions of the minor pentatonic scale:
e|------------------5-8-5-------------------
B|---------------5-8------8-5---------------
G|------------5-7------------7-5------------
D|--------5-7-------------------7-5---------
A|----5-7---------------------------7-5-----
E|-5-8---------------------------------8-5--

We can tell that this scale is in A Minor for two reasons. First, let’s look at knowing that the key is in A. We know this because the first note is an A note (5th fret Low E string). Whatever this note is tells us what key it is in. The next thing to keep in mind is the minor part. It is minor because of the scale. This is a minor pentatonic.

Now is we were to take this same set up and move it up a whole step (two frets) then we would have a pattern that looks like this:
e|---------------------7-10-7-------------------------
B|-----------------7-10-------10-7--------------------
G|-------------7-9-----------------9-7----------------
D|---------7-9-------------------------9-7------------
A|-----7-9---------------------------------9-7--------
E|-7-10-----------------------------------------10-7--
Here we are looking at a B minor scale. Why is it B? Because the 7th fret is a B note. Wherever we move this pattern on the Low E, will make the scale in that key.
So how does this relate to chord progressions and song writing.
Let’s take any three chords… Bm, D, & G. Let’s put these togehter is a very simple chord progression of Bm (x4), D (x4), G (x4), D (x4). If this was played, you could play the B minor pentatonic scale on top of it and it works with how the mind hears music. The reason it works is because that first note was a B chord. B chord as the first relates to the B minor scale.
If we take another progression, Am, C, F, Em we could play the Am scale on top of it.
What helps me is to create little riffs from the scale and play it on top of the chord progression. Here is an example of a simple riff taken from the Am Scale.
e|---------------------------------------
B|---------------------------------------
G|-------------5------5-------7^---------
D|--------5-7----5--7----5--7------------
A|---------------------------------------
E|---------------------------------------

This simple riff is just taking notes from the scale and playing them on top of a chord progression beginning in A. Try it out and it will flow.
I know that this is a very brief introduction, but these concepts were very difficult for me to grasp but once they finally clicked, I went from someone who had played the guitar to someone who began to understand how the guitar works when it comes to music and especially playing with other musicians. Good luck!

Lead guitarist playing solo on stage

Now let’s get right into playing solos over chord progressions.  Obviously it might be difficult to play a lead solo and play rhythm guitar by yourself.  If you don’t have a friend or teacher to practice with, I suggest recording your chord progressions to solo over or find accompanying jam tracks online.  Check out this article about guitar solos here at http://www.fretjam.com/soloing-over-chords.html.

Before we move on to learning how to solo over chord changes, we need to first understand how to solo over individual chords. How to match a scale to a chord.

The chords you solo over ultimately determine which scales you can use. In a nutshell, the tones you use in your solo should be compatible with the tones being used in the backing chord. However, you can often add tones not used by the backing chord in your solo. The fewer tones being played in the background, the more room you have, as a lead guitarist, to build on it.

Once you can identify the chord type being played, you’ll know which scale(s) you can play over it and use it effectively in your soloing.

Take your time…

The basics of soloing over chords

Step 1 – what is the root note of the chord?

First, you need to identify the root note of the chord you’re playing over. The root note is always included in the name of the chord – E major, A minor, C# diminished etc. For example, if the chord was E major, the root note would be E, therefore that would also be the root note of the scale we choose to solo with.

In the chord and scale diagrams I use on this site, the root note is clearly marked as 1. You need to be able to identify the chords you’ll be playing over so you can identify their root notes. It’s important, therefore, that you have a good grasp of how chords are constructed on guitar (this is covered in the chord section).

Step 2 – major or minor?

The first, and arguably the most important distinction musicians tend to make is that between major and minor. By identifying the chord you’re playing over as major or minor, you’ll know to use a major or minor scale.

A major chord will contain the following tones…

Root (1) – 3rd (3) – 5th (5)

This is known as the major triad, and the scale you’re using to solo over the major chord should include these tones. Naturally, you’ll learn which scales include the major triad tones as you learn them (there are many scales you can learn in the scales section of this site).

Take the Mixolydian scale for example. This scale contains the major triad tones (1 3 5), so this could be an option for using over a major backing chord…


There are many other major scales (scales that use the major triad tones) you can learn.

