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Tom Quayle: Creating Interesting Chord Progressions Part 1

Lesson Notes

** As featured in issue 39 **

Hi guys and welcome to my column for Issue 39. For this issue we’re going to be starting a new series based both in the improvisation and compositional disciplines, where we’ll be looking at techniques for developing interesting chord progressions and how to play over them. These chord progressions will apply to all manner of genres and will gradually get more and more involved as we move through the next few issues.

For the first lesson in this new series we are going to be dealing with a simple two chord progression that, at first glance, appears to be constructed from two unrelated chords, A minor and F minor - on closer inspection we can explain a cool association between these chords that can be utilised to create all sorts of great sounding progressions.

We’ve looked at some of the ideas I’ll be presenting in this lesson before, but here we’ll be focussing our attention on some very basic concepts that you’ll have heard a thousand times before but may not have been aware of on a deeper level. The basic idea at play in this Am to Fm progression can be explained better by looking at things from a major scale perspective for a moment. In the key of C major the diatonic triads are: -

I - C, II - Dm, III - Em, IV - F, V - G, VI - Am and VII - Bdim

Represented as 7th chords we get: -

I - Cmaj7, II - Dm7, III - Em7, IV - Fmaj7, V - G7, VI - Am7 and VII - Bm7b5

A really common change that we can make to this series of diatonic chords is to take the IV chord – F or Fmaj7 – and ‘minorise’ it, creating an Fm or Fm7 sound. If you take the progression C to F or I to IV in the key and instead play C to Fm or I to IV minor you’ll recognise the sound immediately as something you’ve heard many times before in Rock, Pop, Blues or any other genre of music. This is so common that it’s become something of a cliché.

In order to make this progression sound fresher, let’s substitute the I chord – C – for the VI chord in the key – Am. What you’ll notice immediately is that this progression, Am to Fm, sounds far more like the kind of thing you’d hear in a Radiohead or Pink Floyd track, giving you a definite progressive Rock feel with a far darker mood than C to Fm. I’ve included a backing track for this lesson that builds on this type of sound with a very Pink Floyd-esque arrangement for you to jam over. You can now use this Fm chord within any of your chord progressions in the key of C to add some interest to otherwise boring diatonic progressions.

The only issue you have now is how to approach playing over this progression, since the two chords are not diatonic to the same scale. The simplest approach you can take is to use a minor pentatonic built from the root note of each chord and switch as the chord changes – giving you Am pentatonic and Fm pentatonic. This will yield nice bluesy and melodic results but we can be much more creative and use some more interesting scales for alternative melodic choices. Try using an A Dorian scale over the Am chord and an F Melodic Minor scale over the Fm. You’ll find the F melodic minor scale written out in a couple of positions in the accompanying tablature. Providing you can visualise both of these scales quickly enough to find them over each chord, you’ll find that these choices give you much more interesting melodic choices and you can switch between this more ‘detailed’ sound and the more bluesy sound of the minor pentatonic as you desire.

If you’re wondering why A Dorian works here, rather than A Aeolian which is diatonic to our original C major key, it’s simply because the natural 6th of the Dorian scale sounds so much better than the b6 of the Aeolian scale when we see Am as the ‘Home’ chord in the progression. Try playing the b6 (the note F) for yourself over the Am chord and you’ll hear straight away how bad it sounds compared to the natural 6 (F#) as a melodic note.

Enjoy the track and have fun improvising over it and try composing your own tunes using this progression in some different keys.

See you next time!

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