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Itching to Write a Masterpiece?

Here Are Some Chord

Progressions to Get You Started
There are basically three schools of thought on songwriting. First you have those who believe
that either you have it or you dont. In other words, songwriters are born, not made. Others
subscribe to the quasi-mystical notion that all songs have already been written and are out
there in the ether, one simply must be open to receiving them.
Finally, youve got those who regard songwriting as a craft, with its own set of rules and
techniques that even the average musician can learn.
While it would be presumptuous to determine that any one school is right, we will explore the
idea that songwriting, like basketball, drawing and skeet shooting, can be taught.
Of course, just as practicing a jump shot does not guarantee admission to the NBA, no
amount of information about songwriting can turn someone into Paul McCartney, or Paul
Stanley, for that matter. The idea is that an understanding of songwriting basics will help you
come that much closer to fully realizing whatever talent you were endowed with by God or

Chords and Spark

Even if one were to limit himself to an examination of pop songwriting over the last 40 years,
a true instructional guide would take up many volumes, as it would involve a serious study
of musical theory. Our aim here is to prove a sampling of common chord progressions that
you can use with your own songs, and to examine some of the things a guitarist can do to
add a little zip to his or her songs.
All popular tunes, regardless of genre, are based on chord progressions. Even if a song
consists mostly of single-note riffs (Led Zeppelins Black Dog is a good example) or an a
capella vocal line (Suzanne Vegas Toms Diner comes to mind), chords and overall
harmony are still implied or alluded to by the melody. Understanding chords, and the way
they relate to each other, is pretty much the foundation of all pop songwriting.
In your travels, youve no doubt encountered chords and chord progressions described in
numerical terms, perhaps a musician telling a band mate to move to the five chord or a
blues history referring to a I-IV-V pattern.
The terminology in both examples is explained in FIGURE 1, which illustrates triads (three-
note chord voicings) built on major scales in the guitar friendly keys of C, D, E, G and A. The
Roman numerals included underneath the chords indicate scale degrees; those in uppercase
represent major tonalities, while those in lowercase signify the minor (the vii is diminished).
In the first bar of the figure, C is the I (one) chord, making Fthe fourth degree of the
scaleits corresponding IV (four) chord. Consequently, a I-IV-V progression in this key
would be C-F-G. To determine the I-IV-V in the other keys illustrated in FIGURE 1, simply
replicate the approach we took in C.

To give you a feel for a pattern that includes minor chords, lets take a brief look at the I-vi-ii-V
progression, a sequence that pops up in countless pop and rock songs. In the key of D, as
illustrated in FIGURE 1, the chords would be D-Bm-Em-A. Again, refer to the figure to
determine this progression in the other keys.
Now lets look at some common pop chord progressions and examples of well known songs
in which they appear. As an aspiring songwriter, familiarizing yourself with these progressions
should prove invaluable to you.

Four-chord Progressions
You couldnt turn on the radio in the 1950s and avoid hearing the I-vi-IV-V progression in any
number of songs. And you dont have to be a 65-year-old doo wop fan who bursts into tears
at the mere mention of In the Still of the Night or Earth Angel to be familiar with the l-vi-IV-
V. Check out Hoobastanks The Reason (key of E: E-C#m-A-B) and youll hear a prime
example of this progression.
All of U2s With or Without You is a I-V-vi-IV progression in the key of D (D-A-Bm-G). The
Beatles timeless Let It Be (key of C: C-G-Am-F) is also largely based on this sequence.
Boston scored huge with the vi-IV-I-V progression in Peace of Mind (key of E: C#m-A-E-B),
as did Avril Lavigne more than 20 years later in the choruses of her mega-hit Complicated
(key of F: Dm-Bb-F-C).

Three-chord Progressions
I-V-IV and I-IV-V progression are probably the most basic in pop music, both are used so
often that even listeners who dont know a IV chord from a foreskin recognize them intuitively.
One of Pearl Jams biggest hits, Yellow Ledbetter, is based upon the I-V-IV sequence in the
key of E (E-B-A); Twist and Shout, an enormous hit for the Beatles, is nothing more than a I-
IV-V in D (D-G-A) Other notable songs built on these progressions include the Whos Baba
ORiley, (key of F: F-C-Bb), Pete Townshends Let My Love Open the Door (key of C) and
semi-contemporary hits like Fountains of Waynes Stacys Mom (key of E: E-A-B-A).
What do Jackson Brownes These Days, Jerry Jeff Walkers Mr. Bojangles, Paul Simons
America and Bob Dylans Dont Think Twice, Its All Right have in common? All are based
to some degree on the I-V-vi-I-IV progression, a sequence that remains popular among
One probable reason for its enduring appeal is that, when played in the key of C (C-G-Am-C-
F), it fitsand theres really no better way of saying thisjust right on the fretboard.
Also just right in C is I-VI-II-V-I (C-A7-D7-G7-C), a progression that was originally
popularized by ragtime players more than 100 years ago and appears in such modern hits as
John Sebastians Daydream and Arlo Guthries Alices Restaurant.
The i-VII-VI is familiar to anyone who knows the outro section to Led Zeppelins Stairway to
Heaven (key of A minor: Am-G-F). Adding another VII chord to this three-chord progression
gives you Jimi Hendrixs version of All Along the Watchtower (key of C# minor: C#m-B-A-B)
and the chorus of Aerosmiths Dream On (key of F minor: Fm-Eb-Db-Eb).
The I-bVII-IV (key of of C: C-Bb-F) features the flat-seven chord. This progression appears
in countless songs, among them Lynyrd Skynrds Sweet Home Alabama (key of D: D-C-G)
and any number of AC/DC songs, including Back in Black (key of A: A-G-D).
When youre just starting out as a songwriter, feel free to borrow any of the chord
progressions cited abovejust take care not to also borrow the melodies. George Harrison
made this mistake when he wrote My Sweet Lord and wound up having to pay the
composers of Hes So Fine a not-so-sweet bundle of cash.