Chord Progressions For Modes – A How-to Guide

People often email me to ask how I write jam tracks in a specific mode.
Most guitarists have at least a vague idea about modes and many have gotten as far as learning some positions / shapes and are left thinking "what next ?!". This article will explain how to write chord progressions and vamps to accompaniment modes of the major scale and explain why they work with each mode.

How to construct / spell the modes of the major scale
How to harmonize a major scale (chord scale, roman numeral analysis)

Most players understand modes as the notes from a major scale but starting and ending on a different note. This is true but it's not the full story. What is in the accompanying harmony, particularly the bass provides the all important (and oft-neglected) context.
For example, playing in C major / ionian (CDEFGAB); starting and ending on an E does not immediately yield a phrygian sound. E phrygian over C major chord still sounds like C major. It sounds like E phrygian when played over an E minor chord.

The important thing is to get the tonality or the mood of each mode firmly into your ear and brain.

Three Methods for Writing Modal Vamps and Chord Progressions

Method 1: IV and V of the Parent Major Over the Root / Tonic of Mode
If you have not learned how to harmonize a major scale you should cover that now. Also, a basic understanding of slash chords is assumed.

In this method you play the IV and V chords from the key that the mode is derived from. For example C # phrygian is the third mode of (and in the key of) A (spelled ABC # DEF # G #). The modal tonic (or root) is simply the note that gives the mode it's name – in this example, C #. The IV and V chords of A are D and E. So, we would play D / C # and E / C # to create a phrygian sound.

Let's do another example in the same key. If we wanted to play in D lydian we would use the same IV and V chords as we're in the same key but put D (the modal root) in the bass. Thus, D and E / D.

Method 2: Modal Root / Tonic Chord with an Adjacent Chord (s) for Movement
A simple but often overlooked principle is that scales / modes and chords are made from the same notes. We build chords from the notes in scales and we name the notes in chords according to their position in a scale. Scales sound good over chords that contain the same notes. This means that major chords are good for major modes and minor chords good for minor modes.

A vamp large sticks to one chord. But this can get a bit boring so we add an adjacent chord to create movement and contribute to the modal sound. By adjacent chord, I mean a chord next to the tonic chord in the chord scale. For example, the chords in the key of C are I – CMaj7, II – Dmin7, III = Emin7, IV = FMaj7, V = G7, VI = Amin7, VII = Bdim7. If we wanted to play in D dorian we would play primarily the Dmin7 (IImin7) and add the Emin7 (IImin7) and Cmaj7 (IMaj7) as passing chords.

Method 3: Modal Root / Tonic with Cadence Chords
This method relies on using unstable chords, which sound like they need to resolve to move into more stable chords ie cadence.

Each mode has a character note, which identifies it from other modes and is there before critical to establishing it's unique sound. They are as follows:

Character Tones
Ionian (Major) = natural 4th
Dorian = natural 6
Phrygian = b2nd
Lydian = # 4th
Mixolydian = b7
Aeolian = b6

Chords with the character tone in resolve well to the more stable modal tonic.

Use these chords along the tonic (I) chord to construct modal vamps:

Ionian = IVMaj7, V7
Dorian = Iimin7, IV7, bVIIMaj7
Phrygian = bIIMaj7, bVIImin7
Lydian = II7, Vmaj7, VIImin7
Mixolydian = Vmin7, bVIIMaj7
Aeolian = IVmin7, bVIMaj7

NB: In the example above, roman numerals refer to the modal degree rather than the parent major eg "IV" refers to the 4th chord in the mode not the key as in previous examples.

For those wishing to extend these chords, add available tensions.

Caveats and Things to Consider
Because the major (ionian) sound is so familiar we do not have to work so hard to maintain it's tonality. Therefore method 3 works best for the remaining, less familiar, modes.

The locrian mode is ignored in this method because it has the paradox of having an unstable b5 in the tonic / root chord, which we want to sound more stable.

Also, dominant 7 chords are avoided because they have such a strong cadence pull towards the root chord of the parent major. Replacing the dominant 7 with the diatonic triad namesake avoids this ie use GMaj rather than G7.

How to Begin
A sensible first step is to explore the tonality (mood or feel) of each mode. Start with jam tracks and play simple melodies that capture the mood of the mode.