Knowing a chord progression’s tonal center is important for a couple reasons. First, knowing the tonal center is knowing where in the progression feels like “home.” For soling purposes, this is vital because it tells us how to best craft our lead lines so they resolve in a way that feels right.

In his course, Tonal Freedom: Lead, Robbie Calvo shows you how to improvise lead parts by phrasing toward points of resolution in the chord progression.

Here are 15 video lead guitar lessons from the course. For the full course, check out Robbie Calvo’s Tonal Freedom: Lead on TrueFire!

What are Tonal Centers? – Overview

Tonal centers are the resolution point or resting place of a chord progression. You’ll find throughout your lifetime of studies that nearly every conceivable chord progression will have a tonal center, which means it’s an absolute must to study and understand this course.

Typically, the tonal center will be the first chord of the harmonic progression. Why? Well, because if your progression starts at that point, cycles through a series of chords and comes back to the first chord to repeat the same cycle, your ear will hear that chord as the resolution point…start and end. There are exceptions, however, that which we’ll discuss throughout the course.

The 3 Types of Tonal Centers – Overview

There are 3 main types of tonal centers:

Diatonic – The chords in a diatonic chord progression are derived from one key and can be major, minor or dominant.
Chromatic – Progressions derived from a series of different keys, like blues, R&B, etc.
Temporary – In the case of jazz progressions which typically descend through a series of tonal centers. I call these temporary tonal centers because they will move through a series of tonal centers within one progression or movement before returning to the “master” tonal center of the musical structure.

There are also secondary dominant chords within diatonic chord progressions…these are functioning as V chords moving towards a “temporary” I chord. I’ll explain more about this in later sections of the course.

The 3 Key Principles – Overview

There are some really important points that I’d like to make before we get started…and these key principles will be the best tools that you can use as you improvise through this course.

Even If you understand the harmonic chord structures, tonal resolutions points and have all the scales under your fingers…you may still not be making the most of your improvisational skills. So, I’d really like you to pay close attention to the next few topics as they are going to make the biggest difference in your progression.

Lydian Major Solo – Overview

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This 2 bar progression starts and ends with the IV major chord (G), giving us a really solid tonal center resolution to the IV chord. The IV chord progression is named Lydian, after the 4th degree of the major scale. Play along with the progression and understand that the G is IV, A is V and D/F# is I in the key of D.

Lydian Major Solo – Performance

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I’m using the D major scale to improvise over this progression, but thinking in terms of my tonal center chord, the G. So, I’m using my D major scale patterns and targeting tones of the G chord and also bringing out the flavor of the characteristic note of Lydian, the #11. You’ll notice I’m playing some nice string skipping ideas – I love the sound this creates and how it opens up new melodic possibilities. Let’s check out the breakdown and get some other tips on targeting those IV chord tonalities.

Lydian Major Solo – Breakdown

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Any D major scale pattern is fine to use over this progression. I’ve provided a diagram for a typical shape, but I suggest you work within a shape that you are familiar with to get the hang of targeting the IV chord. My typical approach is to find melodic motifs I like and then start to develop them. Try that first; I think you’ll find that the melodies start to reveal themselves to you.

You’ll notice that I am playing the C# and D notes in 2 different octaves as a little motif hook. This is targeting the characteristic note C# (#11) and the 5th of the G chord. Therefore, I’m pulling out the Lydian sound. But, I’m resolving it quickly to a chord tone of the tonal center chord. The chord tones of our G tonal center chord are G – B – D, target these tones specifically and you’ll hear them sound resolute and strong.

I’m applying some nice string skipping ideas too. Ff you like that approach, I’d suggest finding a really familiar pattern of the D major scale and look for patterns that give you some nice simple melodic moves.

Now that I have you focusing your lines, licks, and melodies on tonal centers, you may struggle with trying to apply your “muscle memory” ideas and find they don’t work because you are focusing on the wrong tones. You have to break this habit. Start to listen and apply choices with your mind, not your fingers! If you’d like some cool exercises on breaking muscle memory, check out my course Lick Logic – I think it’ll help you in a very musical way!

Dorian Minor Solo – Overview

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In this performance, you’re listening to an F# Dorian progression. All of the chords are derived from the harmonized major scale of E, but the chord progression resolves to the II chord F#mi7. Listen to the progression, play along and hear the tonal center each time the progression comes back to the F#mi7 chord.

I’m using the E major scale but targeting tones of the II chord, F#mi7 as this is where the chord progression resolves.

Dorian Minor Solo – Performance

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We have so many options when improvising over a Dorian progression: You’ll notice me use the E major scale, the F# minor pentatonic and even some F#mi7 arpeggios. All of those choices are derived from the E major scale, so I’m not cheating the system in any way.

