Chord Progressions In Modes.


How Can You Play Rhythm Guitar In A Certain Mode?

I get this question every once in a while from upper intermediate guitar students who are trying to figure out how to write or jam in modes.
What they are really asking is: “How do you figure out what chords to play in a mode”.

The principle is actually pretty straightforward.
You just have to know for each mode in each key, what major scale that mode is relative to.


Let’s say E Mixolydian.

That gives us 2 pieces of information: the key is E, and the scale is Mixolydian.

If you figure out which major scale E Mixo is relative to, you know what the notes and the chords are in E Mixo.

In case you’re not sure what “is relative to” means: it means “which has the same notes”.
Relative scales are scales that consist of the same 7 notes.
All modes are relative scales.

So in order to figure out the major scale that is relative to E Mixo, we need to know if Mixo is the first, the 2nd, the 3rd, the 4th, the 5th, the 6th, or the 7th mode.
Well… it can’t be the first, because that is the Ionian scale, which is also called “the major scale”.

Having the info from last week’s blog memorized, then you know that Mixolydian is built on the 5th scale note of a major scale.
Hence, by that reasoning: we then need to figure out in which major scale, E is the 5th note.
After all: if Mixolydian is mode number 5 in the order of modes, then E Mixolydian is going to have the same notes as the major scale 5 notes/steps down from E.

Counting down the alphabet from E, we get E D C B A.
Conclusion: E Mixolydian has the same notes as an A major scale.

If you know your key signatures of major scales, then you know that the notes in an A major scale are:

A B C# D E F# G# A

If you’ve been following the blogs for a while, then you know that I, IV, and V in a major scale are always major chords, II, III, and VI are always minor chords and VII is always a diminished chord.

In the key of A, that gives us:

A Bm C#m D E F#m G#dim A

This means that in E Mixolydian, the chords are going to be the same chords as above, but starting from E instead of A:

E F#m G#dim A Bm C#m D E

You want to train yourself to get really solid in figuring out the relative major scale for every mode.

Down a whole step for Dorian
Down 2 whole steps for Phrygian
Down 2 1/2 steps (5 frets) for Lydian
Down 3 1/2 steps (7 frets) for Mixolydian.
Up 3 frets for Aeolian
Up 1 fret for Locrian

C# Locrian has the same notes like a D major scale
E Dorian has the same notes like a D major scale
Bb Dorian has the same notes as an Ab major scale
B Phrygian has the same notes as a G major scale.
C# Aeolian has the same notes like an E major scale (up 3 frets from C# = E)
And so on.

In addition to the above, you also want to memorize the most commonly used chord progressions in all 7 modes.

The Most Common Chord Progressions For Each Mode

The following list shows what the most common chord progressions are in every mode.

In a song written in the major/Ionian scale for example the most common chord progression is I, IV, V.

I put the chords for Locrian in between parenthesis.
Locrian is so seldom used, that there isn’t really any chord progression that sounds “Locrian”.
The b5 in Locrian makes that Locrian doesn’t really have a stable sense of key. This is another way of saying that the I chord, doesn’t really strongly sound like the I chord.

Phrygian, sounds very Spanish.
In order to really get the Phrygian sound, the chord progression that is typically used in Phrygian is I-bII-bIII.

In a minor scale (Aeolian): I, IV, and V are minor chords
In a major scale (Ionian): I, IV, and V are major chords.
Dorian and Mixolydian have great sounding I, IV, V progressions.

  1. Ionian
    Imaj7 IVmaj7 V7

  2. Dorian
    Im7 IV7 Vm7

  3. Phrygian
    Im7 bIImaj7 bIII7

  4. Lydian
    Imaj7 II7 Vmaj7
    (or I #IVm7b5 Vmaj7)

  5. Mixo
    I7 IVmaj7 Vm7 (I7 IIm7 Vm7)

  6. Aeolian
    Im7 IVm7 Vm7

  7. Locrian
    (Idim IVm7 bVmaj7)

These common chord progressions form a good foundation to familiarize yourself with the sound of each mode, but they are of course not the only options.
For example, in E Phrygian, you could play || Im7 – IVm7 – Bm7b5 ||

Have fun experimenting with all the new colors and let me know how it’s going.


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