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I know my major/pentatonic/blues scales pretty well, and I can apply it pretty fluently when playing over 1-4-5-min6 chord progressions, but I find that when I try to improvise over more "non-standard" progressions (for example, a 1-flat7-4 progression like EMaj-DMaj-AMaj), I'm pretty much lost.

I know about the different modes of the major scale and how to find them, but I'm not sure how to choose a certain mode to go well with a certain chord progression. What's a good way to quickly identify the mode(s) I should think about when given a chord progression? If you can talk about the E-D-A example above, that'd be great.

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A good starting point is to write out all the notes in the chords you're playing (although if there are more than a few this might be harder). Usually (but not always), these chords are likely to be linked in some way harmonically, and so you may notice that all the notes are within one or more familiar modes or scales. For instance, the notes in the chords E, D and A are E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D. If you are considering E to be your tonic, this is E Mixolydian. Sometimes you may find that one scale may not work over all the chords in a chord sequence; in this case choosing a simpler scale, such as a Pentatonic may help, as this may fit with each of your chords.

Although some chord sequences obviously suggest which scales or modes can be used, others which are less familiar may suggest suitable scales or modes by looking at the notes in each of the chords; in other words, by delving just a little deeper into the connections between chords.

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Another way to look at it, apart from Bob's as usual, good answer, is to consider that E,D and A are all the major chords found in A major. If you were to solo over a piece in A maj., you'd use A maj. notes. O.k., you'd centre more on A, but probably on, say, E, you'd centre more on E. So the A maj. scale notes will still work, very similarly to how you would play them anyway.If you've learned Amaj. 2 octaves starting on fret 5, 6th string, then those notes in those places are still good.We often think that the first note is most important, and it still probably will be, when the piece arrives at A.

This is another slant on E Mixolydian - as it's the same notes as its parent, A maj. As always, one or two notes here will be an awkward fit over certain chords, or parts of bars, but 'twas always thus.

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You might want to consider the chord-scale technique too. Take a look at scales that can be used over each chord. Since you are playing major chords without extensions, you can imply an extension from the scale. You may use a G note over the A Major chord or C note of D Major chord for a Dominant/Mixolydian sound. Using Pentatonics over each chord (E major pentatnoic over E chord) can give you variety. Country players with switch scales with the chords in a guitar solo emphasizing chord tones and implying extensions.

This depends on how much time you have over the chords. The more measures you have for the chord the more creative you can get to interest the listener.

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I bVII IV is a very common progression in rock and pop and can be found in the following songs:

Rolling Stones - sympathy for the devil
Lady Gaga - born this way
Lynyrd skynyrd - Sweet home Alabama (though, some hear this as a V IV I)
Elton John - Saturday nights alright for fighting
U2 - desire Van Morrison/Them - Gloria

And literally thousands of other songs.

It would be a boring world if everyone played only the notes from the harmony and stuck with mixolydian!

The best way to learn how to play music is to learn music (unsurprisingly!)

You will find that minor pentatonic, major pentatonic, blues scale, major blues, dorian (among others) are often used over this progression.

Which you should use depends on the overall feel of the song and the singer's melody (I assume you're talking about improvising guitar solos..). After getting these sounds internalized scale choice will become instinctive and you will know that the minor blues is appropriate over a song like Sympathy for the devil but less fitting for Born this way. Although a great solo could use all of these scales together!

  • my answer doesn't suggest that you should only use the Mixolydian over this chord sequence. It shows a method for establishing that the Mixolydian will work with this chord sequence. You might want to read it again. – Bob Broadley Jul 20 '14 at 0:22
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The best way is to just practice. I use them to dance around a melody or to get from point A to point B. Often it doesn't matter what chord you are on. Eventually you find what your ear likes. First, I learned my modes as scales, arpeggios and broken chords so thus, I am still very technical thinking about them. Here is a brief example of lydian, mixolydian, locrian, dorian and phrygian.

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Others have pointed out that all the chords in I-bVII-IV are in E Mixolydian /A Major.

However, you could also consider the "base" scale of the chord progression to be E Major, which accounts for the I and IV chords (E and A). So you'd play E Major scale tones over those chords. The bVII chord, though, isn't in E Major; in this context it is often considered a "borrowed" chord, borrowed from another key or mode. (This is called Modal Interchange). Of course, we can think of the bVII as having been borrowed from the key of A Major, or the Mixolydian mode of E -- these amount to the same thing, so it doesn't matter which way you look at it.

The only difference between this approach and the one above is that this way, you're playing two different scales during the chord progression rather than just one. Take this concept further, and you'll be doing some crazy jazz stuff in no time. For example: why not play E Lydian over the I chord, D Mixolydian over the D chord, and the 3rd mode of A Harmonic Minor over the A?

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