By Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
• Follow Gary on Twitter
• Fix your songwriting technique! Check out “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6 e-book bundle – available now at a 50% savings!
If you’re a chords-first kind of songwriter, you’re probably checking out chord progression charts on a daily basis. It will hopefully give you some sense of relief to know that the world’s biggest hits are songs that use rather mundane progressions. So you can stop looking for the killer progression, because it’s not what makes a great song. It’s the relationship between chords, melody and lyrics, along with the right rhythmic feel, that make songs click with listeners.
Nonetheless, it’s important to be sure that your progressions are working properly. And if you’re simply looking for a few good progressions to use, chord progression charts are great.
But many aren’t using those charts to maximum effect. One chord progression can actually give you many different sounds and musical effects, depending on how you play through the progression.
So if you simply strum through a progression, with two strums per chord, you haven’t even begun to explore the possibilities.
Let’s look at a sample progression, and consider the many ways you can play it. You’ll likely be surprised by what you discover:
A D F#m E B/D# E B E7sus E7
Resist the temptation to mindlessly strum, and try these ideas.
- Repeat the first two chords several times before moving on. This means you’ll be using the “A D” part of the progression for the first part of your verse, and then moving on to the F#m. So the result is something like: A D A D A D A D F#m… Try this repetition technique for other parts of the longer progression.
- Don’t just assume that you’re in a 4/4-kind of time signature, where you’re strumming each chord twice. Try 3/4: play the root of the chord as a low note, then strum twice on the chord.
- Explore many different tempos. Keep in mind that fast songs tend to sound a bit frantic when they use lots of chords, so if you want to try a really fast tempo, dwell on one or two chords for a while before moving on.
- Look for ways to modify the progression. For example, try the first two chords, then the last two. You may have a great use for this shortened version. Or perhaps start by playing the E7sus-E a few times before moving back to the beginning.
- Use implied harmonies. This is a great technique for using the same progression for a 2-part verse. The first time through your verse, use the progression’s bass notes, with little if any guitar work. This is called “implied harmony”, because even with just the bass notes, the full harmonies are suggested. Then the second time through, add rhythm guitar or keyboards. (Listen to Rihanna’s “Disturbia” for a demonstration of this technique.
And of course, you can mix and match. Try any of the ideas in combination. The idea is to treat the progression like it’s your own, and use your creative mind to give you as many ideas as possible.
By exploring your creative mind while playing through chords, the possibilities become almost endless!
Are you a songwriter who’s STUCK? Get chord progression charts, songwriting lessons, and much more! Download “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” for your desktop or laptop, and get back to writing great songs!