How do you go about, say changing one chord in a standard chord progression, or making up entirely new progressions that sound good. Examples I'm thinking of are John Frusciante playing the outro for Sir Psycho Sexy (Em Eb Bb D Ab Eb Cm Ab G) and many of Stevie Wonder's progressions. Is there a good method or just experimentation?

Great topic. i wish someone would discus some of Eddie Van Halen or Stevie Ray's work on this subject. And what really seemed to work & where..... To lead to new experimental jams!
Depends on what I'm listening to. Right now I really like Neil Young ala "Old Man" "Alabama" or "Cowgirl in the Sand". Some other great chord progressions for me would be Pink Floyd's "Shine on you Crazy Diamond" and Santana's "Black Magic Woman.".
If you are writing original chord progressions try and stay away from the norm; use sus chords, majors and minors, 7 chords, among others.
Also use chords with alternate fingerings and anything else to make it stand out.
If your interested in the style of John Frusciante, he uses a lot of minor 7 chords with accenting from other notes in the scale to get his unique sound.
Also a bit off topic but if anyone could check out this thread, I would appreciate it. Although the chord progression seems very simple, it's tonal center is very ambiguous and I was wondering if anybody knew if it is in a key at all.
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Last edited by ibanezrocker13 at Nov 3, 2015,
Just make it logical. Look for the logic in the progressions you like.

The Sir Psycho Sexy chord progression immediately leaves the parent scale. The first two chords set up an ambiguity that it exploits for the whole rest of the progression. And it's a very simple ambiguity.
Do you know about chord functions?

Just analyze your favorite chord progressions because my favorite progressions are not your favorite progressions. See what's happening in them.

The RHCP song uses modulations. The outro progression starts with Em. I would say it's its own key. Then comes Eb Bb D. I would say this is in Bb major. The D chord sounds like a secondary dominant for the relative minor but it doesn't resolve, because the next thing we have is a modulation. Ab Cm Ab G7. That's in Cm. So we are in three different keys: Em, Bb and Cm.
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There are a few ways to escape the diatonic major key set of chords (that happy prison!).

1. Mode mixture. Think about all the possible modes or scales with the same keynote.
E.g., if you're starting with A major, consider all the chords you could get from A minor (C major) scale as well. (This is standard procedure in rock music: "borrowing from the parallel minor".)
Adding chords from parallel minor modes has the effect of "darkening" the major key.
(Or conversely, you can brighten a minor key by borrowing from parallel major.)

2. Secondary dominants. Not a very rock'n'roll technique, but standard in classical and jazz.
The "primary dominant" in a key is the V chord (which is major in both major and minor keys), and its function is to move to I.
This principle states that all the other chords in the key can each have their own V chords.
Eg, in key of C, you can precede G with D(7), Am with E(7), Dm with an A(7), Em with B(7), or F with C7.
This is not changing key (see below), because the target chord goes right back to the home key. You just get a brief hint of modulation, which is not confirmed. The effect is to add forward momentum to a sequence, but it can sound cheesy, and is definitely an old-fashioned trick.

3. Modulation (key changes). Various ways of doing this, either by introducing the V of the new key, or by using a "pivot chord" (a chord that belongs to both keys).
Common-tone changes are perhaps the neatest - the most surprising, but retaining a sense of logic. I.e., you can go to any key which has just one note in common with the present key - by choosing chords from each key which share that note. (In fact most keys share more than one note, so this is not difficult).
E.g., C - G - C#7 - F#. You've gone from C major to the most remote key (F#), via the B shared tone between G and C#7. (And you get a neat little voice line C-B-A#.)

Those kind of half-step transitions are, in fact, the key (whoops) to all kinds of interesting chord changes. Forget key relationships and just look at how notes within chords move from one to the next... what happens if you take a chord and just alter one of its notes by half-step, up or down? and then another one? You can pass through a lot of interesting sounds this way, and it will all hang together because the chords share some notes, and have logical voice-leading between the others.

As for my favourites, the Beatles had a ton of fascinating chord sequences back in the 60s. (Lennon, McCartney and Harrison were all very inventive, and not bound by any sense of "rules".)
Stevie Wonder, David Bowie, Donald Fagen are three (off the top of my head) who took the baton and ran with it.
What always appeals to me are mysterious changes - the kind where you think "wtf was that?"
Take a listen to 1:00 here:
and then again at 1:40

Those are my kind of chord changes! (I could tell you what they are, but I'll let the mystery hang around for a while... although of course there are plenty here for whom such things are no mystery at all )
I love that outro to Sir Psycho Sexy.
Note: This post is my personal understanding of what is happening in the Sir Psycho Sexy outro chord progression. It does not really contain any methodology around creating interesting chord progressions. So, only read it if you are interested in an amateur analysis of that outro.)

Particularly I loved how it almost always feels like it is going down down down. When it does go up it only feels like a little tease before dropping down again. But it's almost like an illusion because it cycles through the same progression so we are actually going in a circle but yet it still sounds like it is always coming down. It kind of reminds me of the Shepard Risset audio illusions.

One thing I like to do to analyse a progression that interests me is to list out the notes for each chord and have each note moving by as little as possible to a chord tone in the next chord. (voice leading) I've done this below for the Sir Psycho Sexy outro progression (or regression as the case may be).

