If you have a chord progression that works but doesn’t do much to inspire you, you can of course toss it and look for another. But with the simplest of changes, you can take a progression from being mundane to something much closer to awe-inspiring.
So let’s say you’ve got the following simple progression: C Dm Am F G C. Here’s a list of simple things you can do to it that doesn’t require you to toss the baby out with the bath water. Change it a little, and you’ve got the potential to take your song in new and exciting directions.
Here are 3 simple changes you can try right away:
1. Remove the First Chord.
This may seem strange, but it really works well. Chord progressions aren’t like sentences, where removing the first word often results in a sentence that doesn’t work. Most of the time, a chord progression — assuming it works in the first place — will sound just fine if you start on the second chord: Dm Am F G C.
The change that that makes in your song may seem unimportant, but it’s actually quite a large one if you think about the melody. If you were starting your verse on the C chord (i.e., the tonic), your melodies will need to reflect that. Starting instead on the ii-chord (Dm) means that your melodies will change quite dramatically.
Some modifications on this idea:
- Remove the final chord as well as the first one. In our example, that gives us: Dm Am F G |Dm Am…
- Move back and forth between any 2 chords within the progression before moving on. So you might try: Dm Am Dm Am |Dm Am Dm Am |F G F G…
- Try the progression backwards. This won’t always work, but it’s worth trying just to see. In our example progression, it’s not too bad: C G F Am Dm
2. Place a (Strange) Pedal Point in the Bass.
If you play through the progression as-is, you get this:
Pedal point means to keep the same note in the bass regardless of how the progression changes. The most common choices for this are:
a) A tonic pedal (keeping C in the bass):
and b) A Dominant pedal (keeping G in the bass):
But don’t forget other possibilities. You can create other bass pedal points. They can sound a bit strange, but if you’re looking to create something unique, give them a try:
A supertonic (D) pedal:
Or perhaps a mediant (A) pedal:
3. Use an Inverted Pedal Point
An inverted pedal works like a bass pedal, except that the note exists higher in the chord. In my new eBook “Creative Chord Progressions“, I show an example of this using The Supreme’s hit song “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”. It’s called an inverted dominant pedal, because the guitar is playing the dominant (i.e., 5th) note through the intro and verse. If you do that to this chord progression, you get something that sounds like this:
But don’t limit your imagination – Try a supertonic pedal, or any other scale tone. Here’s one that uses mainly an inverted pedal on the 2nd note of the scale:
As you can hear, these changes don’t require you to change the original progression to any degree; you’re simply working with the progression that works well in the first place. In that sense, you’re acting as a kind of “sculptor”, taking something that has potential, and honing it until it gives you something even better.
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