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The Backdoor Progression Explained on Guitar

When playing in a major key, we have several options for resolving back to the tonic or "home" chord (e.g. Cmaj in the key of C major). A backdoor progression, sometimes referred to as a back door cadence or, when used more specifically, backdoor ii V is one of these options.

Why Backdoor?

The "backdoor" refers to a particular chord position in relation to the tonic or I chord. The easiest way to think of the backdoor chord is to visualise a major chord one whole step below the tonic chord root.

So if we were playing a tonic chord shape with the bass root note on the low E string, we could visualise the backdoor chord root two frets below as follows (note: this relationship is the same no matter what string you're on)...

bVII and I chord degrees on the guitar fretboard

This means, if our progression was in the key of C major, Cmaj would be our tonic chord and Bbmaj would be the "backdoor chord".

In the key of E major, Emaj would be our tonic chord and Dmaj the backdoor.

This backdoor chord can be seen in relation to the major chord scale as the bVII (flat 7th degree) chord. It's "flat" because we've taken the natural 7th degree (vii) of the major scale and flattened it by a semitone/half step.

Here's how the backdoor bVII would slot into the major chord scale in five common keys...

I ii iii IV V vi bVII vii
Cmaj Dm Em Fmaj Gmaj Am Bbmaj Bdim
Dmaj Em F#m Gmaj Amaj Bm Cmaj C#dim
Emaj F#m G#m Amaj Bmaj C#m Dmaj D#dim
Gmaj Am Bm Cmaj Dmaj Em Fmaj F#dim
Amaj Bm C#m Dmaj Emaj F#m Gmaj G#dim

So effectively we've added an extra degree, and therefore chord, to the major scale in the flat 7th position (hence the numeral bVII).

If we were to visualise these chord degrees (the chord root notes) on the low E and A bass strings of the guitar, here's how it would appear in the key of C major (so C is our tonic root)...

chord degrees on low E and A strings including bVII

Why just these two strings? Because we can use them as quick bass reference points for the most common chord shapes (e.g. E and A form barre chords).

Using bVII in a backdoor progression

The most common function of this bVII chord is as a substitute for the V chord, which is commonly used before resolving to the tonic I chord.

So instead of Dm / Gmaj / Cmaj (ii  V  I), we might use the backdoor approach of Dm / Bbmaj / Cmaj (ii  bVII  I)

Listen to the standard ii  V  I above followed by its backdoor equivalent - click to hear.

To enhance this backdoor cadence, musicians often play a minor iv  (instead of the major IV) chord before moving to the bVII chord and finally returning home to I. In C major, that would be...

Fm / Bbmaj / Cmaj - click to hear

The above example is where the nickname backdoor ii V comes from, because the movement from iv to bVII implies a ii V relationship.

What this means is we can also use the relative major of the minor iv chord to signpost us through the back door...

Abmaj / Bbmaj / Cmaj - click to hear

You don't always have to link to the backdoor chord from iv though. Try moving from different chords to the bVII. For example, we could move from the vi (6) chord as follows...

Cmaj / Am / Bbmaj / Cmaj - click to hear

There are, of course, also instances where the "backdoor chord" is not used as the pre-tonic chord (the chord before resolving to the tonic). As we're just focusing on the backdoor cadence in this lesson, we'll cover different uses of bVII another time.

Chord types used in back door progressions

Now we know the cadencial function of the bVII chord, we can now look at some of the different chord types that work well in this position.

Tip: If you're already familiar with the V chord, any of its enhancements will also work well in the bVII position.

Dominant 7th, 9th and 13th chord

The most common extension of the bVII triad is a dominant 7th chord, giving us bVII7.

Again, in C major, that would be...

Bb7 / Cmaj - click to hear

Naturally, then, we can extend this to a dominant 9th and 13.

Bb9 or Bb13 / Cmaj - click to hear

A nice alteration of the dominant 7th is to add a #11 (this is the same as a #4 in relation to the natural 4th in the major scale), giving us a Bb7#11 backdoor in the key of Cmaj...

Bb7#11 / Cmaj - click to hear

Major 7th, 9th and 13th chord

A lot of soul and modern R&B uses the major 7th in the bVII backdoor position. It carries a lot less tension than the dominant 7th variation.

Note that major 7th chords won't work so well if you're using the iv  bVII  I  (backdoor ii V) cadence we looked at earlier.

But it would work nicely for a  IV - bVII movement...

Cmaj7 / Fmaj7 / Bbmaj7 / Cmaj7 - click to hear

Or  ii - bVII...

Cmaj7 / Dm7 / Bbmaj7 / Cmaj7 - click to hear

And just like with the dominant 7th bVII, we can add the #11 to give the bVIImaj7 a little extra spice.

Added 9th chord

Another soulful and relaxed use of the backdoor position is to use an "add9" chord.

Cmaj / Fmaj / Bbadd9 / Cmaj - click to hear

Suspended chord

Just like in the V position, you can use a suspended or "sus" chord in the backdoor bVII position.

It's most effective when extended. For example, here are some typical extended suspended 4th shapes we can use...

Fm7 / Bb9sus4 / Cmaj7 - click to hear

Fmaj7 / Bb9sus4 / Cmaj7 - click to hear

Tip: in that second example, I resolved the suspended backdoor chord to a dominant 9th. This adds some nice voice leading to the progression.

Obviously I can't cover every possible chord that can be used in this position, but experiment and let your ear be the judge of what sounds good.

I hope this lesson has opened your eyes (and ears) to a "new way home" your progressions can take... through the back door!

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