The most important things you will learn about playing guitar will be chord progressions. Mastering chord progressions is an essential skill all guitar players have to have. Without knowing chord progressions, you will not be able to transpose songs “On-The-Fly”, or in real time. It is not uncommon to accidentally start a song off in the wrong key. Real-Time Transposing allows you to switch to the right key without stopping. To do this, you must know your chord progressions for all the keys. It also allows you to play along with others when you don’t know the song. All you’ll need to know is the key. It also allows you to read chord charts, which are the industry standard. Few guitar players play from sheet music anymore.
In the video above, Randall Williams, teacher at Jamplay, gives a really good introduction about scale degrees and chord progressions. You should watching it before reading the rest of this post.
Everything starts from the major scale. Musical scales are composed by the so called intervals, that are the distance between notes of the scale. The minimum distance between two notes corresponds to one fret on guitar. You can call it half-step, semitone, or half tone. If you play the open lower E string, and then you push its first fret and play it, you have just played an half-step interval.
Every scale has its own personal sound, that depends on the distances between the notes composing it. In western music the queen of the scales is the Major Scale.
hs: half-step. 2 half-steps are called whole-step, or tone.
Chord progressions are based on scales, so if you don’t understand scales well, then go back and review that section before continuing with this one. You have to have a good command of scale theory to understand chord progressions.
From the previous section on scales, you know that a diatonic scale is seven notes in an ascending order, at specified intervals unique to the type of scale it is. Chord progressions are based on the diatonic, or chromatic scale. Chord progressions can be based on both major, and minor keys. Remember, a major scale has a half-step between 3rd and 4th notes, and between the 7th and 8th (which is the first note one octave up) notes. A minor scale has half-steps between the 2nd and 3rd steps, and the 5th, and 6th steps. Also, remember that B to C, and E to F are natural half-steps, which is why there is no E#, Fb, B#, or Cb notes or chords but it is a fun way to do a little good-natured hazing on novice musicians, sort of like the musician’s version of a mechanic sending someone out for a left-handed spanner wrench, a bucket of prop wash, or a set of Fallopian Tubes….”What key are we in?” “ C#…..” LOL).
So, in the key of C, you don’t have to worry about sharps or flats, unless they are Accidentals (more about those, later…). Each note in a scale is assigned a number, so for the Key of C major , it would be like this:
- C = 1
- D = 2
- E = 3
- F = 4
- G = 5
- A = 6
- B = 7
- C = 8
A Chord Progression is based on the Root-Note of the chord, so in the Key of C, the Root is C. To make a simple chord progression, you simply add the Subdominant chord, which will always be the 4th note, in this case, E, and the Dominant chord, which is always the 5th, in this case, G. Some people like to make the 5th chord a 7th, which is OK. It’s a matter of personal preference, and what kind of sound you want. The 1-4-5 chords are used because they can harmonize with every other note in that scale. A standard major chord progression will always be 1-4-5, or in this case, C-chord, F-Chord, G-chord. The Chord Progression in C is C-F and G. Any song in the key of C will likely have these chords as the main part of the song. In the key of G, our chords would still be 1-4-5, or G-C and D. In E, E-A, and B. In F, F-Bb, and C. It’s always 1-4-5.
Right about now, you are probably thinking, "But a lot of songs have more than just 3 chords…what about them?" Each Progression also contains three Relative Minor chords. They will be the minor chords of the 2nd, 3rd, and 6th notes of the scale, also called “off-notes”. In C, these would be Dm, Em, and Am. So a song in the key of C may also contain an Em, Am, or Dm chord, or any combination of the three. “ But that only accounts for 6 chords. What about the 7th?” Don’t worry. We have that covered as well. If you need to use the 7th note, it will be a Diminished chord, meaning it will be a minor chord, with a flatted 5th note. In this case, Bdim. For the chords progressions in other keys, I have provided a handy chart for you to use. Refer to it often, and it will help to keep you from becoming lost.
Other chords can be added to standard progressions for effect, but once you learn basic progressions, the rest will be easy as pie. You will eventually be able to recognize any chord or pro-gression just by its sound, and be able to transpose from one key to another automatically. If you get confused, just refer to this chart.
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