How to Write Strong Chord Progressions for Your Guitar Songs

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Cross, Dan. "How to Write Strong Chord Progressions for Your Guitar Songs." ThoughtCo, Jul. 15, 2017, thoughtco.com/how-to-write-songs-on-guitar-1712924. Cross, Dan. (2017, July 15). How to Write Strong Chord Progressions for Your Guitar Songs. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/how-to-write-songs-on-guitar-1712924 Cross, Dan. "How to Write Strong Chord Progressions for Your Guitar Songs." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/how-to-write-songs-on-guitar-1712924 (accessed September 24, 2017).
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Making Your Songs Stand Out

Have you ever stopped for a moment to imagine just how many songs, in total, have been written? Consider... many thousands of years of songwriting, countless millions of songwriters during that period... there must literally have been billions of songs penned.

What aspiring songwriters need to do is stop and ask themselves this question: "What can I do to make my songs stand out from all the others?" In this multi-segment feature, we'll try to go about answering that question.

Types of Songs

Most songs written in the last one hundred years can be loosely grouped into one of several categories; songs written around a chord progression, songs written around a melody, or songs written around a riff.

Songs Written Around a Chord Progression - A favored method of songwriting by musicians like Stevie Wonder, the concept of writing around a chord progression involves initially creating an interesting series of chords, and then basing the vocal melody on that chord progression.

Songs Written Around a Melody - This is probably the most common method of songwriting for pop writers. The composer starts with a vocal melody, and around that melody creates a chord progression and song arrangement.

Songs Written Around a Riff - The emergence of the guitar as a "lead" instrument helped create this method of songwriting. These songs are born out of a guitar (or other type of instrumental) riff, after which a vocal melody (which often mimicks the guitar riff) and chord progression are added. "Sunshine of Your Love" is a perfect example of a riff-based song.

This week, in Part I of this feature, we'll examine songs written around a chord progression.

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Writing Songs Around a Chord Progression

To begin writing songs based on chord progressions, we first need to understand that each key has a series of chords that "belong" to it (referred to as a key's "diatonic chords"). What follows is an explanation of how to find out which chords belong to which key.

Diatonic Chords in a Major Key

(Don't know how to play diminished chords? Here are some common diminished chord shapes.)

The above is an example of the chords in the key of C major. We arrived at these chords by beginning with a C major scale, and using the notes from that scale to create a series of chords that belong in the key of C major. If this flies way over your head, don't get stressed. It is NOT neccessary to fully understand the above in order to write a great song.

Here is what you should try to bring away from the above:

  • in every major key, there are seven different chords. The order of these chords are: major, minor, minor, major, major, minor, and diminished. The order is the same for whichever major key you are in.
  • the space between each of these chords is as follows: between chords 1&2: tone, 2&3: tone, 3&4: semitone, 4&5: tone, 5&6: tone, 6&7: tone, 7&1: semitone (now we're back to where we started).
  • So, you'll need to memorize this: tone tone semitone tone tone tone semitone, and major minor minor major major minor diminished.

Now you know the order of chords in a major key, let's figure out the diatonic chords in the key of G major. To get the notes, start with the note G, then follow the tone tone semitone tone tone tone semitone rule.

If this is tricky for you, start by finding the note G on your sixth string. Count up two frets for a tone, and one fret for a semitone. Hopefully, you come up with the notes G A B C D E F# G.

Now, just tack the chord types from our other memorized list above (major minor minor major major minor diminished) onto these note names, in order, and we come up with the chords in the key of G major. They are: Gmajor, Aminor, Bminor, Cmajor, Dmajor, Eminor and F#diminished. Try using these rules to figure out the diatonic chords in a bunch of different keys.

With this knowledge, you as a songwriter now have armed yourself with a powerful tool; a means of analyzing other people's songs, in order to dissect them, and use some of their techniques in your own songwriting.

Next, we'll analyze some great songs to find out what makes them tick.

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What's So Great About "Brown Eyed Girl"?

Now that we've learned what the diatonic chords in a major key are, we can use this information to analyze some popular songs, and try to figure out why they're so successful.

We'll begin with an easy and very popular tune, Van Morrision's "Brown Eyed Girl" (get tab from Musicnotes.com). Here are the chords for the intro and first part of the verse, which comprises a large part of the song:

Gmaj - Cmaj - Gmaj - Dmaj

By studying the above progression, we'll can surmise that the song is in the key of G major, and that the progression is I - IV - I - V in that key. These three chords, the I, IV, and V chords (all of which are major), are by far the most widely used of all chords in pop, blues, rock, and country music. Songs like "Twist and Shout", "La Bamba", "Wild Thing", and many others use these three chords almost exclusively. With this in mind, we can conclude that it is not the chord progression that makes "Brown Eyed Girl" so special, as these chords are used constantly in pop music. Rather, it is the melody, the lyrics, and the arrangement (which includes the song's very famous guitar riff) which make the tune so distinct.

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Analyzing "Here, There, and Everywhere"

Now, let's look at a slightly more involved chord progression; the first part of the verse to Paul McCartney's "Here, There, and Everywhere" (get tab from Musicnotes.com) from the classic Beatles' album Revolver:

Gmaj - Amin - Bmin - Cmaj

This song also happens to be in the key of G major, which we can establish by analyzing the chords. The above progression, when analyzed numerically, is: I - ii - iii - IV (which then repeats). After this part is repeated, the song continues:

F#dim - Bmaj - F#dim - Bmaj - Emin - Amin - Amin - Dmaj

(Don't know how to play diminished chords? Here are some common diminished chord shapes.)

Continuing to analzye in the key of G major, the above progression is vii - III - vii - III - vi - ii - ii - V. There is one pesky detail about this progression, though; in the key of G major, the third (iii) chord should be Bminor, when, in this case, it's Bmajor. This is our first example of a songwriter's use of chords that fall outside of the major key that he/she started in. Exactly why the above progression works, and sounds good, is beyond the scope of this article, but it is important to note that many songs use chords other than just the seven chords in it's key. In fact, one of the factors that makes a chord progression sound interesting is it's use of chords that don't directly belong to it's key.

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Analyzing Pachelbell's Canon in D / Basketcase

Lastly, let's have a look at two songs that have much more in common than you might at first think:

Pachelbell's Canon in D Major

Dmaj - Amaj - Bmin - F#min - Gmaj - Dmaj - Gmaj - Amaj

Green Day's Basketcase

Emaj - Bmaj - C#min - G#min - Amaj - Emaj - Bmaj - Bmaj

At first, you might think these two tunes couldn't be more different, right? The chords looks totally different. If you analyze each tune numerically, though, it paints a different picture. Here are the numerical progressions for each, Canon in D major being in the key of D major, and Basketcase being in the key of E major:

Canon in D Major

I - V - vi - iii - IV - I - IV - V

Basketcase

I - V - vi - iii - IV - I - V - V

The two songs are almost identical. Yet, they obviously don't sound anything alike. This is a great example of how different a chord progression can sound, when you alter the way in which it is played. I suggest doing what Green Day may, or may not have done here; try taking the chord progresssion to the verse, or the chorus of a song you like, fiddle with a couple of the chords, change the key, change the "feel" of the tune, and write a new melody with different lyrics, and see if you can't come up with a completely new song.