If the chord you’re soloing over is a minor chord, it’ll contain the tones of the minor triad

Root (1) – minor 3rd (b3) – 5th (5)

You’ll therefore need to choose a minor scale, which will naturally include these triad tones.

For example, the natural minor scale includes the minor triad tones (1 b3 5), so that would be an option…

 

So, before anything else, you need to be able to identify the chord you’re playing over as major or minor. There are also two other basic chord types with their own triads – diminished (1 b3 b5) and augmented (1 3 #5), but we’ll look at those another time.

Step 3 – what about the other scale tones?

When learning scales, you’ll notice that in addition to the basic triad tones, common across all major and minor scales, they also include several other tones (e.g. 2, 4, 6, 7 + sharp and flat tones).

These non-triad tones can be seen as extensions of the basic triads.

Much of the time, the backing chords you solo over will only use the basic triad tones we looked at above. If so, and it’s ideal, that gives you the freedom to add in these additional tones and “dress” the basic major or minor sound in your solo.

If, however, the backing chord includes tones in addition to the basic triad, you need to be able to identify which tones these are to ensure your solo/scale doesn’t clash with the chord.

For example, if you’re soloing over a 7th chord (a 4 note chord) such as the example below, you’ll need to make a mental note of which type of 7th it uses…

 

That was an example of a major 7th chord, which means if you were to use the 7th in your solo, it would also need to be a major 7th, to avoid clashing with the backing chord.

Again, as you learn individual scales, you’ll naturally learn which type of 7th they use.

The Lydian scale, for example, uses a major 7th (7), so that could be an option for soloing over the major 7th chord above…

However, the Mixolydian scale uses a flat 7th (b7), so that would need to be reflected in the backing chord if you were to use that tone in your solo…

 

As well as the 7th, the backing chord could include other extension tones (2, 4, 6, #4, #5, b9 etc.). Just like the 7th, you need to be able to identify any additional non-triad tones so you can then know which scale tones will be compatible in your solo.

In summary, the fewer tones the backing chord includes, the more tones you have the option of adding in your solo.

You add to the depth of the backing chord’s harmony through the scale tones you play in your solo.

 

Guitarist using modes in solo

Modes are scales often used for soloing on the guitar.  Also, they are pretty complicated to get under your fingers and wrap your head around, so I suggest spending time practicing them if you intend to solo on the guitar.  They are definitely great scales to use on guitar as well.  Find a detailed explanation of guitar scales here at http://www.ultimate-guitar.com/lessons/the_basics/modes_and_diatonic_chord_progressions.html.

Modes have probably been the cause of more confusion and frustration than any other aspect of learning scales, much less when you attempt to throw in diatonic chords and their relation to the scales, so I’m not going to lie to you, this is going to be a tough lesson. We are going to cover alot of ground in a very short time, but I will try and keep it as painless as possible. (I recommend printing the lesson and taking it one piece at a time)

Part 1 (Chromatic scale)

Let’s start at the beginning….the chromatic scale. (For those of you who have read my other lessons, some of this was already covered in “chord building 101″)
Learn to think of scales in terms of the “distance” between one note and the next note. The chromatic scale is simply all 12 named notes (that’s all there are by the way, 12 notes).

The distance between each note in the chromatic scale is one half step.

A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G# and then back to A

or

A Bb B C Db D Eb E F Gb G Ab and then back to A

# is the symbol for sharp (or 1 half step above, higher pitch)

b is the symbol for flat (or 1 half step below, lower pitch)

The A# and Bb are technically the same note, it just depends on what key you are in as to which it is called.

An “A” chromatic scale looks like this on a fretboard

e ----------------------------------
b ----------------------------------
g --2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-12-13-14--
d ----------------------------------
a ----------------------------------
E ----------------------------------

 

Part 2 (Major scale)
The “major” scale is made up of 7 of the 12 notes of the “chromatic” scale. To learn how to build a major scale, you have to learn the distance between each of the 7 notes.
Let’s look at a C major scale (since it has no sharp or flat notes in it and it is easy to remember).

