The Ultimate Guide To Guitar. Chapter II: 3 Chords - Basic Chord Progressions

author: ZeGuitarist date: 12/15/2008 category: the guide to
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Part II - Chapter 3

"Chords - Basic Chord Progressions"

Hi all! Welcome back to the last music theory chapter of Part II of this Guide! In the last 2 articles, you learned the all-important music theory of diatonic scales... This knowledge is going to be the basis of most of the theory you'll learn from now on, so make sure you got it covered! If you do, we can move on and apply this theory to chords... Like I said in Chapter II-1, chords theory is completely based on scales theory, so if you read and understood all the theory I taught you in the previous chapters, this one should be a piece of cake. Nonetheless, it's a very important piece of information that you are going to use very often, so pay attention! So, let's get started! Chord progressions form the basis of every song you can think of, like I said in the Beginner chapters. So, understanding chord progressions is a major step in understanding music theory. Knowing which chords fit together is essential knowledge if you're trying to write your own song, and knowing what key a song is in by just looking at the chords is very important if you want to improvise over a song! So what are we going to learn in this chapter? 01.Construction of Major and Minor chords: finally, the full definition of Major and Minor chords! 02.Harmonizing a scale: we construct a chord for every note in the Major scale! 03.Writing chord progressions: the knowledge of chord progressions applied to practice... 04.Soloing over chord progressions: AKA "what key are we playing in?" Let's get going! It's not very difficult theory, but it's a lot...

Construction Of Major And Minor Chords

Before we can move on to the theory on how chords fit together, we must first know how chords are constructed. I am dedicating a full article on chord construction in the future, covering the most important types of chords (i.e. Major and Minor chords, 7th chords, 6th chords, added and suspended chords, etc.)... But in this article, we have to know how Major and Minor chords are constructed. So, we'll start off with this basic knowledge! If you understood how Major and Minor scales are constructed, you are not going to have trouble understanding this... Remember how we constructed scales? I gave you a definition of the Major and Minor scale, using the intervals out of which the scale is constructed. I'm going to do the same thing for Major and Minor chords now! So, grab the table of intervals (see Chapter II-1) so we can get started! Major and Minor chords are a lot easier to construct than Major and Minor scales... Why? Simply because the diatonic scales are constructed out of 7 notes, while Major and Minor chords are constructed of only 3 notes. Therefore, they are called "triads"... Major and Minor chords may also be called Major and Minor "triads" for that reason. A. Constructing Major chords OK! Like I said, a Major chord (or Major triad) is constructed out of 3 notes. Which 3 notes? Well, we're going to use the table of intervals I provided in Chapter II-1 again, to make a definition of a Major chord: "Major chords (or Major triads) are constructed of:
  • A root note
  • A major 3rd
  • A perfect 5th"
  • The table of intervals will show you how many semitones each note is up from the root note: 4 semitones (2 whole tones) between the 1st and 3rd note, and 7 semitones (3,5 whole tones) between the 1st and 5th note. Now, like we did for scales, we can also construct a scheme that indicates the distance between each adjacent note. For a Major chord, this is the scheme:
    1        3        5
    \Maj3rd/ \min3rd/
    As you can see, I denoted the distances between the adjacent notes with the interval names. In a Major chord, there is a major 3rd between the 1st and 3rd note, and a minor 3rd between the 3rd and 5th note. Remember that this sequence of intervals defines Major chords. I'll give you the easiest possible example: the C Major chord.
    C        E        G
    \Maj3rd/ \min3rd/
    The C Major chord is constructed of the notes C, E and G. Why? Do the math yourself: with C as a root, the next note in the chord has to be E, because E is a major 3rd up from C. In the same way, you go up a minor 3rd from E to find G as the next note in the chord... And there's your C Major chord! That was pretty easy wasn't it? B. Constructing Minor chords The construction of Minor chords is analogous to the construction of Major chords. Minor chords are simply defined by a scheme of intervals as well: "Minor chords (or Minor triads) are constructed of:
  • A root note
  • A minor 3rd
  • A perfect 5th"
  • Notice that there's only 1 difference between Major and Minor chords: Major chords have a major 3rd, and Minor chords have a minor 3rd (hence the name of the chords!). Based on the scheme above, that counts upwards from the root note, I'm going to give you another scheme counting up from the previous note again:
    1        b3        5
    \min3rd/ \Maj3rd/
    Note that compared to the Major chord, the interval distances between the notes in the Minor chord are reversed. So, between the 1st and 3rd note is a minor 3rd, and between the 3rd and 5th note is a major 3rd, instead of the other way around! Also note that for this reason, I have denoted the middle note of the triad as "b3" instead of just "3". You will find that often in music theory, the notation "1-3-5" stands for "root-major 3rd-perfect 5th" (i.e. a Major chord) and the notation "1-b3-5" stands for "root-minor 3rd-perfect 5th" (i.e. a Minor chord). That way, you can easily distinguish Major from Minor chords! An example of a Minor chord will clarify the intervals. The easiest example is of course the A Minor chord:
    A        C        E
    \min3rd/ \Maj3rd/
    There is a minor 3rd between A and C, and a major 3rd between C and E, which makes this a "legit" Minor chord... Ok, now that you know how Major and Minor chords are formed, I can start explaining to you why some chords go together and some don't! Note: you may have noticed that I called the 3 notes in the triad the "1st, 3rd and 5th" note rather than "1st, 2nd and 3rd". Why is that? Well, the said chord uses 3 of the 7 notes in the matching scale: the 1st note, 3rd note and 5th note, obviously! For example: the C Major chord uses the notes C-E-G, which are the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes in the scale of C Major (C-D-E-F-G-A-B). This will also become clear in the next paragraph.

