A big part of songwriting is creating interesting guitar chord progressions. Guitar teacher Heather L. shares her secrets to finding chords that sound good together…
Writing unique and catchy guitar chord progressions is one of the keys to creating unique and catchy songs. But so often, it seems like such a mystery, especially when you consider the fact that there are only so many possible combinations. In fact, thousands of doo wop tunes of the 1950’s and 1960’s were driven by a single progression, notated like this:
I, vi, IV, V, I (one, six, four, five, and one)
See, every chord of a chord progression is named after the number that its root corresponds to in the key you’re playing in. The root of a chord is kind of like its home base. In other words, a “one” chord, traditionally notated with a Roman numeral I, is made up of the very first note of the key that you’re using, or the first pitch of the scale. If you’re in the key of C, then the I chord is C. Moving up four steps on the scale, the IV (“four”) chord is F, and the V (“five”) chord is G. There are chords that are based on every note of every scale. The key here is finding the guitar chords that sound good together.
The blues progression is typically I, IV and V (“one”, “four” and “five”). Almost all of the blues songs that you’ve ever heard consist of those chords, and many pop and rock songs too. So how do you create a progression that’s exciting and fresh? One answer is something called chord leading.
Certain chords sound best when they’re followed by certain other chords. Here are some examples of chords that go well together:
I – Any chord
ii, IV, V, vii0
iii, ii, vi
IV, I, V, vii0
vii0, I, iii
Mix and Match
Now, having shown you a list that seems pretty restrictive, let me balance that by telling you that terrific chord progressions have been easily written without the used of this chart and without the use of chord leading at all. I have a much more informal way of create unique and catchy guitar chord progressions.
Take the chords I, IV, V and vi. This is sometimes called the “Nashville chord progression”, while I’ve also heard it called the “pop chord progression”, but it’s not a progression, it’s just a set of four chords that are often used to create appealing progressions. Play each one four times; let’s say, for right now, that that’s four beats in each of our future measures. Go from one chord to another, in no particular order at all. If you’re inclined to sing or hum a random melody, even if you wouldn’t consider yourself a singer, then I would highly recommend it. It helps the creative process in that it keeps your imagination running. This can help to prevent writer’s block. Plus, the nature of how the human voice phrases music on its own can help to facilitate the motion or fluidity of this new song.
Keep everything that you write. One of my college songwriting professors told me that writing about what you write, not about what you think, sounds best. What you think sounds best may change from day to day. Moreover, sometimes we write bits and pieces of songs and progressions on different days that may only come together on some future day.
Unique and catchy guitar chords don’t always, or most often, come overnight. They are built like little houses. Just as in building houses, once you start over-analyzing and rearranging too much, the whole thing could start to crumble. A big part of songwriting is being happy about what’s been written today and leaving it alone.
There’s so much technology out there to record your musical ideas. But for practical purposes, all that you really need is a simple sound recorder on your laptop or tablet. Remember, this is only in order to remember what you’ve come up with.
To quote the film Napoleon Dynamite, “Listen to your heart. That’s what I do.” Creating anything unique and catchy means looking at what you could contribute artistically and being open and willing to sharing that with the world.
Learn more about playing the guitar and making music by taking private lessons with a guitar instructor. Search for a guitar teacher today!
Heather L. teaches singing, piano, acting, and more in St. Augustine, FL, as well as through online lessons. She is a graduate of the prestigious Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, and has performed with the New York and Royal Philharmonics, the New Jersey and Virginia Symphonies, the American Boy Choir, and the internationally renowned opera star Andrea Bocelli. Learn more about Heather here!
Photo by Janne Poikolainen