Phrasing as always is the key, sustain tones on the resolution point chord, F#mi7, and play phrases on the other chords that take you back towards the F#mi7. Phrase towards the tonal center and you’ll sound like a million dollars. Next, let’s take a look at the breakdown.

Dorian Minor Solo – Breakdown

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When a chord progression resolves its sound to the II minor chord in a major scale, it’s called a Dorian progression. Don’t get scared by the terminology used here, it’s that simple and Dorian is just a Greek name associated with the second mode of the major scale…cool?!!!

The other chords in this progression all come from the same parent major scale of E major: F#mi7 is (II), E is (i), A is (IV) and B is (V). I’m using the F# minor pentatonic scale in conjunction with the E major Scale for two reasons. First, the F# minor pentatonic scale has all 4 chord tones of F#mi7 within it, plus the 4th. Which means I have all of the tonal center sweet note resolutions I could need right there in those delicious five note patterns! (2) The minor pentatonic is giving me chord tones and a bluesy framework, whereas the major scale will allow me to target the characteristic note of Dorian, the major 6th (D#).

I can choose to play the D# as a nice flavor and color tone, but I don’t want to land on it and hang out there. It’s not a sweet note at all, so I weave my magic around it and head back home to safer territory.

Try playing some cool phrases from the minor pentatonic scale first and make sure you don’t hang out on the 4th (B). Once you have the hang of phrasing your ideas towards “home base”, try using the E major scale and the D# characteristic note for flavor.

R&B Solo 2 – Overview

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I love this laid back R&B groove and feel…it makes you want to play along and jam; and of course, that’s the idea. In this example, we have a 4 bar progression that resolves to the A7 chord. All 4 chords occupy one bar each and 3 of the chords come from the same key. The C#7 chord is the harmonic variation in this progression, and we’re going to analyze that for you so you can understand it’s function in the progression, why it works and how you can apply your scales and arpeggios for compiling solos.

R&B Solo 2 – Performance

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You’ll notice that I’m using pentatonic scale shapes for this solo demonstration: A major pentatonic on the A7 – F#mi7- Dma7, and on the C#7 I’m using the C# major pentatonic.

As we’re progressing through the course, I may throw in some nice arpeggio lines as well. If you have the chops for that, use them to outline the chords – in particular over the A7 and C#7. I can’t advocate enough the importance of learning a couple of arpeggio shapes. It’s tunes like this with chromatic chords where you can really put them to use and stand out as a player. Let’s take a look at the full breakdown and show you some cool ideas.

R&B Solo 2 – Breakdown

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This progression resolves nicely to the A7 chord, which means we have a tonal center of A7. The complete progression is diatonic within the key of D with a slight variation with use of a secondary dominant chord, the C#7, the V7 of Vi mi7. If this progression were strictly diatonic to the key of D major, that chord would be a C#mi7(b5).

8-Bar Dominant Blues Solo – Overview

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In this straight 8th, 8 bar blues we have the traditional dominant chords and a I – IV7 – V7 progression. The form is slightly different though, as we have changed the order in which we play the chords. A7 is considered our “blues” I chord, and next we play the E9 (V9) and then down to the D9 (IV9).

Listen to the progression first…understand the form and then play along until you have the changes memorized. I’ve chosen to play an 8 bar blues in this example because I thought it might be a little more interesting than a typical 12 bar blues. The same rules apply when we break it all down, so remember that when you transfer the knowledge and tips to other blues forms and progressions.

8-Bar Dominant Blues Solo – Performance

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We probably all know that the A minor pentatonic/A blues scale will work over all the chords in this blues. So, let’s dig a little deeper and mix it up a little. I’m using an A9 arpeggio with chromatic tones added to solo over the entire progression, phrasing towards the tonal center of A7. I’m also applying arpeggios for each of the chords…in other words, targeting the chord tones of each chord. This approach would be very powerful if you were playing in a three piece band without another harmonic instrument covering the chords when you solo. This way you’ll still hear the chord changes.

Check it out, and then we’ll break it all down with some neat ideas.

8-Bar Dominant Blues Solo – Breakdown

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Longer progressions like this often make hearing or targeting the tonal center harder, but our progression resolves heavily and often back to the A7…which means we can hear and target the resolution point easily as we listen and improvise.

I’ve been advocating that you phrase towards the tonal center chord throughout this course. Concentrating on that, and not worrying about the changes, is important sometimes. We can apply the A9 arpeggio with chromatics in the same way, but listening and placing ideas in the right way as to resolve is still a key element. If you have your arpeggio shapes well rehearsed, you should have no problem weaving through the changes using A7/A9 arps.

If you’re really adept, try arpeggiating through each of the chords as you improvise. Remember to continue phrasing and resolving towards the tonal center. Of course, you can mix it all up, too, using your minor pentatonic scale/blues scale as well as the arpeggios.

Digging these free video lead guitar lessons? Check out Robbie Calvo’s Tonal Freedom: Lead.