Why Simple/Basic Chord Progressions Are Usually All You Need

A strong, stable chord progression allows for more complexity in your lyrics, melodies and performance.

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piano & guitarGood music is an amalgam of several elements all working in partnership. No one single element operates without being influenced by the others. Including, by the way, everything that becomes part of your song in the final production stage.

Not to digress from this post about chords, but that’s why it’s so important to have your song properly produced and recorded. You may have written a great song, but if it then goes through a lousy production and recording stage, no one (including you) will ever experience its full potential.

I love chords that take me on a creative journey, but those kinds of chords need to be done carefully. There is a fine line between progressions that add innovation to your music, and ones that simply fail.

And most of the time, a simple or basic chord progression still allows you to be imaginative and even revolutionary. That’s because chords are frequently just a landscape, as it were. You can still create stunning melodies and lyrics, using complex and creative phrasing, time signatures, countermelodies and instrumentations, all sitting atop something that’s comparatively elementary.

And in fact, if you want listeners to feel secure — to feel that they understand your music — it’s best to give them at least one musical element that stays the course, and guides them through the other complexities in your song. More often than not, that is best done through the security offered by a basic, even predictable, chord progression.

I’ll reiterate here that there is nothing wrong with a complex progression that takes your audience on a complex musical journey. But you’d be surprised how creative instrumentals, good lyrics, some fantastic playing and great singing can make chords seem far more advanced than they really are.

Some great examples of songs that stick to standard, mostly diatonic chord progressions, with just a minimum of so-called altered chords thrown in here and there — and then some really great performances that establish their places in history:

  1. Won’t Get Fooled Again” (The Who) (A  (G) D A  D… E  etc)
  2. Seven Bridges Road” (The Eagles) D  C  G  D…
  3. Spirit of Radio” (Rush) (E  B  E/G#  A  B)
  4. Games Without Frontiers” (Peter Gabriel) (Chords with simplified spelling: Intro: Ebm  B… Verse: Ebm  B  Db  Bb  Ebm… Gb  Db  Db/B  Bbm…)
  5. Something From Nothing” (Foo Fighters) (Em D#Aug  G/D  C#(half dim) C maj7  A9…)

So don’t obsess over the fact that your chords may not be stellar on their own. That’s rarely the problem with a song that fails. Bad songs happen when the overall structure is weak, when lyrics are bad, and when melodies are unremarkable.

______________Gary Ewer

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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3 Comments

  1. Tempo and Rhythm can make or break a song regardless of the chords,
    the number of times I have listened to someones work demo and even
    some finished songs only to start thinking where is this going ?? If you
    have the patients to listen past the over long intro, added to the dragging
    slowness of the song ; Why do so many think sad means SLOW

    Sadness often means minor chords or a strong mix of minor to major

    Hotel California verse in minor and chorus in major, the slowness of the
    song is compensated by the incredible vocal of the co writer coupled
    with the compelling imaginative story line And in this particular rock
    standard the Chosen Chords are perfect

    The descending minor feel of the verse against the major feel of the chorus
    works perfectly

    This is one of those rare songs where the musicianship of of The Eagles
    makes it one of those rare songs that is a hard song to Cover , and that in
    itself is rare thing in the pop world

    If one looks at the country songs written and sung by Hank Williams
    you will find simple chords against beautiful melody lines and these
    songs still stand up today nearly seventy years later four chords did
    the trick for Hank

  2. i’ve also read, and i don’t believe it was from you, Gary, but I could be wrong actually, that tempo also is a factor to consider when deciding whether or not to use a particularly colorful complex chord or a simple triad. The point being, songs with a slow tempo are more appropriate compositions for large chords. not to say slow songs must use large chords and fast songs vice versa, but something to consider perhaps.

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