Writing Unusual and Original Chord Progressions

A basic guide on how to write chord progressions that go beyond standard major and minor keys.

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Before reading this article, I should say that some knowledge of music theory is needed. You should know how to construct chords, the major scale and its chords. It would also be beneficial to know the chords pertaining to the specific modes, but I will show some of these later in the article. I major, III minor, III minor, IV major, V Major, VI minor and VII diminished. As you know these as the basic chords contained in the major scale. Starting from the VI chord we have the chords for a minor key song. The majority of music is written using these sets of chords, or extended (sevenths, ninths add2's), suspended, or powerchord versions of them. Understandably, as more and more music is made, writing a chord progression using these that sounds original and dynamic, while still sounding good, becomes a more and more difficult task. Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood once said "There are only 12 power chords, and I think we've had about 20 years of them, so maybe it's time to move on." He even went as far as to issue a message (half-jokingly) to the bands fans to send him in any unusual chord progressions they could write. In this article, I will demonstrate techniques for writing interesting chord progressions, using examples from Radiohead, Weezer, The Beatles, The White Stripes, Jimi Hendrix and others. First, I will show one of the simplest (and most common) way that a songs chord vocabulary is extended, is simply by adding the major chords from the keys parallel minor scale (adding the minor chords from minor key can also be, used, but the result is often pretty weak sounding, but we'll go into some instances of this later). This is called modal interchange. These chords are the IIIbmaj, VIIbmaj and IVbmaj. For example, if we are in the key of A, we would add C major, G major, and F major. This gives songs a hard edge. Examples can be heard in many hard rock songs, below are some examples. The White Stripes - Dead leaves and the Dirty Ground: Amaj - Gmaj - Cmaj - Dmaj - Amaj Amaj - Gmaj - Cmaj - Dmaj - Amaj Fmaj - Gmaj - Amaj Imaj - VIIbmaj - IIIbmaj - IVmaj - Imaj Imaj - VIIbmaj - IIIbmaj - IVmaj - Imaj VIbmaj - VIIbmaj - Imaj This is a good example, using all the major chords from the parallel minor key. The Rolling Stones - Gimme Shelter: Intro C#maj - Bmaj - A Maj Imaj Chorus C#maj - Bmaj - Amaj - Emaj - Amaj - Emaj - Amaj - Emaj - Bmaj - Emaj -Bmaj Imaj - VIIbmaj - Vibmaj - IIIbmaj - VIbmaj - IIIbmaj - VIbmaj - IIIbmaj - VIIbmaj - IIIbmaj - VIIbmaj Another good example. Another way to borrow from minor keys is the use of a minor fourth chord, which is simple using the minor version of the IV chord in a major key. It can be done on its own in a chord progression, or preceded by the major IV chord. The romantic feeling from this chord comes from the fact that it has a VIb tone in relation to the key. Other chords that can be used in major keys that have this tone are the ii diminished chord and the VIbmaj (akin to the method above). Here are some examples. The Beatles - She Loves You: Chorus (Key of G) Emin - Cmin - Dmaj- Gmaj VImin - IVmin - Vmaj - Imaj Radiohead - Creep: Gmaj - Bmaj - Cmaj - Cmin Imaj - IIImaj - IVmaj - IVmin This example shows the use of the minor IV chord, and also the IIImaj chord, which I will explain in the next section. The IIImaj is also a popular chord. Since it is not included in any of the diatonic modes, we must look elsewhere for where it comes from. Its chord tones ( in respect to its parent key), are the major third, the minor sixth and the major seventh. This leaves the harmonic major scale (a major scale with a flat sixth), or some kind of augmented scale (most likely a Lydian mode with a raised fifth, the Lydian augmented mode, a mode of the melodic minor scale). This is a beautiful, but quite odd sounding chord. Here is an example. Weezer - Say It Ain't So: Intro and Verse C#min - G#maj - Amaj - Emaj VIm - IIImaj - VImaj - Imaj So far we've only used three modes. There are many other ways to make an unusual chord progression by modal interchange. Try using all the modes from the major scale. Then find the chords corresponding to the modes of the melodic minor (a major scale with a minor third) and harmonic minor scale(a natural minor scale with a major seventh) . Beyond that, there are still many places to go, try using the whole tone scale (a scale consisting of 6 tones each a half step apart), the diminished half step whole step scale (made of alternating half and whole steps), or the whole step half step scale (the same as the scale before, but starting on the whole step). And all this is before we start changing the chords, extending and suspending them. And we haven't even got into changing keys. There seems like an infinite number of new, provoking and interesting chord progressions just waiting for us to go out and find them. If want some more songs for examples of modal interchange, check out Pyramid Song, by Radiohead, (which starts out with a major chords, before going into the Phrygian mode, then replaces the I chord with a minor, and moving into a more natural minor chords), try Jimi Hendrix's version of Hey Joe, or God Put A Smile On Your Face by Coldplay (which moves from major to minor to Lydian to Phrygian) to see some more examples.

