As a guitarist, there’s pressure to be unique; to be clearly different and distinguishable from those around us.
Even aside from just being able to play, there’s an expectation of uniqueness and creativity that drives guitar players to try to come up with different and interesting ways to present their music.
That drive can often result in an overreaching of sorts, where we come up with bizarre sounding chord progressions that give more of the impression that we’ve spent our time just trying to come up with something new, while forsaking the responsibility to create something musical and emotionally appealing.
It’s Easier Than That
When this happens, we become extremely inefficient in our songwriting, putting effort into what we think is making our music more acceptable while we’re really just making it harder to listen to.
Responsibilities of a Chord Progression
The fact is it’s not nearly that difficult or complicated. Our chord progressions in particular, have a short, simple list of responsibilities:
- A chord progression should provide a framework for the more decorative segments of the song: A good chord progression will take a back seat, and provide a foundation on which to build the “bells and whistles” of the rest of the song, which is usually lead guitar, a keyboard or synthesizer.
- A chord progression should drive a song forward rhythmically: The drive of the song is set by percussion, but a chord progression and strumming pattern should follow suit, and compliment that drive.
- A chord progression should invoke an emotional movement and response: The changing of one chord to another should have an emotional purpose and should create a sound environment that invokes a thoughtful response from the listener.
A chord progression doesn’t have to be complex to accomplish these three tasks, in fact, a simpler progression is probably better equipped for the job.
Chord Progressions are Constantly Reused
Example from A Perfect Circle
The first half of the song breaks down like this (guitar is tuned down 1/2 step):
For the first 1:07 -- Chord Progression: D
After 1:07 -- Chord Progression: D - C - Bb
If you’re interested, here’s my rendition of the guitar track.
The progression here is extremely simple, as you’re only dealing with three different chords. Those three chords create the platform for a heavy, driving song that definitely invokes emotion, without leaving us wanting or needing anything greater in complexity.
Consider that the higher-pitched lead part would not have the same kind of effectiveness, were it not for the simplicity of the chord progression.
Look up the chords for some of the more successful guitar driven songs and you’ll almost always find a simple and straightforward chord progression.
Here are a few others:
- Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash: E-A-B
- Voodoo Child by Jimi Hendrix: E7-B7-A7-C
- Faith by George Micheal: B-E
Sometimes the 7th chords can be a little tricky, so check out this 7th chord lesson if you need some help with them.
Keep It Simple
As you write your own music and develop as a guitar player, keep your chord progressions simple yet effective.
While there’s certainly a time and place for complex chord movement, don’t get caught up in creating that movement in order to come up with a great and unique song.
It’s not at all necessary.
Save the variety and complexity for lead play and sound effects that are added in later. The bones of the song don’t have to be nearly as dynamic.
Thanks for reading!
- Amp Settings for Kurt Cobain
- Getting Mileage Out of the Cherub Rock Riff
- Value 7-String Guitar Roundup: 2014 Edition
- Crafting an Ethereal Guitar Tone
- 5 Reasons You Should be a Fan of Stu Hamm