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Tom Quayle: Creating Interesting Chord Progressions Part 4

Lesson Notes

** As featured in issue 42 **

Hi there guys and welcome back to this, the final part of our look at creating interesting chord progressions. In our previous lessons we’ve been looking at adapting an existing chord progression using techniques to enhance the harmonic content given to us. In this lesson we’ll be creating a chord progression from scratch using a palette of chords provided by utilising three modes to produce a ‘non-functional’ chord sequence.

Let’s first define what a non-functional and therefore also a functional progression actually is. Functional harmony conforms to a key and is based on the classic sense of tension and resolution created by a cadence. All of the clichéd chord progressions we know and love are based in functional harmony, such as the II-V-I, I-IV-V and I-VI-II-V sequences. These are all diatonic progressions based in a single key and we can clearly identify, even when non-diatonic chords are used, what the home key of the progression is and where modulations to other keys occur. Non-functional chord progressions are not based in keys and the chords within them can bear very little relationship to one another in the traditional sense. Any chord can follow any other chord and their relationship is only defined by how good do they sound together as a progression. In this regard we tend to construct non-functional chord progressions by using modes and their associated chord types/shapes, picking a mode and a root note and following it with another mode and root note that we like the sound of.

This is exactly the technique we’re going to use for today’s lesson except that, in order that we don’t get totally overwhelmed by the number of choices available to us, we’re going to limit ourselves to just three modes – Dorian, Lydian and Mixolydian. If you imagine that we can pick any of the twelve root notes in the chromatic scale for our three modes this gives us a total of 36 chords to choose from, twelve for each mode. In order to make this technique work we need to learn which chord shapes are associated with each mode and I have written out eight chord shapes for each mode that you can learn and apply to the root notes of your choice. These chords are written out from a G root note in the PDF file that accompanies this lesson (rather than D as stated in the video) - take your time learning each of these voicings and make sure you can play them from any given root note, not just G.

To create our progression, we are going to pick four root notes – E, C#, A and G. You could pick ANY root notes you like - four is just a nice round number and fits nicely within a four or two bar framework, but the number of and which root notes you pick is up to you. Next we are going to assign a mode to each root note and choose a given chord shape or voicing to play for that mode from the ones available to us that we learnt in the PDF file. Here you have two choices - you can use the same mode for each root note, or you can mix up mode types, assigning a different mode to each root as you desire. There are absolutely no ‘wrong’ ways of doing this - use your ears as a guide to decide what you like and go with it.

Here are the example chord progressions that I came up with for the video: -

E Mixolydian – C# Mixolydian – A Mixolydian – G Mixolydian

E9sus4 – C#9sus4 – A9sus4 – G9sus4

E Dorian – C# Dorian – A Dorian – G Dorian

Em9 – Cm9 – Am9 – Gm9

E Lydian – C# Lydian – A Lydian – G Lydian

Emaj7#11 – C#maj7#11 – Amaj7#11 – Gmaj7#11

E Mixolydian – C# Lydian – A Dorian – G Mixolydian

E9sus4 – C#maj7#11 – Am7 – G9sus4

You can use any of the eight voicings assigned to each mode to create your chord progression and the voicing you choose will give the progression a certain flavour. I suggest starting by picking four or more root notes and then assigning a mode to each, finally picking the chord voicing you like the best for each mode and then applying some rhythmic information or a groove to the progression.

Finally, use each mode to write a melody or improvise a solo over your chord progression as I do in the video to create a piece of music that makes sense. The melody or solo will ‘glue’ the progression together as you follow each modal change with your melody/solo.

As ever, I hope you find this technique useful and it gives you some cool ideas for your own tunes. It’s a powerful method for creating cool sounding chord sequences - imagine expanding this to utilise all of the available modes from the major scale, melodic minor scale and harmonic minor scale and you start to see the potential here for some seriously amazing chord progressions!

Have fun and I’ll see you all for some new material next time.

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