Consulting a list of chord progressions can be a great thing for songwriters who just want to explore new sounds and find new directions for their music. And since chord progressions usually can’t be protected by copyright, you’re free to take them and use them however you want. (See my collections here.)
But if all you’re doing is taking a chord progression and trying it out as you see it, you’re not getting full value! The fun happens when you change it in some way, using it as a starting point for something more interesting.
If you like starting songs by working with a chord progression, you need to read “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression.” It will give you the pros and cons of this songwriting method, and help you create songs that really work!
Here are some ideas for modifying a chord progression in interesting ways. Let’s say you’ve got this as your original progression:
/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / |/ / / / C F |Dm G |Am G |C I IV ii V vi V I
Now, take that progression and do this:
- Use bass pedal point. A pedal point simply means holding one note (most often the tonic note, but experiment with others) in the bass while the chords are changing above it. (I find this progression interesting if you hold the 6th note – A – through the progression.)
- Try the progression backwards. This doesn’t always work, because chord progressions are designed to move forward, not backward. But shorter, simpler progressions will often still work when played from back to front, so it’s worth a try.
- Use parts of the progression. You might try, for example, vamping back and forth on the first two chords (C-Bb) several times before moving on. Sometimes it works to choose two chords from the middle and after playing them a few times, jump back to the beginning and playing it through. (Example: Dm-G-Dm-G/Dm-G-Dm-G/C-F-Dm-G/Am-G-C)
- Try it, then transpose it. I’ve always enjoyed a quick upward minor-3rd modulation — in this case, changing from C major to Eb major. So play through the progression and then move everything up a minor 3rd. Then jump back down to the original C major key: C-F-Dm-G/Am-G-C__/Eb-Ab-Fm-Bb/Cm-Bb-Eb__/C-F-Dm… There are lots of other key options to try, of course. Some will work better than others, so let your ear be your guide.
- Change the mode. If the progression is mainly major, as this one is, try it in minor: Cm-Fm-Ddim-G/Ab-G-Cm__. In this case, I’ve opted for a G, but Gm will work as well, giving it a more modal feel.
- Experiment with tempo, time signature, playing style, etc. Keep in mind that the actual chords you’re playing will often sound different if you change the way you play them. So don’t forget to experiment with the tempo and time signature. Also, you may find that you always tend to strum chords the same way, so be sure to consider as many ways of playing as possible.
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