"C" Chromatic               C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B C
"C" Major                   C    D    E F    G    A    B C

Now, let’s break that down. The distance between the C and D notes is 2 half steps, or 1 whole step, the distance between the D and E is 1 whole step, the distance between the E and F is 1 half step, the distance between the F and G is 1 whole step, the distance between the G and A is 1 whole step, the distance between the A and B is 1 whole step, and the distance between the B and C is 1 half step.

1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8(1)
C   D   E   F   G   A   B   C
  w   w   h   w   w   w   h

It does not matter which note that you start on to build the scale as long as the distances between the notes stay the same. Say you want to play a D major scale, then just make the D note the first note and keep the distances the same.

1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8(1)
D   E   F#  G   A   B   C#  D
  w   w   h   w   w   w   h

If you do not understand the chromatic scale and how to build a major scale, stop right here and go back and learn it, or nothing else will make sense.
Part 3 (Basic chords)

As I said at the beginning of the lesson, I have a lot of ground to cover so I’m only going to cover 4 basic chords and how to build them. Major, minor, augmented, and diminished.
All chords are built by using a formula that is based off of the major scale. For example, a “major” chord is built by using the first, third, and fifth notes in the major scale. Let’s look at a C major and D major scale again.

C major                                 D major

1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8(1)              1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8(1)
C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C                 D  E  F# G  A  B  C# D

A “C” major chord is made up of the notes C E and G
A “D” major chord is made up of the notes D F# and A

C major                      D major

e --0--  E 3rd             e --2--  F# 3rd
b --1--  C 1st (root)      b --3--  D  Root
g --0--  G 5th             g --2--  A  5th
d --2--  E 3rd             d --0--  D  Root
a --3--  C Root            a -----
E -----                    E -----

The numeric formula for a major chord is 1 3 5Minor chords are made by lowering the 3rd note 1 half step.
A “C” minor chord is made up of the notes C Eb and G
A “D” minor chord is made up of the notes D F and A
The numeric formula for a minor chord is 1 b3 5
A diminished chord is made by taking a major chord and lowering the 3rd and the 5th 1 half step each.
A “C” diminished chord is made up of the notes C Eb and Gb
A “D” diminished chord is made up of the notes D F and Ab
The numeric formula for a diminished chord is 1 b3 b5
And an augmented chord is made by taking a major chord and raising the 5th 1 half step
A “C” augmented is made up of C E and G#
A “D” augmented is made up of D F# and A#
The numeric formula for an augmented chord is 1 3 #5

Part 4 (Diatonic chords)
Simply put, diatonic chords are chords that are made up entirely of notes found in the root chord’s scale (or the key of the song).

Once again we’ll use the C major scale as a reference.

1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8(1)
C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C

If you were to play each tone as a chord rather than a single note, the first tone would be played as a C major chord since all 3 notes in the chord fall within the C major scale.

Plead guitar player practicing a solo

The second tone, or the D, could not be played as a D major chord since as we learned above, the third note of a D major chord is F#, which is not in the 1st tone’s (root) scale.

Also as we learned above we can lower the 3rd 1 half step to make the chord minor, and by doing that, we get an F note, which is in the root’s scale. So we play the second tone as a minor chord.

Same principle with the 3rd tone, the E major chord has a G# for it’s 3rd tone, so the the E would be played as minor chord.

The 4th and 5th chords can both be played as major chords.

The 6th tone is played as a minor chord.

And the 7th tone has 2 sharp notes in it, the 3rd and 5th, so we need to lower both notes and we get a diminished chord.

And again it does not matter what key you are in, the principle stays the same.

1    2    3    4    5    6    7    8(1)
Maj  min  min  Maj  Maj  min  dim   Maj

 

Part 5 (Chord Progressions)

I’m sure a lot of you have heard at some point or another someone mention something like a 1, 4, 5 progression. Basically what that means is that they are playing the 1st, 4th, and 5th diatonic chords from whatever key they are in.

And you guessed it, I’m using the C major scale for my example again.

