The Ongoing Search for the Killer Chord Progression

The killer chord progression: it doesn’t exist. Or… actually….


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Kurt Cobain - Nirvana - Smells Like Teen SpiritAs I am not one to sit idly by and watch others fritter their day away needlessly, I’ll cut to what should be the final sentence in this blog post and say, “So hopefully you see, the search for that elusive ‘killer chord progression’ is a waste of time.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I could actually make the case for saying that there is such a thing as the killer chord progression, if by that term we mean that progression that almost perfectly supports the lyric, melody and overall intent of a song.

So by that definition, I believe that the chords to most hit songs are killers in their own right. And there’s nothing remarkable about the world’s greatest chord progressions. The most potent killer progressions, by themselves, look quite ordinary. It’s everything else that makes it rise to the status of “killer”.

To use an analogy: Seeing spandex on some people looks killer. Seeing spandex on me is sad and traumatizing. Spandex is only a material. It’s everything that it’s wrapped around that makes it amazingly good or amazingly bad.

So if you find yourself looking for the killer chord progression, imagine, instead, that you’re looking for a killer plot line for a TV drama. It doesn’t exist. That’s because the best plot lines need everything else to be excellent as well: cast, direction, setting, and so on. For anything in the arts to rise to the world of “killer” requires the support of everything around it.

I think the chords for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (power chords (root & 5th) on F Bb Ab Db) are killer chords, because of the refusal of the chords to sit clearly in one key, enhancing the mood and intent of the lyric.

I also think the chords for “Puff the Magic Dragon” (A C#m D A D A F#m B7 E…) are killer chords, because of the rising bass line at the beginning that partners beautifully with the melancholy descending melody, and because of its delightful simplicity.

Killer chords, if you’re looking for them, will always be elusive. Like looking in a box of eyes for the most beautiful eyes for your wax model, you need to discover (sooner rather than later) that eyes, and chord progressions, are only killer if everything else is killer.

So hopefully you see, the search for that elusive ‘killer chord progression’ is a waste of time.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

Download “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle, which includes “Chord Progression Formulas”, a great way to create dozens of progressions in any key.

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  1. Smells like teen spirit IS actually i one key: Ab. when you add the third to each chord you get: Fm – Bbm – Ab – Db, which is VI – II – I – IV in Ab. although it’s a cool song, of course…:-)

    • Yes, you’re very correct. I heard that first F chord as major, mistakingly ignoring the Ab in the vocal line. (Sometimes I write these posts too quickly! 🙂

      PS- Just to add, I think what throws me about that progression with regard to key is absence of 3rds in most of those chords, so the key is implied rather than obvious.

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