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    frigginjerk
    cool stuff. but how about an article on cool and original chord GRIPS? you could posts tabs in your article of cool voicings, and link to tabs on UG for your examples.
    chupacabra
    thank god.....something that isnt completely power cords.....i swear if some of these tabbers didnt have power cords they'd curl up into the fetal position and hide inside the crawl spaces of their houses crying....."the lazy mans bar cords indeed"
    G-Rock
    Good stuff on the theory man...But what in the world is Demented Leprec doing puting a top 10 guitarist list in the middle of a discussion about theory???
    xenolith42
    No, not really 'college level' theory. Great stuff though!! That's really given me some ideas, and I think you should keep writing dude. Great article!
    Iwantaguitar
    can u mix between all these alterations?? for example use the IIImajor and also use the fourth minor version of the major key??
    Angry youth
    U have to remember as well the weird chords and the weird sounds need to be resolved by the end of the song.
    RainDog
    ^Well, from the replies I've recieved, some people obviously did appreciate this theory. And its not 'college level' stuff, I'm 16 and learned all my theory by myself.
    alaskanbassist
    No one came here to learn college level music theory. I like theory, but only the basics. I will go to a college for this level stuff. I can't even understand this.
    Daveo
    I don't normally read the articles, but I saw this in your sig, so... It was a good lesson, although I think the theory was left to chance(probably for the best, since you'd be there all night). Beginners might be a little knocked off their feet by the numerals etc.. It helped me though, so thanks! Oh, and your reply helped me too, Bubonic. Good man.
    RainDog
    Well, Backup guitar, I expected people to know about scales and degrees, and that chords are based from these. And theres nothing about melodic intervals becuase.....the article is not ABOUT melodic intervals, its about writing non diatonic chord progressions.
    ~Rock~Guitarist
    GREAT article!! I found a typo though - on the second paragraph it says I major, III minor, III minor. Its supposed to be I major, II minor, III minor but im pretty sure everybody knows that. Anyways, very very good article, I will definetely put it to good use!
    pidevice
    I think I need to go to a teacher for some lessons to be able to get my head around all that. I have tried to teach myself from books, but have no disipline. For instance I have looked at this article several times but end up scrolling down and playing Dead Leaves and the dirty Ground.
    Backup Guitar
    What you did not mention is this: That, working in the key of A major, that A, G, C, whatever, are the varying degrees of that scale. That's where the article really gets lost. Btw, there's absolutely NOTHING about melodic intervals! Geezzz....
    elcapitanloco
    Very good, but there was something that really got on my nerves: Major chords should be written with just roman numerals or the note name, the "maj" is unnecessary (e.g. IV instead of IVmaj. C instead of Cmaj) Minor chords should be written with lowercase roman numerals(e.g. vi instead of VImin) Besides being the formal "correct" way to write chords, it would make the article easier to read.
    by will alone
    umm ya in the third paragraph it should say IIIbmaj, VIIbmaj, and VIbmaj(instead of IVbmaj), im pretty sure. im surprised no ones pointed that out over all these years
    dddeckard
    I think that someone who is 16 doesn't need to hear so much criticism. He was sharing some information that he finds interesting.
    biriba
    Taking major chords from the parallel minor key is a cool trick. Another cool trick is to use secondary dominants, like the major II or VI chords (which would ordinarily be minor). Typically you'd go II -> V or VI -> ii, but other transitions like II -> IV can sound good also.
    mrjonnyh
    wish i understood this. Think I need to spend time with a circle of 5ths and some charts. I have known I ii iii IV V vi vii for a while, but REALLY struggle to remember even what the 4th and 5th notes are,trying to impregnate what'7th and 9th frets all strings' are in note meaning. Have got the intervals of the major scale memorised, the Ionian? And then just yesterday I discovered, through the aid of musical notation, that each mood is 'basically' just... a tonic shift. Which is pretty wow, but translating that to the fretboad, even developing riffs that aren't too dull or boring, and EVERYTHING else... wish I could get it. Keep studying
    trazerhazen
    Ahahahahahah you guys are all just trying to sound really smart but if you actually were a good musical artist you would all be off playing guitar not arguing about stupid chord progressions that everybody knows already. All the songs that were used up there did not have unique feels at all!! If you want unique look up jazz guys. Ever heard of that before?
