Guitar Chord Progressions – The Building Blocks of Melody
This lesson designed to help you create and write guitar chord progressions and, essentially, songs!
As a rhythm guitarist, it’s not only your job to support the percussion and bass, but also to provide a solid melodic base for the lead guitar and vocals to harmonies with.
Now, I’m one of these people who cringe at the thought of hardcore music theory, so to keep you wide awake through this lesson I’ve tried to rationalize and practical. The theory you will benefit from learning here.
The best way to learn is by ear (and brain), because once your ears and brain become connected with the music, all that jargon and terminology dissolves away.
Guitar Chord Progressions – Which Key?
You will have probably noticed the titles of many classical music pieces are tagged with “…in B Major” or something similar – all songs have a key, major or minor.
A key based around the scale in which the chords and notes played “fit”.
Now, these are just notes. For the E Major chord, scale there is also a set pattern (set by the universe/God/existence – music just works this way).
The pattern for all major chord scales, no matter which major chord you start on with your guitar, is as follows…
Major Guitar Chord Progressions
(Start/root) Major – move up 2 frets – minor – move up 2 frets – minor – move up 1 fret – Major – move up 2 frets – Major – move up 2 frets – minor – move up 2 frets – diminished – move up 1 fret – (back to the root or “tonic”) Major
That diminished chord used mostly in Jazz.
Below is the E Major chord scale. Follow the pattern above while you listen and play along yourself when you are ready!
Hear how that last diminished chord creates the tension needed to “return to the tonic” which is referred to some as “returning home” because that’s the feeling we get – we started on E major and we return to E major after a musical journey.
The way scales work in music is so amazingly formulaic that, we can repeatedly play the root; fifth and 3rd notes of any of those chords within the scale’s progression and it’ll sound pretty nice.
So all I’m doing there is picking the E Major chord while the scale progresses – it fits because it’s in-key and in-scale.
That’s the scale, and that’s our base to build any guitar chord progressions in the key of E Major!
Guitar Chord Progressions – Writing a Progression
So using that E Major scale above, we can take any of those chords and create a simple chord progression with the tonic being the E Major chord.
Note, that this alone is a method used by pop and rock artists and in pop music in general – pick ‘n’ mix some chords from a major scale, it’s almost too easy.
To make this progression sound a little more interesting and flow, I’m going to “float” the progression over the top two open strings of the guitar, which incidentally are part of the E Major chord, so it’ll work!
I also added that B7 instead of just a regular B major because the dominant 7th of the B chord creates some fitting tension to return back home to E major. 7th chords are used a lot in this way.
Guitar Chord Progressions – Minor Scales
Minor scales, like Major scales, have a fixed pattern and formula.
Let’s take a listen, similar to before at the D minor note scale first…
Like the Major scale before, minor scale guitar chord progressions all stem from a basic key pattern…
Minor Guitar Chord Progressions
(start/root) minor – move up 2 frets – diminished – move up 1 fret – Major – move up 2 frets – minor – move up 2 frets – minor – move up 1 fret – Major – move up 2 frets – Major – move up 2 frets – (back to the root or “tonic”) minor
So it’s simply just the major scale pattern shifted down 3 steps/frets!
Here’s the D minor chord scale, like the pattern above.
Guitar Chord Progressions – Minor Chord Progression
Using that D minor scale, let’s tab out a simple chord progression. Remember, all I am doing at this stage is picking out some chords from that minor scale.
I should point out that a song in the key of Dm or whatever, doesn’t have to start with that chord.
Always a dominant chord becomes the tonic, the return home and the feeling of a resolution…
With the progression above, until D minor is struck, you don’t quite feel like you’ve “returned home” – think of D minor, in this example, as home, and the key of the song/progression.
Again, let’s make this progression more interesting by modifying the chords (adding 7ths, etc.)
Has much more depth doesn’t it? It’s good to work your progressions like this – modify the chords, add 6ths, 7ths, 9ths, etc.
Guitar Chord Progressions – Changing Key!
Therefore, this is all very well, but what if you, heaven forbid, want to change key during a song? Changing key can add a new angle to the progression you have written and caught the listener off-guard (which is always good).
It’s important, though, that you understand how to make key changes compatible with the scale you’re in… if that makes sense.
Take a listen to the clip below. What I’ve done here is start off in the D minor scale like before, but in the tab, I’ve highlighted, in red, the chords that are out-of-key. However, I’ve also highlighted the individual notes that make sure the key changes stay tonal and logical.
That change from Dm to Ab7add6 is a weird one, but it fits because it includes two notes from the D minor scale (highlighted in red)!
That’s the secret to logical key changes that don’t sound too out of place – make sure there are 1 or more notes included in the chord that is within the tonic scale – the tonic scale, in this case, is D minor.
This is hard to grasp at first, but if you keep experimenting with different chord alterations, you’ll soon get an ear for what sounds right.
I’ve missed the point here anyway – what sounds right to you? Write a chord progression, does it feel right? Does it get the emotion you want across? That’s the main thing, and that’s what music’s about.
I hope that though, I’ve given you some sort of base to build upon with your own guitar chord progressions and that base important because music has its own natural rules that fall into the dreaded theory side of it all. If what you have learned here has sunk in, you understand music pretty well.