1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8(1)
C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C

We already know that the 1st, 4th and 5th are all played as major chords, so a 1, 4, 5 progression in C major would be Cmaj Fmaj GmajPretty simple right?
Another common progression is a 2, 5, 1 progression (used a lot in jazz).
In the key of C major, a 2, 5, 1 progression would be
Dmin Gmaj Cmaj or Dm G C
Here are some other common chord progressions

(1, 5)         (1, 6, 2, 5)
(1, 4)         (1, 6, 4, 5)
(1, 6)         (1, 6, 2, 7)
(1, 4, 5)      (1, 6, 4, 7)
(1, 2, 5)      (1, 6, 5)

Here are a few possible substitutions3 instead of 1
4 instead of 2
7 instead of 5
Hopefully what’s been covered so far alone is enough to open lots of doors for creative composition, but we’re just getting warmed up.

Part 6 (Modes)

Hmmm? Where to start? Let’s learn the names of the modes of the major scale first.
1 Ionian (major scale)
2 Dorian
3 Phrygian
4 Lydian
5 Mixolydian
6 Aeolian (natural minor)
7 Locrain
Big fancy names right? Don’t let the names scare you. As you see Ionian is just a fancy way of saying major scale. We already know how to build a major scale, but how do we build the other modes?

One way to look at modes is the major scale has 7 notes in it right? To play the modes of the major scale you simply shift the root note up to each of the 7 notes. If we make the first note the root note, then we are playing an Ionian mode, if we make the 2nd note the root, we are playing the Dorian mode, make the 3rd note the root and we are playing a Phrygian mode, and so on. Let’s look at C major again.

1  2  3  4  5  6  7
1 Ionian       C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C

2 Dorian          D  E  F  G  A  B  C  D

3 Phyrigian          E  F  G  A  B  C  D  E

4 Lydian                F  G  A  B  C  D  E  F

5 Mixolydian               G  A  B  C  D  E  F  G

6 Aeolian                     A  B  C  D  E  F  G  A

7 Locrian                        B  C  D  E  F  G  A  B

Now you see, all of the modes have the same notes in them, they are all relative to each other, but that does not mean that they are the same scale! What happens when you shift the root (or the focal point of the scale), is you are changing the distances between each note, so the modes all have very different formulas and they all function very differently. For instance, look at the 6th mode (aeolian), it is also known as a natural minor scale, let’s look at the distances between each of the notes in an A aeolian, compared with a C major.

C Ionian (major)               A Aeolian (natural minor)

1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8(1)         1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8(1)
C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C            A  B  C  D  E  F  G  A
  w  w  h  w  w  w  h               w  h  w  w  h  w  w

As you can see, the distances between some of the notes change. Another way of looking at modes, which is my personal favorite, is by comparing the numeric formula to the major scale, since that is how we build chords, it only makes sense to build scales the same way. The major scale sets the standard for the numeric formula, everything is compared to it. That’s why I told you earlier to stop and learn how to build it.
Let’s compare numeric formulas

Ionian   1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8(1)
Aeolian  1   2  b3   4   5  b6  b7   8(1)

Basically what this means is that the aeolian mode is just a major scale with a flat 3rd, 6th, and 7th.

C Ionian (major)   C   D   E   F   G   A   B   C
C Aeolian (minor)  C   D   Eb  F   G   Ab  Bb  C

Let’s look at the formulas for the rest of the modes

1 Ionian         1   2   3   4   5   6   7
2 Dorian         1   2  b3   4   5   6  b7
3 Phyrigian      1  b2  b3   4   5  b6  b7
4 Lydian         1   2   3  #4   5   6   7
5 Mixolydian     1   2   3   4   5   6  b7
6 Aeolian        1   2  b3   4   5  b6  b7
7 Locrian        1  b2  b3   4  b5  b6  b7

(If the scale has a b3 in it, it tends to have a minor feel to it)
Part 7 (Tying in diatonic chords with modes)
The diatonic chords work the same way with the modes. Match the number of the mode to the number of the tone in the major scale and the corresponding diatonic chord.

1   2   3   4   5   6   7          

1 Ionian   Maj min min Maj Maj min dim

2 Dorian       min min Maj Maj min dim Maj 

3 Phyrigian        min Maj Maj min dim Maj min

4 Lydian               Maj Maj min dim Maj min min

5 Mixolydian               Maj min dim Maj min min Maj

6 Aeolian                      min dim Maj min min Maj Maj

7 Locrian                          dim Maj min min Maj Maj min

Part 8 (Scale charts)
This is what you’ve been waiting on. And without further hesitation. 2 examples of each mode.