    Harmonizing A Scale

    The next step in knowing how to construct a chord progression is knowing how to harmonize a scale. This may sound difficult, but in fact it really isn't. What we are going to do, in fact, is: 1. We take a scale (Major or Minor) 2. With every note in the scale, we construct triads using only the notes in that scale 3. We now have a "harmonized scale": a sequence of 7 chords (triads), rather than the "regular" scale which is a sequence of 7 notes... Following this procedure will give us a set of 7 chords, called the "harmonized scale" or "chord scale". The 7 chords found will be the 7 chords that can be used in that key to make chord progressions with! For example, if you take the scale of C Major and harmonize it, you will find 7 chords that fit in the key of C Major... They will "sound good" in the key of C Major, simply because they are all constructed out of notes from the C Major scale! So how do we "harmonize" a scale exactly? Well, step 2 in this procedure is the vital step. We are going to construct triads for every note in the scale, using only the notes available in the used scale!. The available notes will determine whether each triad is a Major triad or a Minor triad. To explain this properly, it will be easier to use an example. I'm now going to harmonize the C Major scale with you! After that, I'll give you the "general" rules for harmonizing scales. A. Harmonizing the C Major scale OK! We're going to try and find the chords that can be constructed using only the notes from the C Major scale! We do this by making triads out of every note in the scale... This goes in 2 steps:
  • First, we take a note from the Major scale and find the 2 other notes that go with that note, to form a triad. We do this by starting from the "root", skipping a note, taking the next note as the "3rd", then skipping another note and taking the next one as "5th".
  • Next, we analyse the intervals between the notes. Because we always skip a note in between, the distances will always be 3rds, either major or minor. The combination of major and minor 3rds will determine whether the triad you constructed is a Major or a Minor triad...
  • I'll demonstrate these 2 steps on the notes in the C Major scale. We start from the root, C, and then go up the scale, making triads for every note in the scale... The first chord: C The first note in the C Major scale is, obviously, the root note: C. We are now going to construct a triad with this note, using the 2 steps described above!
  • We need to find the 2 other notes that will form a triad with C first. To do this, we use the C Major scale:
    C     D     E     F     G     A     B
    We go up from C, we skip D, and take E as the "3rd" in the triad... Then we skip F, and take G as the "5th". We now have the 3 notes forming a triad in the key of C Major... But now we need to analyse this triad!
  • To determine whether this triad is a Major or a Minor triad, we analyse the intervals between the notes in the triad. If we do this, we will find this:
    C     D     E     F     G     A     B
    \Major 3rd/ \minor 3rd/
    There's a major 3rd between C and E, and a minor 3rd between E and G. This sequence of intervals defines a Major triad; therefore, the first chord in the harmonized scale of C will be the C Major chord!
  • The second chord: D OK, we found the first chord in the harmonized C Major scale... We move on to the next note in the C Major scale, which is D, and apply the same steps to find the second chord in the harmonized scale!
  • We use the same procedure as above to find the notes used to construct a triad, starting from D:
    C     D     E     F     G     A     B
    We go up from D, skip E, take F as the "3rd", skip G, and take A as the "5th", and we have our D triad! Now we only need to determine whether it's a Major or Minor triad...
  • To determine this, we analyse the intervals like we did with the C triad:
    C     D     E     F     G     A     B
    \minor 3rd/ \Major 3rd/
    The minor 3rd between D and F, followed by the major 3rd between F and A, makes this a Minor triad! So, the 2nd chord in the harmonized C Major scale is the D Minor chord!
  • The third chord: E Only one more example, so that you can figure the rest out by yourself. We are going to apply the same procedure to the 3rd note in the C Major scale: E!
  • We find the notes used to construct the triad first:
    C     D     E     F     G     A     B
    It should be clear by now, how I got these notes!
  • Now we analyse the intervals, to determine whether it's Major or Minor:
    C     D     E     F     G     A     B
    \minor 3rd/ \Major 3rd/
    Again, we find that this is a Minor triad: a minor 3rd between E and G, followed by a major 3rd between G and B. The 3rd chord in the harmonized C Major scale is, therefore, the E Minor chord!
  • The fourth chord: F I'm not going to elaborate any more on how to find the correct notes and how to analyze the intervals between them; you should be able to do that for yourself by now, and as an exercise I suggest you to do so! I will give you the "solutions", however:
  • The F triad is constructed of the notes F-A-C
  • The intervals are Major 3rd-minor 3rd, which makes the 4th chord in the harmonized C Major scale the F Major chord!
