Add a Pedal Point to Strengthen a Complicated Progression

A pedal point can make a complex chord progression sound stronger and fresher.


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Electric Bass GuitarIf you’re like most songwriters, you’re probably on the constant lookout for chord progressions that sound fresh and unique. But in that search, you may be overlooking some techniques you can apply to ordinary progressions, techniques that can make an overused, mundane progression sound suddenly fresh and distinctive. One of those ways is to use a bass pedal point. Pedal bass, which means the bass sits on the same note while the chords change above it, has a way of acting like musical glue, helping your audience make sense of complex progressions.

That sense of musical freshness works especially well with progressions that normally sound tired and overused. So a basic progression like I-ii-V-IV-I progression (listen) sounds more interesting and creative just by keeping the tonic note in the bass, especially on the downbeats (listen).

That example above shows a tonic pedal, which means that the tonic note is the one that the bass keeps while the chords are changing. As you can see, the tonic pedal works, even in chords that don’t have a tonic note, like the ii-chord or the V-chord. But there are other options for you to explore:

Dominant pedal: The bass plays the 5th note of the key on each chord change (Listen)

Submediant pedal: Bass plays the 6th note (Listen)

But as the title of this blog posting says, a pedal point can help to make sense of a progression that strays a bit from the norm. For those kinds of complex chord progressions, a pedal point can act like a kind of beacon, always showing the way home.

Click here to listen to a progression that benefits from having a constant tonic pedal point in the bass: C  Eb  Bb  Ab  Gsus4  G  C (All chords with a C underneath).

As you can hear from these examples, a pedal bass doesn’t necessarily mean that the bass sits on that note without moving at all. What’s important is that the pedal note is present particularly at the change of chord. In between those changes, it can be quite interesting to hear the bass move around. And in fact it’s probably the mark of a great bass player when they can spontaneously animate an otherwise static bass line.

One other thing about pedal points: it’s also an interesting technique to have a pedal point that’s in an upper instrument, not the bass. That’s called an inverted pedal, and it has the same benefit of helping the audience make sense of complicated progressions.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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