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If you use only the open chords on a guitar, you can walk a bass line using these notes:

E G A C D E

This line tends to be expressed with chords that mix modes. So for example the A chord may contain a C# and the E chord may contain a G#, meaning that there are various way to harmonize chromatic lines.

This results in a tonal language, for lack of a better term, composed of the following set of pitches:

E F# G G# A B C C# D E

You might call this a scale, a gamut, or an aggregate, or just a pitch class set-- I don't really care-- but what I would like to know is if this has a name and what it might be.

Two songs that seem to use it:

Tom Petty - Running Down a Dream

Avril Lavigne + Marilyn Manson - Bad Girl

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    With your recent edit, you've changed the meaning of the question in a way that requires additional information. As written, it suggests that for each root, the major or minor chord could be used. This makes the resulting scale C C# D E F F# G G# A Bb B, but I don't think that's what you're really trying to ask.
    – Aaron
    Jul 2, 2022 at 14:00
  • I don’t understand how you derived this scale. Are you only counting the roots of the open chords? Because I know a Bm7 open chord and also an F open chord so why did you leave out B and F? Jul 2, 2022 at 15:29
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    Your initial question was correctly answered by @Aaron. Your heavily edited version says you believe this “scale” to be 5 notes with major triads built on each note. That is not what a scale is. You can build chords from a scale but the notes in a scale do not imply harmony. Todd is correct, CAGED are not the only open major chords that can be played on the guitar although they are the most complete and practical. If you are talking about using those 5 chords CAGED together that’s something completely different than referring to them as a scale. Jul 2, 2022 at 16:36
  • @Aaron I did not edit my question to trick anyone, I'm just trying to find the best way to express myself without using the wrong words, which seems to upset some people. Regardless of the terminology I've provided two examples which should help to clarify.
    – John Wu
    Jul 2, 2022 at 18:15
  • @ToddWilcox I did not pick and choose the notes to put in this scale, other musicians did. I am just observing. I have not observed Bm7 or F in the uses of this idiom.
    – John Wu
    Jul 2, 2022 at 18:16

2 Answers 2

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This is the question as I understand it:

If your song is centered on E major as tonic, and you use the major chords E G A C and D in your chord progressions, it seems to mix modes in a certain style that can be found in many pop songs. Is there a name for this style?

I agree it's a common style, and the guitar's open-string chords seem to produce that style automatically. Or at least, when I picked up the guitar at age 11 when I had a chance and nobody was around, and I started to find chords without knowing anything or having any books or anything, simply by trying to put my fingers like I had seen guitar players do, I found the chord progression E - G - D - A - E in a matter of a few minutes. I didn't know the names of the chords or anything, but I liked the sound of it a lot, it felt very fascinating and different from songs I was playing by ear on the piano. So from my own anecdotal evidence, it's justifiable to say it's guitar-based. It's almost as if it was a built-in preset sound in the guitar - just pick up the instrument and that's what comes out by itself.

It took me some years to translate the style to my piano playing and find ways to reason about what was happening with the chord progression: it seemed to move between keys E major and E minor in a fluent way. And not studying music in any institution, it took decades to find out that there are actual names for that moving-between-keys fluidly. One of the words is "modal mixing", like you suspected. Playing a chord from a different mode makes changes to the harmonic context, and this can be called modal mixing. For example going from the E major chord to G major toggles the sharp/natural/flat switch on the G scale position from sharp to natural. And eventually getting back home to E major returns the switch to sharp.

If I compare the style to playing the piano, in my subjective experience, the piano somehow tends to encourage staying inside a key and not do too much modal mixing. I can only guess where that difference comes from, but maybe it's due to having to concentrate on seeing the scale of the key on the piano keyboard, and changing that to a different scale feels like a more serious thing than on the guitar. When playing guitar chords you don't even have to think about what your scale is. You just play your chords and let theory guys analyze it later!

One characteristic trait in this guitar-based style is the lack of or avoiding the so-called leading tone, which in E major would be D#. Likewise, the B major chord is not used. If you'd like to play a B-based chord, B minor would fit the style better. Playing or singing a D# would feel like a breach of style here, unless you do it in a bluesy way, alternating somewhere between D and D#.

However, I'd like to claim that there's a simpler and less fancy name for this style. It's actually shown by Youtube if you have captions on:

rock music

It's called rock music.

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  • Good answer but what about the good ol’fashioned open B7 chord? It’s very common in open chord tunes in E Jul 3, 2022 at 0:13
  • @JohnBelzaguy Very good question! I feel that using a B7 chord would break away from the style or "tonal language" that the OP means. I don't say that there are no proper dominant V chords in rock music, but this particular flavor - would it be blues rock then? There is a difference in mood when you allow a leading tone to happen vs. when you don't. Maybe my answer wasn't very good, because I wasn't able to pinpoint a clear name. :/ Jul 3, 2022 at 11:09
  • Point taken, there are many songs that use all or 4 of the 5 CAGED chords and they don’t usually contain a B7. Good point about the lack of a leading tone in those chord progressions. Jul 3, 2022 at 16:48
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You'd call it a mode of the pentatonic major. Specifically C pentatonic major. The notes for the basic scale are C, D, E, G, A. Another well-used mode of that scale is the pentatonic minor, running A, C, D, E, G.

A mode is a scale which uses the same notes as a particular major scale, but roots on a different note from the original.

Whilst this may have answered the original question, it's quite possible it doesn't adequately address the heavily edited version. Which is not reflected well in the header.

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  • +1 This answers the question that's in the title. But the question in the... question is pretty much entirely different. Jul 2, 2022 at 22:50

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