    mrjonnyh
    having re-rea the comments and the article, I think I get it - I got lost when trying to find the relevance of F in the key of A before realising it's the VIb major, not the IVb maj. Not bad. Pretty good! I've got the major scale shapes, starting from 6th, 5th and 4th string, still a way to go before I can put my fingers on the fretboard and see the notes I'm playing, and from that identify the chord I'm playing... or even identifying the key I'm in is still beyond me. Onto minors and natural minors! Thanks. Back to the books
    Cheesepuff
    mbartgen wrote: okay so I think I figured out my own question and I am pretty sure I was wrong. You weren't talking baout the relative minor, but you were talking about the parrell minor. So the key of A major's parrell minor would just be A Natural Minor. Then you borrow the major chords from A Natural Minor which are C, F, and G. Can you let me know if I am understanding this correctly.
    yes. This is the most useful article ive seen on ultimate guitar. seriously.
    elcapitanloco
    Also, you listed the A chord in "Say it Ain't So" as VI instead of IV. Sorry if I'm sounding over-critical. This was still a very good column.
    mropolo
    good call, redwing... knowledge can only help you whether it's guitar playing or anything else in life
    majorminorseven
    But it wouldn't be a VI chord because the progression is a lead to E not to C#. vi III V I. not i V VII VI because that would be silly and would only make sense if we were modulating to the VI which... it doesn't because the same progression happens through most of the song. Good try though elcaptain. The major three chord also makes sense because a lot of the time when you play the major three in rock its just a power chord which is completely diatonic. But way to go raindog. Intelligent guitar players are hard to come by.
    majorminorseven
    elcaptain IS right about one thing... IVmaj sort of implies sevens... that is IVmaj7 which is completely different and not really rock and roll.
    mbartgen
    okay so I think I figured out my own question and I am pretty sure I was wrong. You weren't talking baout the relative minor, but you were talking about the parrell minor. So the key of A major's parrell minor would just be A Natural Minor. Then you borrow the major chords from A Natural Minor which are C, F, and G. Can you let me know if I am understanding this correctly.
    mbartgen
    Your part that says, "First, I will show one of the simplest (and most common) way that a songs chord vocabulary is extended, is simply by adding the major chords from the keys parallel minor scale (adding the minor chords from minor key can also be, used, but the result is often pretty weak sounding, but we'll go into some instances of this later). This is called modal interchange. These chords are the IIIbmaj, VIIbmaj and IVbmaj. For example, if we are in the key of A, we would add C major, G major, and F major. This gives songs a hard edge. Examples can be heard in many hard rock songs, below are some examples." Something is confusing and I need cleared up to understand: You say that if we are in the key of A, all we need to do is borrow the major chords from the key of A's relative minor key. Isn't the Key of A's relative minor F#m. If this is true C major, G major, and F major are not in the Key of F#m chord scale. Can you please give me a clearer example. Like if I am playing in the key of G, what would the relative minor key be and which chords would I use. Then put the type the two key out, one on top of the other, so that I can visually see where you borrowed the new chords from.
    RainDog
    Lydian and phyrgian are modes of the major scale. It takes awhile to explain it, so ill just post a link to a good lesson on modes. http://www.cyb erf ret.com/theory/modes/101/ index.php
    Steve Falcone
    Nice to see other people realize a song can be more complicated than I, IV, V. Good article
    RainDog
    Again, thanks guys. Caught another mistake "whole tone scale (a scale consisting of 6 tones each a half step apart)" that should read whole step apart. Sorry bout that. If you have any questions, post em here.
    danc446
    Wow. Thanks dude. These things are helpful. You should look into some crazy new scales... Found a bunch on the internet and it really helps when soloing.
    Bubonic Chronic
    Does anyone read these things? lol Good info, I would also add that you can work diatonically in creative ways by progressing to chords which come from notes within other chords: Example, the key of C: C Major has a C,E and G let's go to E minor! That's E, G, B now let's go to B diminished! ...and on and on. You can also change keys in the middle of a progression, like moving from the E minor of the key of C (it's also in the key of D) into B minor from the key of D, then maybe pick up the dominant A from that key followed by an A minor from the original key. ...that kind of stuff is endless. You could literally write hours of music without ever establishing a repeating chord pattern. Good stuff!
    RainDog
    thanks guys, ill try to write another article soon. I just noticed an error though, the numerals under the gimme shelter intro should read Imaj - VIIbmaj - VIbmaj
    Xx_banx
    u have a very teaching aspect you must really know wat ur talkin about! (which i can obviously see that you do)
    Xx_banx
    *good* a ver y good teaching aspect how the *** did i forget a whole word???