An important, yet sometimes overlooked, part of music is chord progressions. Chord progressions move the music, and can smoothly add tension to a piece, but a lot of guitarists don’t know how to use this to make interesting progressions. Most guitarists I know don’t think they can use them because “The music doesn’t have chords”. In this article I’m going to explain three concepts about chord progressions that can help get the creative juices flowing, or simply give you a new way of thinking of riffs: Circle Progressions, Parallel Chords, and Major-Minor Progressions.
Defining a Chord:
First of all, let’s talk about what’s considered a chord. Most guitarists will know at least a few nut chord or bar chord shapes, but if the music you play doesn’t use these, it’s hard to see the point to chord progressions at all. However, you could be playing complex or simple chord progressions already, and not even know it.
With good knowledge of chords, we can think of any riff as though it were an arpeggio. For more complex riffs, we can use all of the notes in the riff to derive which scale were on, and the dominant notes to figure out which chord. Typically the more complex a riff, the more complex the chord will be. I’ve used plenty of riffs that can be considered 13th chords, suspended chords, and more complicated diminished chords, but all of them can have a place in a chord, and can be used in some sort of chord progression. Most chords can be narrowed down to a simple major, minor, or diminished counterpart, and serve the same function.
Circle Progressions: The Chord Flow
Most chord progressions have a flow, leading them in a circle outwards from, and back towards the tonic chord. The tonic chord is basically home base for a chord progression, and is the chord based on the key of the song (For example, the tonic chord of the key of C is a C major chord). The flow that dictates from a chord generally goes outward in fourths. This means a C major in the key of C, wants to move to an F major, which is the fourth letter name from C. This flow can continue until the progression goes through all seven chords and leads back to the tonic chord, and is called a circle progression (In the fashion I-IV-vii°-iii-vii-ii-V-I, or C-F-B°-Em-Am-Dm-G-C). This doesn’t mean all chord progressions must look like this, it’s simply a guide line for where to go next. A simple I-IV-V-I can be all you need.
A circle progression typically ends on a “cadence”. The cadence is the motion from the chord with the strongest pull towards the tonic (the V chord) to the tonic. This usually signifies the end of a phrase or section, and creates a sense of relief.
Using Parallel Chords
Now we could keep making circle progressions all day long. Lots of classical and blues pieces do this, and it works out fine for them. But what if that gets boring, and you want to try something new? Well we can start by using parallel chords. Parallel chords are basically replacement chords to a circle progression. These are the chords a third down from their predecessor and are derived from the relative minor scale of the key (The relative minor scale of C major is A minor). We can use them in a similar way to chord substitutions, by including them where a different chord was going to be (I-ii-V-I).
Taking Chords from Other Scales
Another way to spice up chord progressions is to simply take some chords out of the parallel major or minor key. Suppose you have a I-IV-ii-V-I progression in C major (C-F-Dm-G-C), but it just sounds to joyful and dull for the song you want to make. Well let’s change some of the chords to their counter parts in the parallel minor key, C minor. You could swap out the F chord for an Fm, or even the C at the end for a Cm. The same goes for a similar progression in C minor, where you can take chords out of C major. This is a good way to make more interesting chord progressions, but remember when you draw chords from a parallel minor or major, all of the other instrument parts must switch to the new key to avoid dissonance.
Remember, these aren’t specific rules that must be followed, they’re simply guide lines. Whether you want to end a piece on a cadence or not, or whether you want to follow circle progressions, or ignore them completely, it’s your song, so don’t feel obligated to do so because I told you to.