Ionian mode (examples A Ionian)

e -----------------          -----------------
b -----------------          -----------------
g -----------------          -------------1-2-
d -----------4-6-7-          ---------2-4-----
a -----4-5-7-------          ---2-4-5---------
E -5-7-------------          -5---------------

Dorian mode (examples A Dorian)

e -----------------          -----------------
b -----------------          -----------------
g -----------------          ---------------2-
d -----------4-5-7-          ---------2-4-5---
a -------5-7-------          ---2-3-5---------
E -5-7-8-----------          -5---------------

Phyrigian mode (examples A Phyrigian)

e -----------------          -----------------
b -----------------          -----------------
g -----------------          ---------------2-
d -------------5-7-          ---------2-3-5---
a -------5-7-8-----          ---1-3-5---------
E -5-6-8-----------          -5---------------

Lydian mode (examples A Lydian)

e -----------------          -----------------
b -----------------          -----------------
g -----------------          -------------1-2-
d -----------4-6-7-          -------1-2-3-----
a -----4-6-7-------          ---2-4-----------
E -5-7-------------          -5---------------

Mixolydian mode (examples A Mixolydian)

e -----------------          -----------------
b -----------------          -----------------
g -----------------          ---------------2-
d -----------4-5-7-          ---------2-4-5---
a -----4-5-7-------          ---2-4-5---------
E -5-7-------------          -5---------------

Aeolian mode (examples A Aeolian)

e -----------------          -----------------
b -----------------          -----------------
g -----------------          ---------------2-
d -------------5-7-          ---------2-3-5---
a -------5-7-8-----          ---2-3-5---------
E -5-7-8-----------          -5---------------

Locrian mode (examples A Locrian)

e -----------------          -----------------
b -----------------          -----------------
g -----------------          ---------------2-
d -------------5-7-          -----------3-5---
a -------5-6-8-----          -----3-5-6-------
E -5-6-8-----------          -5-6-------------

 

Part 9 (Harmonic major, Harmonic minor, Melodic minor and their modes)
I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here, but I will give you the scale, it’s modes, and the diatonic chords.

