Unless you’re really into jazz, chord progressions are often simple and straightforward. You might even be able to make the case that, in western music especially, they’re downright boring.
Boiling a song down to just a bass line or the strum of an acoustic guitar can leave us with really basic derivatives of a major or minor scale. However, that’s not exactly a bad thing, assuming we’ve gotten good at dressing them up with distinct melodies and rhythmic variation.
Anyone who knows even a little guitar probably has some familiarity with the following chord progressions:
- G, C and D
- E, A and B
- E, F# and B
In most cases you’ll have some variation of the I, IV and V (the first, fourth and fifth) scale sequence.
Those progressions sound good and provide a solid foundation on which to build melody. This is true for common chord progressions derived from both major and minor scales, as you can see in the following scale sequence diagrams. The I, IV and V sequencing provides some of the most familiar and common progressions in existence.
What if we want to make those progressions a little more interesting?
The good news is we can have simple chord progressions and use intervals with small melodic adjustments to create more variety in our chord voicings. All of this can happen without having to change the actual bass line.
We’ll look at a few different ways to do it.
Integrate a Descending Melody with a Seventh Interval
Let’s start by taking the I, IV and V of the C major scale. This gives us the following chord progression:
C, F, and G
The tab we get for the traditional voicing of each chord gives us three very familiar shapes:
If we know the progression in this form, we can make it a little more interesting by adding a connected melody that descends through each chord shape. For these chords we can start on the third string at the fourth fret, as in the following tab sheet:
I’ve left out some of the higher intervals in each chord to highlight the descending melody, which is easily heard in the progression.
You’re basically interjecting a lead guitar lick into the existing progression, applying one note to each chord.
It’s a simple adjustment but, it helps your progression stand out a little more, particularly in the following ways:
- It creates a melody that harmonizes with the bass line.
- It creates a greater feeling of anticipation at the V chord.
- It creates a greater feeling of rest at the root chord.
- Can potentially serve as a compliment layer to the vocal or dominant melody line.
We can tie the melody line in with our root notes for a more clear and minimized picture of how each interval sounds within the progression.
Going from left to right each chord has been distilled into the following intervals, paired with their respective root notes:
- Major 7th
- Major 3rd
The descending melody sets us up with a C7, F and G progression that provides a slightly more dissonant and bluesy sound than the original pattern. We can draw up a similar voicing in the key of E major, starting with the ii, V and I of that scale. Again, the result is a descending melody with a bluesy seventh flavor.
That scale sequence gives us F♯, B and E. Here’s how it would look with default voicings.
We can use a stripped down seventh chord shape for the ii and I chord (the F♯ and the E) to create a bluesy ascending melody on the fourth string.
Here’s the pattern with those notes highlighted.
Major Seventh Interval Example
The major seventh interval makes it really easy for us to alter chord voicings pulled out of a major scale, especially if we reduce the size of the chord by omitting less consequential intervals like fifths and octaves.
But what if we don’t want a bluesy sound? What if we don’t want to use seventh chords at all?
We can mod our progressions by using one or two connecting open notes that share in the same parent scale from which we derived the original progression.
Giving Chord Progressions a More Open Feel
Another tactic you can use is to take familiar chord progressions and turn them into more open-sounding, continuous movements. We can do this with or without the connecting melodies we created in the previous progressions. The only catch is that you have to do it in a key where one or two open notes will fall within the same scale. In the most typical major and minor scales, that’s not going to be a problem.
For example, the key of D gives you the following open notes to work with:
The D, G and A Example
If you look under the “Common chord progressions” section, you’ll see that our I – IV – V scale sequence gives us the familiar progression of D – G – A. We can mod that slightly to give it a more open and natural sound. First, let’s take a look at what many would consider the formal voicings of those three chords.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with these voicings but, in this particular progression, they all feel a little bit forced and are harder to transition to and from. What I’d like to do is give them a more open feel and sound. But where can we interject open notes?
First, let’s look back at our original scale.
Remember that standard tuning runs E, A, D, G, B and E, bottom to top (thickest to thinnest string).
Now, consider that all six of the strings (assuming a standard tuning) have an open note that falls into this particular scale. If you want to “connect” the chords and make the changes between each one sound a little more natural, you could leave the high E as an open note and simplify our G major shape.
It would look something like this:
The difference is subtle, but it’s an improvement over the original, both in terms of mechanics (easier to play) and tone. Incorporating the high open E into each chord provides a more continuous and harmonious relationship between the three chords, all the while maintaining the distinctiveness of each root note and staying within the parent scale.
Adding Melodic Complexity with Shorter (half, quarter) Notes
Now that we’ve seen how to use open notes and intervals to mod chord shapes, we can create an even more intriguing progression by embellishing some of the melodies while maintaining open note continuity and the root chord changes.
To make this easier, we’ll use half and quarter notes.
Take the above D major progression that we just covered. You might notice that, up to now, all the chords have been listed as whole notes (that’s what the circle around each chord means). If we break each chord into half or quarter notes, we can use a shared root for two different voicings within the same measure.
For example, in the first measure of the above tab, we have an A major chord with the high open E. We can clone that chord and move the high interval (the one on the second string at the second fret) to create “movement” within the root A chord.
Here’s what the tab would look like:
Notice that I’ve omitted the high E on the second A chord in the first measure to better highlight the movement from the second to third fret on the second string. Leaving it in is fine if you want to maintain that ringing open E sound from the previous section.
We can do the same thing to the G chord in the second bar.
Again, the change is quite subtle but, it still goes a long way in flavoring the progression and giving it a more versatile tone than what it would have had with static chords made up of whole notes.
If the root doesn’t change and we keep the most important intervals of the chord (major third, minor, etc.) other more expendable intervals can be moved as long as each note stays within the bounds of the parent scale from which the chord progression was derived.
Let’s do one more mod, this time using quarter notes to add some movement to our A chord in the third bar.
Notice that the last measure now contains four chord voicings, all of which are A major, where the last interval resolves to our original A chord shape.
Keep in mind, there’s nothing that says you have to split up the timing any particular way. I’ve used the half and quarter note arrangements for the sake of simplicity, but if you hear something different, the order and contents of each bar can easily be changed.
Static chords are not a bad thing, nor is is always necessary to embellish some kind of a melody or bluesy chord voicing. However, it’s a valuable tool to have in your back pocket, especially if you’re working as the only guitarist, without a significant distinction between lead and rhythm. In that situation, your task is a little more complex and might require some more creativity when it comes to building chord progressions and melody lines.
If we can take simple guitar chords and flavor them with different voicings and some nuanced melody, they’ll be far more appealing to the listener and less cliche as they’re re-used throughout different pieces of our music.
How to Work Nuanced Chord Voicings into Familar Progressions
Source: Guitar World