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Making Leads Fit

So we've learned some scales, we know some chords and we want to get the two to mesh together to make music. Learning scales for the first time I was excited to try playing leads over chords. My enthusiasm soon faded when everything I played sounded BAD. The problem was I knew my scales, I could move about the notes no problem and I knew some chords. But I couldn't figure out how to get the leads I was playing to fit over the chords, without sounding plain wrong. I wondered what the secret was and why nobody and nothing I read would give me a straight answer.

Through trial and error I eventually found the scales and keys that worked with the chords progressions I tended to use. And I just stuck with that. And through time and experience I got a knack for getting my leads to fit the chords. But I didn't really understand why.

Eventually I just sat and thought about it and it came to me. It's all in the Key. If a scale can have a name and key then the chord progression should too. And if both the lead and chords are all in the same key then putting one on top of the other should fit and sound good.

Okay, we've learnt some scales like the C major and here it is again,

C D E F G A B

 

Okay, but these are just single notes how do we get chords to be in the same key? Well it's very, very simple. Since these are the notes from C major, in order to keep chords in the same key we need to make chords using the same notes.

That's a bit of a tongue twister so lets say that again boiled down to essence.

If you want C major scale to fit over some chords, then those chords can't have notes in them that are not in C major scale.

So lets look at a C major chord, its made from a C, E and a G.

Naturally all those notes can be found in the C major scale, so as you can guess playing the C major scale over a C major chord will sound good. What about a D major chord? A D major chord is made from a D, F# and A. That F# sticks out. There is no F# in C major so if we tried to play C major scale over a D major chord it wont sound nice.

But there is an F in C major scale, if we change the F# in that D major chord to an F we will get a D minor chord. So although that D major chord doesn't fit with the C major scale a D minor chord will.

I guess learning those chord intervals and how to make these chords came in handy after all. Even I had doubts!

Now a major scale is made from seven notes, sitting down and trying to figure out every single possible chord you can make from it is a big ask. But that's almost what I did awhile ago and its been a massive help in letting me play using other scales and keys. Below for the C major scale I've listed all the common chords types you can make from it. Also since C major has the same notes as A minor the list applies to A minor also. If you're a guitar sadist you can try making the list yourself!

 

C major/A minor

A5, Am, Am7
Bdim
C5, C, CM7
D5, Dm, Dm7
E5,Em, Em7
F5, F, FM7
G5, G, G7

 

A chord with a '5' means a power chord. A chord with a 'm7' means minor 7th, 'M7' means major 7th and '7' on its own means a dominant 7th.

So lets use this list to build a chord progression in C major. Since its C major, C is the root so lets start with a C chord. Lets keep it simple let's go for the basic C major chord. Okay lets pick the next chord to play, I fancy a G major. And next let's choose a Am and then finish with a G major again. So we have this,

|C / / /|G / / /|Am / / /|G / / /|

So this chord progression is in the key of C major, so if we play the C major scale over it, it should fit and sound nice. Here is a sound file of that chord progression, try playing the C major scale over the top of it.

Sound clip - Backing

Here is one we played over

Sound clip - Lead

 

Let's see what happens when we deliberately stick a chord in there that shouldn't work. Here is a sound file of the same thing but we've stuck a A major chord instead of that A minor. Try playing C major scale as before but when we get to the A major chances are you will hit a note that will sound bad. Even when not trying to play over it, your ears my instinctively reject the sound of that A major chord as being wrong. That's because the first two chords, the C and G have established a C major sound in your brain. So when that A major chord pops up it jars in your brain and feels wrong.

Sound clip

So if we had that chord progression with the A major what would we do? Well we could sit and figure out what key that chord progression is in and play the scale we need. Or much easier we can just play a different scale for just that one chord.

A major scale will fit over an A major chord. Play that example as before but this time, when you get to the A major chord switch to an A major scale, then switch back to C major afterwards. This makes the whole thing sound like it's switching keys.

Here is an example of us doing this,

Sound clip

 

When you learn more songs, especially western music we will recognise these keys in other peoples music. For example you won’t often find a C major and A major chord together in the same progression. You will find however lots of songs which have a C major and an A minor chord. The more you listen to music the more you will subconsciously play in key. You will start to avoid chords that aren't in key not because of some list you've memorised, but because it just doesn't sound right.

If you want to find what chords will fit for the major and minor scales in other keys, just use the same list as above and shift everything along or back to the key you need. So for example we want to find what chords will work for C# major scale. C# is a semitone up from C, so just take all the same chords from that list and bump them all up a semitone. So that Am7 for example will become an A#m7 chord.

Okay what about all those modes?

Since the modes are made from the major scale that makes things a little easier to work out. Lets use C major again. If we play C major scale but use D as the root we have D dorian. But since its all the same notes then we can pick chords from the same list as the C major list. But since we're in D, naturally we'll want to start with a 'D' chord. So picking from that list we can say the following progression will work with D dorian, there is a sound file so you can try it for yourself.

|Dm7 / / /|C / / /|Am / / /|G / / /|

Sound clip - Backing

Sound clip - Lead

 

What about the Dorian mode in other keys? What about E dorian mode? Since dorian mode is the a major scale with its second note as root, E dorian mode should have the same notes as D major scale. And we can work out what chords can be made from D major from that same C major list. We just take all those chords and shift them up a tone, since that's the difference between a C and D.

