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I learned about secondary dominants recently, and I found that this particular progression in the key of C major sounds quite nice:

C - E7 - Am

I - V/vi - vi

I am playing it in the following voicings:

    C  E7  Am
E|--8---7--5--
B|--8---9--5--
G|--9---7--5--
D|--10--9--7--
A|--10--7--7--
E|--8------5--

With the following strumming pattern:

  C   |E7|    Am
D-DUDU-DD-D--DUDD-D-D

C: D-DUDU
E7: DD
Am: D--DUDD-D-D

After I run through this progression one time, I want to play a little filler lick before repeating to spice things up, but I can't quite figure one out. I have tried playing around with the C major/A minor pentatonic scales but nothing really sticks out. How can I know which scales to target for nice licks within a chord progression? Is it not as cut and dry as an entire "scale" but rather look for certain notes to embellish the chords with? If this is so, from which chords do I take notes from to embellish? On Youtube or Instagram, most lessons I see just use major pentatonic or the relative minor pentatonic of the tonic. Am I just not looking hard enough in Cmaj/Am penatonic for a good lick? An example lick would be awesome.

Bonus question:

When I play through the progression the second time, my ears want to repeat with variation very badly. By this, I mean that I want to play something other than an Am the second time around. I conceptualize it as a higher pitched chord, so something further down the neck than Am. I tried just different voicings of Am but that didn't quite capture what my brain is feeling. I tried Fmaj7 in the 8th fret barre shape, that kind of got there, but not quite what I wanted. What are other chords E7 resolves to nicely in the context of C major?

Please forgive any blunders I may have made regarding terminology. I am still learning all of this music stuff :) thanks!

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  • Your "bonus question" perhaps should be asked as a separate question... Nov 17 at 2:48
  • Back in the day, players learned a lot of tunes by ear, and then their brains automatically started to draw ideas from all the stuff they had accumulated. But you seem to want a theoretical formula and method for writing licks. Is there evidence to believe that someone in the world is succesfully doing it that way? I don't say it's not possible, it just feels like a completely backwards and upside down approach to me. Try adding a Bb13 6x678x between the E7 and Am. Or Bb7-5 6x675x. Or G#dim7 xx6767. Or replace the Am with alternating G and Am. xx5433 - xx7555. Maybe x05433 - x07555. Nov 17 at 10:53

2 Answers 2

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There are whole books written about how to compose melody to a chord progression, don't expect an answer at SE to be complete. Also it is a question about creative choices, and there is no single good answer how to make them. What I present below is only a simplified example of a workflow.

Starting with the chord tones is typically a good idea. Let's write them down:

  • C: C-E-G
  • E7: E-G#-B-D
  • Am: A-C-E

At first it's worth checking if the chords are written correctly – in your case they seem to be (so e.g. E7 seems correct, rather than e.g. Fb7).

You correctly identified E7 as V/vi, a secondary dominant. This gives the first clue: secondary dominant is a chord from another key (in this case from the key of vi, Am), so it is not diatonic in the original key. You don't necessarily should/need to use the same scale over all three chords.

There is also a hint in the chord tones: in C there is G, but in E7 there is G#. As western scales typically use 7 notes, one for each letter, this suggests a different scale to be used over each of these chords.

Next, in order to connect chords smoothly (which is not always what you want to do), you may choose the consecutive scales which share. We can start by writing down all notes from the three chords (if the song has already a vocal melody written, include its notes too):

  • C D E G/G# A B

We may find choose to use the following scales:

- C ionian:      C D E F G  A B
- E phryg.dom.:      E F G# A B C D
- A aeolian: A B C D E F G

In classical music, dominants to minor chords typically use b9, this supports use of F with E7.

But we could also choose:

- C lydian:        C D E F# G  A B
- E mixolydian b6.:    E F# G# A B C D
- A dorian:    A B C D E F# G

These are just examples, don't get discouraged to try other scales. In particular, the dominant chords often go well with many other scales, e.g., superlocrian, lydian b9, half/whole tone.

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  • I got the idea that the OP isn't necessarily trying to play a melody but a "fill". Something, anything to go between the comping chords to create a sense of variation. It could be a bunch of chords or intervals. The OP just assumed that when people come up with fills and variations to their chord comping, they must be thinking about scales, because all youtube videos talk about scales. Nov 17 at 12:41
  • @piiperiReinstateMonica when I was writing this answer I knew someone is going to comment that it's incomplete. I know it's incomplete, because you'd need to write a book to make it complete. And books are written. If it helps I can state here: scales are not the only important building block in music, moreover, certainly not the most important one. But the question was about scales, and I tried to answer the best I could. Nov 17 at 17:05
  • I did not say your answer is incomplete, I tried to say that the OP seems to be asking, "how do people come up with fills between chords, is it scales or chord tones or what." I would assume that most guitarists don't think about scales at all when adding variations and embellishments to chordal comping. At least people who learned to play before Youtube. Nov 17 at 18:13
  • @piiperiReinstateMonica Well, I'm saying it's incomplete! Nov 17 at 18:29
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There's no absolute answer here. But a rule of thumb is to use a note common to both chords (C&E) to start the quite short run into Am, and that run would finish on a note common to both E & Am.

Bearing that in mind, the common note between C&E is E, so the lick would start with an E. A few notes on (really belonging to the E scale) it would end on E - in the Am bar. Another idea would be to end the lick on G♯, as that's the leading note for the following Am harmony, setting it up beautifully.

Having said all that, there's no better way than that we always used to (and still) use - don't work it out using theory, but try several different ideas, to come up with some things that sound good. I think you're trying to put the cart before the horse - theory tells what has happened, therefore could re-occur, and I'm sure if you come up with something sounding good, someone will be able to theorise as to why...

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