  • The fifth chord: G Using the same procedures again:
  • The G triad is constructed of the notes G-B-D
  • The intervals are Major 3rd-minor 3rd, which makes the 5th chord in the harmonized C Major scale the G Major chord!
  • The sixth chord: A We apply the same procedures AGAIN, to find:
  • The A triad is constructed of the notes A-C-E
  • The intervals are minor 3rd-Major 3rd, which makes the 6th chord in the harmonized C Major scale the A Minor chord! (Note: remember that the A Minor scale was the relative scale of the C Major scale? So, it's only logical that the A triad should be a Minor triad...)
  • The seventh chord: B This one is an exception. We are going to apply the same procedures, but the result is gonig to be something unusual!
  • The B triad is constructed of the notes B-D-F
  • The intervals are minor 3rd-minor 3rd... What? This sequence of intervals doesn't define a Major triad, nor a Minor... What kind of triad is it then? In fact, the triad constructed with the 7th note in the Major scale is neither a Major nor a Minor triad, but a "diminished" triad. It is constructed out of a minor 3rd and a diminished 5th from the root (hence the name), or a sequence of 2 minor 3rds. A diminished triad is a very weird, dark sounding chord.
  • And there you go! All the notes in the C Major scale are now converted to triads; we have a fully "harmonized" C Major scale, and it contains the following chords:
    C - Dm - Em - F - G - Am - Bdim
    When you want to write a chord progression in the key of C Major, these are the chords that you can use. Conversely, if a song uses a chord progression with chords coming from this set of 7 chords, you know that the song is in the key of C Major. B. Harmonizing scales: general rules From the example I just provided, we can derive the general rules used to harmonize any scale, Major or Minor. This will be a very helpful tool when writing chord progressions, or determining the key of a song! For harmonizing a Major scale, we can derive the rules pretty easily. From the above example, we can derive that the 1st chord in the harmonized scale is Major, the 2nd is Minor, the 3rd is Minor, and so on... Lucky for us, this goes for any Major scale! That's because every Major scale uses the same intervals, only different notes... So, in general, the triads in a harmonized Major scale will be:
    I - ii - iii - IV - V - vi - vii
    The Roman numerals denote the number of the chord in the scale. Uppercase letters indicate the chord is a Major chord, lowercase indicates a Minor chord. Note that the 7th chord is denoted "vii", with the standing for "diminished". So, to summarize quickly:
  • The chords I, IV and V of the harmonized Major scale are always Major chords.
  • The chords ii, iii and vi of the harmonized Major scale are always Minor chords.
  • The 7th chord, vii, of the harmonized Major scale is always a diminished chord.
  • Harmonizing a Minor scale is of course pretty easy, because every Minor scale is related to a Major scale! If you take the 6th note of the Major scale as a root, you have the relative Minor scale... Analogously, if you take the 6th chord of the harmonized Major scale as a root, you have the relative harmonized Minor scale! Easy, isn't it? So, the chords in the harmonized Minor scale are:
    i - ii - bIII - iv - v - bVI - bVII
    Notice that there's a "b" in front of some of the chords... This indicates that the interval between that note and the root note is a minor interval. If you compare the Major and Minor scales (see Chapter II-1), you will notice that the Major scale uses a major 3rd, major 6th and major 7th, whereas the Minor scale uses a minor 3rd, minor 6th and minor 7th. This has to be indicated in the harmonized scale, because otherwise you might confuse it with a harmonized Major scale! Other than the notation looking a bit weird because of this, there's nothing difficult about harmonizing a Minor scale, if you remember that it is related to a Major scale. So, summarized:
  • The chords bIII, bVI and bVII of the harmonized Minor scale are always Major chords. (They are equivalent to the Major chords I, IV and V of the relative Major scale.)
  • The chords i, iv and v of the harmonized Minor scale are always Minor chords. (They are equivalent to the Minor chords vi, ii and iii of the relative Major scale.)
  • The 2nd chord, ii, of the harmonized Minor scale is always a diminished chord. (It is equivalent to the diminished chord vii of the relative Major scale.)
  • Perfect! We can now harmonize Major and Minor scales... Now, I'm going to teach you the practical uses of harmonized scales! Like I mentioned a couple of times in this article, harmonized scales can be used for 2 things:
  • Firstly, the chords in a harmonized scale can be combined as you please, to form simple chord progressions... I will cover this in the next paragraph.
  • And secondly, by looking at a certain song, you can tell by the chords in the chord progression what key the song is in (and use that info to know which scale to use for soloing!). I'll explain this in the last paragraph...
  • So, the next 2 paragraphs will explain the 2 uses of harmonized scales! Let's get going...

