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Unlocking the Mysteries of Diatonic Harmony

 

Hi Everyone. This Pro Concepts we are going to get creative and try to compose something on the spot using Diatonic chords. Before I talk about the creative side of things, it’s best we get a little bit of theory out of the way.

So what are ‘Diatonic Chords’? They are the 7 chords that sit on the 7 degrees of whatever scale that you are playing (in this case A major) and they all belong to that key centre. These chords are made up by taking alternate notes from that scale. So chord 1 is made up of the 1,3,5 degrees. Chord 2 is made from the 2, 4, 6 degrees. Chord 3 is made from the 3,5,7 etc. You get the idea. When we do this we get 7 triads which make a formula you must learn and commit to the grey matter. The formula is:

Major, Minor, Minor, Major, Major, Minor, Diminished.

These chord intervals are a Tone, Tone, Semitone, Tone, Pone, Tone, Semitone apart. A ‘Tone’ is 2 frets and a ‘Semitone’ is 1 fret on the guitar. These intervals are also often referred to as ‘Half Step’ or ‘Whole Step’.

Call them what you want but they sit a certain distance from each other, the same as the degrees of our major scale. With this in mind, if I was working in the key of A major (which I am on the tutorial) I would get these chords to work with:

A maj /B min/ C sharp min/ D maj/ E maj/ F sharp min/ G sharp diminished

You can also extend these chords by adding the 7s and 9s which I also did on the tutorial.

We are now armed with 7 chords, all related to each through belonging to a key centre, which is A major in this instance. You can choose to play any of these chords in any sequence which sounds good to you, to make a ‘composition. Add a good melody and lyrics and you have the elements of a song. This is exactly what I did on camera in order to demonstrate that by adding rhythm, feel and flow, the results can be pretty cool.

There are many many ways of writing songs or composing music and a good basic knowledge of key centres, inversions, extended chords, diatonic and non diatonic sequences is a really good place to start. Obviously great songs and great compositions have been written without any of this knowledge, but knowing it can certainly expand your options and speed up how you arrive at a finished product. Most of the best Rock, Pop, Funk and Blues classics songs are simple diatonic chord sequences made to sound great by other elements such as soul, groove, a great voice, a great lyric, production, great guitar playing, great arrangements, etc. You cant get any more diatonic than the 1,4,5 chord sequence of a great blues song, or the modulating 2,5,1 sequence in a lot of Jazz compositions.

Leading the Pack with Tosin Abasi

Developing Tri-tone Substitutions and Endings

Diatonic chords will also give you a huge insight into soloing with modes. The hardest thing about any modal playing is the recognition of which part of the diatonic sequence you are playing over. Once you know a major scale, you know all 7 modes. But that’s a Pro Concepts for another time.

Before I go, another cool compositional tool that works well is to switch one section of a song to another key centre, which is what I did for the middle 8 section to our on the spot song, where I used chords that diatonically belonged to D major. This is different to modulating the key of a song, where you would play what you have already been playing, just in a different key. The art of switching key centres is how you get to and from them musically. If you don’t get that right, then it can sound clumsy or crafted badly.

Your guitar playing is only as good as what your are playing over. If the musical context or song you are playing over is awful, then no matter how much of a technical player you are, people will not come and worship at your guitar alter.

Hope you like our made up on the spot song. I shall name it ’On the Spot!’

Clever eh!

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