First up, the Harmonic Major scale and it’s modes

1. Harmonic Major   1    2    3    4    5   b6    7
                   Maj  dim  min  min  Maj  aug  dim

2. Dorian b5        1    2   b3    4   b5    6   b7
                   dim  min  min  Maj  aug  dim  Maj

3. Phyrgian b4      1   b2   b3   b4    5   b6   b7
                   min  min  Maj  aug  dim  Maj  dim

4. Lydian b3        1    2   b3   #4    5    6    7
                   min  Maj  aug  dim  Maj  dim  min

5. Mixolydian b2    1   b2    3    4    5    6   b7
                   Maj  aug  dim  Maj  dim  min  min

6. Lydian #2        1   #2    3   #4   #5    6    7
                   aug  dim  Maj  dim  min  min  Maj

7. Locrian bb7      1   b2   b3    4   b5   b6   bb7
                   dim  Maj  dim  min  min  Maj  aug

Next, the Harmonic Minor and it’s modes

1. Harmonic Minor       1    2   b3    4    5   b6    7
                       min  dim  aug  min  Maj  Maj  dim

2. Locrian(natural 6)   1   b2   b3    4   b5    6   b7
                       dim  aug  min  Maj  Maj  dim  min

3. Ionian augmented     1    2    3    4   #5    6    7
                       aug  min  Maj  Maj  dim  min  dim

4. Dorian #4            1    2   b3   #4    5    6   b7
                       min  Maj  Maj  dim  min  dim  aug

5. Phyrigian dominant   1   b2    3    4    5   b6   b7
                       Maj  Maj  dim  min  dim  aug  min

6. Lydian #2            1   #2    3   #4    5    6    7
                       Maj  dim  min  dim  aug  min  Maj

7. Ultralocrian         1   b2   b3   b4   b5   b6   bb7
                       dim  min  dim  aug  min  Maj  Maj

And finally, the Melodic Minor and it’s modes

1. Melodic Minor        1    2   b3    4    5    6    7
                       min  min  aug  Maj  Maj  dim  dim

2. Dorian b2            1   b2   b3    4    5    6   b7
                       min  aug  Maj  Maj  dim  dim  min

3. Lydian augmented     1    2    3   #4   #5    6    7
                       aug  Maj  Maj  dim  dim  min  min

4. Lydian dominant      1    2    3   #4    5    6   b7
                       Maj  Maj  dim  dim  min  min  aug

5. Hindu                1    2    3    4    5   b6   b7
                       Maj  dim  dim  min  min  aug  Maj

6. Locrain natural 2    1    2   b3    4   b5   b6   b7
                       dim  dim  min  min  aug  Maj  Maj

7. Super Locrian        1   b2   b3   b4   b5   b6   b7
                       dim  min  min  aug  Maj  Maj  dim

See, I told you we were going to cover a lot of info and hopefully I kept it fairly painless and you were able to learn something.

Guitar player practicing solo and chord progressions

I understand there is quite a bit of information here about solo scales, but that’s exactly why it’s important to spend time practicing them.  So now you’ve been armed with all sorts of different scales, but what about playing them over chord progressions?  I found a great article that highlights chord progressions you can use all these modes on.  Find it here at http://www.guitarnoise.com/lesson/understand-modes-for-guitar-part-3/.

Practical Tips on How and When to Apply Each Mode to an Entire Song or Progression

The first and best clue will be the key of the song.  The key of the song will control the major scale on which the available modes are built.  If the song is in a minor key, then the relative major of that key will control the available modes.  But remember, a chord progression can be in a particular key, but still never go to “1” or “root” chord for that key.

For example, we could build a song using diatonic chords from the key of F Major, but not have an F chord in the progression at all.  So in determining which mode to use we listen for the “tonal center” or home base of the progression – what one bass note sounds to your ear like it could fit over every chord in the progression or act as the root for the entire progression even if it’s not the root note for the key?

Here are some chord progressions that fit under each modal scale. Play through each progression and take time to apply each modal scale over the progression while you’re doing so. You may also wish to record each progression or have a friend play the progression, while you focus on applying its related modal scale to it. But I suggest that you also spend time playing the modal scale and progression together, so that you can clearly see how the notes of the modal scale fit into & over the diatonic chords of each progression. (The chords in parenthesis transfer these progressions to our study key of F Major and its resulting modes).

Ionian (normal Major scale – 1 2 3 4 5 6 7)

I – IV – vi – V – I … (F, Bb, Dm, C, F)
I – ii – IV – V – I … (F, Gm, Bb, C, F)
I – V – vi – IV – I … (F, C, Dm, Bb, F)
I – iii – vi – V – I … (F, Am, Dm, C, F)

Dorian (b3 and b7) – 2nd scale degree root (in F Major, that’s G)

i – IV – i – bVII – i … (Gm, C, Gm, F, Gm)
i – bVII – i – bVII – i … (Gm, F, Gm, F, Gm)
i – IV – ii – v – bVII – i … (Gm, C, Am, Dm, F, Gm)
i – bIII – IV – i – bVII – i … (Gm, Bb, C, Gm, F, Gm)

Note that I’m referring to the 1 chord of these Dorian mode sample progressions as Gm (i) , etc., but what is actually happening is that the Gm is the ii chord of F, and so our first Dorian progression could also be written out & understood as:

ii – V – ii – I-  ii (Gm, C, Gm, F, Gm)

Notice that the actual chords of the progression did not change, just the numbering system.  I’ve done this for a reason.  Most of us learn songs based on how the chords relate to the first chord of the progression.  If a songwriter or bandleader hands us a chord chart, they’ll usually just write out something like Gm, C, F with lyrics underneath.

We’ve all seen those charts and any kind of basic chord/lyric tab you find on the internet is probably a form of this kind of simple chart.  Most of us never see the full transcription of the song with key notation, staff lines & notation.  So we may never realize that the progression starting on a particular chord is actually not constructed in the key of that first particular chord, but actually written in another key altogether.  So to properly identify which modal scale to play, it’s also important to be able to recognize the relationships between diatonic chords from the perspective of the root chord of the mode.