    Writing Chord Progressions

    So, suppose you want to write your own song. Every song, as simple or as complex as it is, is based on a certain chord progression... So you're trying to write a chord progression, but you don't know what chords fit together! That's where harmonized scales come in: you have a key, and you can use it to find the chords used in that key. Example: suppose you want to write a song in the key of C Major, you will know what chords you can use by using the harmonized C Major scale. A couple of examples of simple chord progressions:
  • The Major progression I-IV-V is often used in 12-bar blues. Remember the backing track in Chapter I-3? That was a A-D-E progression, which is a I-IV-V progression in A Major.
  • Another well-known Major progression is I-V-VI... "Knocking on Heaven's Door" (GnR version) uses this progression in F# Major (F#-C#-B). Listen to the song here!
  • An example of a Minor progression is vi-IV-I-V (I used the notation from the harmonized Major scale, so in fact "vi" is now the root!). This progression is used in "Save Tonight" (Eagle Eye Cherry)... Listen here!
  • Notice that none of these progressions use all the chords in the harmonized scale. Of course, the harmonized scale is a set of chords that you pick some, but not all, chords from to make a progression! You can combine chords from a harmonized scale in whichever way you want, they all use notes coming from the same scale and will therefore all sound good together! Just experiment, and hear what you like best...

    Soloing Over Chord Progressions

    If you read the previous 2 articles, you already know how to solo over a song... That is, if you know which key the song is in, otherwise you won't know what scale to use! This is the second use for the harmonized scale. We are going to work the other way around this time: now, you don't know the key but you have the chords, and you can use them to find the key the song is in. I have to be honest, it takes some guesswork to do this. But when you become more experienced in this, you won't have any trouble anymore determining the key of a song! Here's some tips on how to determine the key using the chords:
  • Often, the "root" chord is either the first or last chord in a chord progression. For example, in the 12-bar I-IV-V progression (see Chapter I-3) I made for you, the first chord (A Major) is the root... In other progressions, the last chord in the progression is the root. A better general rule is: the chord that "resolves" the progression best is the root chord. For example, in the "Knocking on Heaven's Door" video, the last chord played is F# Major, and this chord "resolves" the progression...
  • A better way to determine the key of a song, however, is to look at ALL the chords in the progression, and trying to fit them in a certain harmonized scale. For example, "Knocking on Heaven's Door" has a B Major and a C# Major in it. These are 2 Major chords that are 2 semitones apart... That means, they HAVE to be chords IV and V of the harmonized scale, because that's the only place in the scale where 2 Major chords are adjacent! So, if B Major is IV, just count backwards (5 semitones) and you'll find that F# Major is the root note... You can use "orientation points" like this in other progressions as well to determine the key, it just takes a little puzzling! This is a better way of determining the key of a song, because it takes less "guesswork". However, it's not always possible to determine the key of a song with a 100% certainty using this method... For example, some songs use chord progressions with only 2 chords, without even using the root chord. This makes determining the key even harder!
  • Like I said, determining the key of a song takes some getting used to. In many cases, you're not able to say right away what key a song is in. This is made even more difficult by the fact that Major scales have their relative Minors! For example, Eric Clapton's "Layla" (unplugged version) uses a Dm-Bb-C progression in the chorus. Bb and C are, again, adjacent Major chords, which would lead you to the conclusion that the song is in F Major (Bb and C being chords IV and V in F Major harmonized!). However, in this case it's more logical that the key is D Minor, the relative Minor scale of F Major, simply because there's no F chord in the progression, but there is a Dm chord. Recognising these kinds of nuances takes time to master, but when you do, finding the key of a song will come natural to you so you can improvise your own solos over any song! Note: of course, a lot of songs have chord progressions based on more than one key. For example, "Layla" uses different keys in chorus and verse. For the time being, we will only discuss the basics of chord progressions, so we'll stick with songs in 1 key for now!

    Conclusion

    Great! You know how to harmonize scales, and its 2 uses: determining which chords fit in a given key, and determining which key fits with given chords. Combine this knowledge with the knowledge of scales and soloing you have already acquired, and the possibilities are endless... You can write your own progressions, and solo over them in the same key, to make your very own full-fledged songs! You're now almost ready for the Intermediate level articles... But first, there's some technique to work on! Stay tuned for the next Ultimate Guide to Guitar articles... Cheers! ZeG PS: Some things I need to tell you:
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