So in this way, providing we understand how each mode is made we can figure out what chords will work for all the modes also.

However understanding all this is one thing, putting into practice can be a bit of a brain twister. So to save you some of the headache, we have included a handy listing of what chords can be made from the major and minor scales, in almost every key at the bottom of this lesson. Armed with this, your chord progressions and leads should fit beautifully.

Exercises

Using that same list we've recorded a few chord progressions and given the key and what scale will fit on top of it. Try them out.

Use A minor with this one,

|Am / / /|F / / /|G / / /|F / G /|

Sound clip - Backing

Sound clip - Lead

 

Use E minor for this one

|Em7 / / /|Am7 / / /|CM7 / / /|Am7 / / /|

Sound clip - Backing

Sound clip - Lead

 

Use F major for this one

|F / / /|Dm / / /|Am / / /|Bb / / /|

Sound clip - Backing

Sound clip - Lead

 

And something a bit more exotic use A Lydian mode for this one,

|AM7 / / /|E / / /|C#m / / /|B / / /|

Sound clip - Backing

Sound clip - Lead

We worked out which chords would work with A Lydian by picking chords from the same list as E major. Since A Lydian is made from the E major scale. Lydian mode is made from playing the 4th note of a major scale as root. So in the case of A Lydian that can only come from the E major scale. Since its 'A' we've picked a 'A' chord to start things off too keep the key in A.

 

Try these for yourself and if you have a favourite scale that isn't on that list, try to work out what chords can be made from that scale yourself. It will really give you an insight into how to get chord progressions and leads to be in the same key.

 

There are some instances in music where a note is played which is technically out of key but still sounds nice in the right context. Don't be afraid to try ideas that might not fit with these fixed rules. The blues scale has a diminished 5th note which is at odds with most chord progressions which is why the note is used as a passing note. Which means phrases don't start and stop on that diminshed 5th or blues note, since its technically out of key it would sound wrong. But as a passing note, a note to link the other notes it sounds great.

Another good tip to help work out which chords will work with what scale and key, is to draw a full fret board diagram. You will have come across these in previous lessons. Let's have another look an example again,

 

Using a diagram like this, we can simply look at the dots and make chords using those positions. Using this C Dorian diagram, we can see that we can play a C minor chord, but not a C major chord. So by looking at this diagram we know that playing a C Dorian scale over a C major chord won't work. Using diagrams in this way is also useful for coming up with new chord shapes that we may not know the names of, but at least we know they will keep in key. You may even find some new chords for yourself that you really like the sound of.

 

Notes that are technically out of key are sometimes called outside notes. Outside notes can lift a lead or scale and make them sound more interesting or exotic. The key when playing these outside notes, is like the blues scales blues note, not to start or stop on these notes. Just like that blues note we use outside notes as passing notes. In other words if you play these outside notes, play them quickly and don't stop or start on them and try to make sure they are framed and surrounded by notes that are in key. Guitar players such as Marty Friedman use this to great effect and really lifts their playing from the norm and stale.

Sometimes players may deliberately play out of key to create a confused or deliberate dissonant sound. Playing out of key notes has its uses. While keeping strictly in key is a great way to play conventionally, be aware there are other ways to go also other than the straight and narrow.

Also, don’t think you need to learn what scales will fit what chords in every possible key and scale. If you think that is important, then go for it. But if you enjoy playing only a few scales and keys, then feel free to only learn what chords fit to the scales you like.

 

Chords in key list

'7' Dominant 7th
'M7' Major 7th
'm7' Minor 7th
'5' 5th, power chord

A minor/C major

A5, Am, Am7
Bdim
C5, C, CM7
D5, Dm, Dm7
E5,Em, Em7
F5, F, FM7
G5, G, G7

 

B minor/D major

Bm, Bm7, B5
C#dim
D, DM7, D5
Em, Em7, E5
F#m, F#m7, F#5
G, GM7, G5
A, A7, A5

 

C minor/Eb major

Cm, Cm7, C5
Ddim
Eb, EbM7, Eb5
Fm, Fm7, F5
Gm, Gm7, G5
Ab, AbM7, Ab5
Bb, Bb7, Bb5

 

D minor/F major

 

Dm, Dm7, D5
Edim
F, FM7, F5
Gm, Gm7, G5
Am, Am7, A5
Bb, BbM7, Bb5
C, C7, C5

E minor/G major

Em, Em7, E5
F#dim
G, GM7, G5
Am, Am7, A5
Bm, Bm7, B5
C, CM7, C5
D, D7, D5

 

F minor/G# major

Fm, Fm7, F5
Gdim
Ab, AbM7, Ab5
Bbm, Bbm7, Bb5
Cm, Cm7, C5
Db, DbM7, Db5
Eb, Eb7, Eb5

 

G minor/Bb major

Gm, Gm7, G5
Adim
Bb, BbM7, Bb5
Cm, Cm7, C5
Dm, Dm7, Dm5
Eb, EbM7, Eb5
F, F7, F5

Key points to remember!

  • To make a lead fit over chords, they both need to be in the same key.
  • Chords are in key when they contain notes also found from the scale you are using.
  • It is usefull to list which chords can be made from each scale.
  • Understanding intervals and how chords are made is very helpfull.
  • Full neck diagrams are also usefull to see which chords fit a given scale.