Chord progression:
Em - Eb - Bb - D - Ab - Eb - Cm - Ab - G

If each chord tone moved by as little as possible to a chord tone in the next chord...
E - Eb - D - D - C - Bb - C - C - B

G - G - F - F# - Eb - Eb - Eb - Eb - D

B - Bb - Bb - A - Ab - G - G - Ab - G
There are no big leaps here. Each voice moves by a full tone or a semitone. In any given line there is only one upward movement. Some lines contain more static changes where there is neutral movement neither up nor down - just staying on the same note while other lines move. But overall each line seems to be characterized by a sense of steady downward motion.

I could write a few hundred words analysing this downward movement but just try playing each line on it's own. You could even get a note pad and pencil and note down some interesting observations of your own about how often each line moves and by how much etc.

The cool thing I want to get to though are the start and end points of each line. What happens when we go from that G chord back to the Em and repeat the progression over and over?

If we follow the same principle of each chord tone moving by as small a distance as possible to become a chord tone in the next chord then things get interesting. One line ends pretty much where another one starts and so it just continues it's downward momentum.

If we repeat it over and over and over (as they do in the Sir Psycho Sexy outro) then we end up with three lines that seem to be forever descending.

I've written the progression out three times with each original line colour coded so you can see how they follow each other in a never ending circle.
Em - Eb - Bb - D - Ab - Eb - Cm - Ab - G - Em - Eb - Bb - D - Ab - Eb - Cm - Ab - G - Em - Eb - Bb - D - Ab - Eb - Cm - Ab - G...etc

E - Eb - D - D - C - Bb - C - C - B - B - Bb - Bb - A - Ab - G - G - Ab - G - G - G - F - F# - Eb - Eb - Eb - Eb - D...etc

G - G - F - F# - Eb - Eb - Eb - Eb - D - E - Eb - D - D - C - Bb - C - C - B - B - Bb - Bb - A - Ab - G - G - Ab - G...etc

B - Bb - Bb - A - Ab - G - G - Ab - G - G - G - F - F# - Eb - Eb - Eb - Eb - D - E - Eb - D - D - C - Bb - C - C - B...etc

So we see each line after three cycles seeming to meander consistently down only to end up where it started to repeat the same process again. Each line seems to become a never ending downward cycle.

I'm not saying that Frusciante has actually voiced the chords in this way, but the effect is there nevertheless.

What would be the method in creating something like this?? I think it would have been a bit of experimentation between Frusciante and Flea. I don't believe they would have worked out each voice movement mathematically beforehand but would have had an idea in their head about what they wanted to achieve and set about making it work through trying things out.

There are a lot of really nice chord progressions. Understanding voice leading, chord substitutions, root movement and function, tension and resolution and all those other good things will do a lot for understanding them once someone has already come up with them. That understanding may help you create your own interesting chord progressions. Ultimately though, it always comes down to following your ear and feeding your creative genius.
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lots of flirting with the other key without confirming. JUST LIKE THEIR LOVE IN THE MOVIE OH DAMN.
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you're acting like you have perfect pitch or something
I find chord progressions tend to get more credit than they deserve, and that they are not really what makes music interesting. It is easy to play a progression and make it great, and play the same one and it sounds bland.

What you want to do, is learn about the roman numerals, and chord function, and then explore how other people use them.

I think it is a mistake to try and build any music based on logic. But it is very useful to learn and name things, and see how they are used, so that you can write by knowing what you want from a sound point of view, and by knowing how to do it. If you just follow some sort of logic, it will be easy to make bland generic sounding music, even if your progression uses more advanced techniques, or is more sort of unique.

So, if you like some things some other guys did in some songs, learn the key, look at what they are doing, look at what chords they are, what roman numeral they are, and remember that, and use that if that's what you want.
more than just the chords..it is how they are voiced..a simple three chord progression voiced with inversions with close , wide and open voicing's can provide a melodic as well as a harmonic journey that keeps interest of both player and listener.. a study of moving voices is worth every second you invest in it
play well

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Last edited by jongtr at Nov 6, 2015,
I'm gonna put in some fabulous European dance-pop right here ;D


That chorus <3

Gm | | D/F# | | Dm/F | | C/E | | Cm7/Eb | | Gm/D | | A | | Gm/D Dsus4 | D |
i V6 v6 IV6 iv6 i6/4 V/V V6/4-5/4 - 5/3

A LOT of borrowed chords and suspensions (a D carries over into a 9-8 suspension in the C/E chord), and it's just not a very common thing in popular music.

Edit: ah, just listened to Jon's link. Unprepared modulation and common-tone modulation? ;D
Last edited by NeoMvsEu at Nov 7, 2015,
^ That's actually a relatively common chord progression. It's the logical thing you get when you do a bass that ascends by semitones in minor.

Btw, I think the 3rd chord is a Bb/F
Last edited by Elintasokas at Nov 12, 2015,
^ lament bass is not a popular music idiom at the moment. Within Temptation uses lament bass in the intro of "Angels", but uses Gm-D/F#-F-C/E-Cm/Eb-Gm/D-D-Gm... (ignoring all the suspension action again) Within lament there are some variations. Also, listen again.

(edit: although, to be fair, "people tell me they like me to smile" can definitely be interpreted as pure Eb instead of Cm7/Eb.)
Last edited by NeoMvsEu at Nov 12, 2015,
I find a great thing to do to mix things up is to :

1) slide a chord up 4 frets.
2) play minor instead of major or vice-versa for a given chord.
3) play the chord one fret up or one fret down from the one you would typically fall on.
4) move chromatically

These little tricks, irrespective of actually understanding why they can work sometimes, can help get you out the diatonic rut when writing - I use them all the time when I'm stuck. Also, learn some Jimi Hendrix progressions - he was great at throwing some curveballs in his progressions.