(In the advanced theory section of each mode discussion below, I’ve charted out the chords in each mode from the perspective of the key on which the mode is constructed, so I recommend once you’ve read that section, as an exercise come back and adjust the numbering of each progression used in this sample progression section to coincide with the chord numbering for the key on which the mode is actually constructed.  But for now, for purposes of working through and learning sample modal progressions, let’s just number the 1 chord based on the mode’s root).

Phrygian (b2, b3, b6, b7) – 3rd scale degree root (in F Major, that’s A)

i – bII – bIII – i … (Am, Bb, C, Am)
i – V7 – i – bII – i … (Am, E7, Am, Bb, Am)
i – iv – i – bII – i … (Am, Dm, Am, Bb, Am)
i – bIII – bvii – i … (Am, C, Gm, Am)
I – bII – I – bII … (A, Bb, A, Bb) (Major substitution for the I chord)

Lydian (#4) – 4th scale degree root (in F Major, that’s Bb)

I – II – I – II (whole step up then back – repeats) … (Bb, C, Bb, C)
I – II – I – II – #iv – V – #iv – V – I … (Bb, C, Bb, C, Em, F, Em, F, Bb)
I – vi – II – V – I … (Bb, Gm, C, F, Bb)
I – V – I – II – I … (Bb, F, Bb, C, Bb)
I – II – vii – I … (Bb, C, Am, Bb)
I – II – V – I … (Bb, C, F, Bb)
I – II – IV – V – I … (Bb, C, Eb, F, Bb) (Major substitution 1/2 step down for IV chord)

Mixolydian (b7) – 5th scale degree root (in F Major, that’s C)

I – bVII – I – bVII – I … (C, Bb, C, Bb, C)
I – vi – IV – V – bVII – I … (C, Am, F, G, Bb, C)
I – IV – I – bVII – I … (C, F, C, Bb, C)
I – ii – IV – bVII – I … (C, Dm, F, Bb, C)
(note – a Dom7 chord form I7 will often be used for the I Major)

Aeolian (natural minor scale – b3, b6, b7) – 6th scale degree root (in F Major, that’s D)

i – bVI – bVII – i … (Dm, C, Bb, Dm)
i – iv – v – i … (Dm, Gm, Am, Dm)
i – iv – V7 – i … (Dm, Gm, C7, Dm)
i – bIII – i – bVII – i … (Dm, F, Dm, F, Dm)

Locrian (b2, b3, b5, b6, b7) – 7th scale degree root (in F Major, that’s E)

i° – bvii – i° – bvii – i° … (E°, Dm, E°, Dm, E°)
i° – bV – i° – bV – i° … (E°, Bb, E°, Bb, E°)
i° – biii – i° – bII – i° … (E°, Gm, E°, F, E°)
i° – biii – bvii – i° … (E°, Gm, Dm, E°)

Notes:
Roman numerals shown in capitals represent Major chords
Roman numerals in lower case represent minor chords
A circle following a Roman numeral means a diminished chord

Also, even though I’ve written these progressions to start and end on the 1 chord, you can simply skip the last 1 chord & cycle back to the beginning of each progression to keep them going for more practice.

Notice that the major modes – Ionian, Lydian and Mixolydian – all use a Major chord for the 1 chord, while all the minor modes – Dorian, Phrygian and Aeolian – all use a minor chord for the 1 chord.  And that Locrian uses a Diminished chord for the 1 chord.  Thus, the type of 1 chord the progression is based on is a big clue in determining which modes will work (but just keep in mind that sometimes progressions will not start on the 1 chord).  If you have a minor progression using a minor chord form for the 1 chord – pick a minor mode to solo over the entire progression and adjust it as necessary to accommodate any “outside” chord tones!

There are a lot of cool things you can use in your guitar solos and lead riffs.  If you get these scales down, you’ll be a guitar solo expert that can play in any style of music.

Check back at Mike’s Guitar Talk for all your guitar questions.

Have fun and stay tuned,

Mike

Comments

  1. Robert Kunz says:

    With out reading you have got my interest. Let you know more later.

  2. John foster says:

    I think this is a very good explanation. After years of knowing the basics of major and minor pentatonic soloing I have diecided to learn more and this is a great start

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