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Chord Progressions

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To put it simply, when you play a song with more than one chord in it you are playing a chord progression. While it is true that you can theoretically write a song that uses every possible chord most of the time you will be working with just a few chords. In "Skip To My Lou" we played two chords (G and D7) and in "Careless Love" we played four chords.

While it's easy to look at a song when it's written down and say that we are going to play so many measures of a G chord and so many measure of a D chord it's another thing entirely to walk into a jam and pick up the chord progression by ear. In order to do that we have to understand how chord progressions are built.

The Nashville Number System

The Nashville Number System is a trick that musicians use to figure out chord progressions on the fly. It is an easy tool to use if you understand how music works. It has been around for about four hundred years but sometime during the past fifty years Nashville got the credit.

To non-musicians the Nashville Number System seems pretty mysterious so there are some funky ideas and urban legends floating around about it. The funniest example of this was in an old episode of the television series Magnum PI where the plot revolved around bad guys using the Nashville Number System as a sort of secret code!

The Nashville Number System uses major scales to figure out which chords to play in a given key. This is useful in two ways. In one application you can use the number system to figure out a chord progression as you are playing the song.

Another way to use the number system is to figure out how to play a song in a different key. This is called transposing a song.

You start out by writing down a scale, in this case G major.

Then number each note:

1  2  3  4  5  6  7   8
G  A  B  C  D  E  F#  G

The notes numbered 1, 4 and 5 (G, C and D) will be your major chords for the key of G.

Go back and look at all the songs in the key of G that we covered earlier. You will notice that almost all of them use some combination of G, C and D. Some songs will only have two of the chords but most of the time you will see all three.

The note numbered 6 is going to be your relative minor. In this case Em.

Every root chord has a relative minor chord. I do not want to go too deep into music theory here but every major key has a unique number of sharps and flats. The key of C has no sharps or flats and the key of G has one sharp (F#.) The same rule applies to minor keys.

Any minor key that has the same number of sharps and flats as a major key is the relative minor of that major key.

The key of Am has no sharps or flats. Therefore it is the relative minor of C.

The key of Em has one sharp so it is the relative minor of G.

It is good to know your relative minor chords (the 6 chord in the number system) because you can swap them around in some situations. If you are playing a song and cannot remember how to make an Am chord you can just play a C chord. It is different but it is close enough that you may get away with it.

The note numbered 2 is going to be both a minor chord and a major chord. In this case Am and A.

Number 3 is where it gets kind of neat because in folk music this is often referred to as an "off chord." In the key of G your off chord is B.

Your 6 chord can be played as a major chord as well. But it is kind of funky. You will really only use the major 6 once in a great while. An example of the 6 chord in action can be found in "Salty Dog".

In some songs like "Little Maggie" you might run into what some players call a mountain seven. That is when you flat the 7 chord. That is why "Little Maggie" goes from G to F rather than G to F#.

The important thing to remember is 1- 4- 5. That is the way to find the three most commonly used chords in any key. Don't go all goofy with this and start yammering about 2 chords at a jam. The Nashville Number System is great but it is just a tool. Simply knowing the chord progression is not enough. Let's take a look at a more formal approach to figuring out chord progressions before we go into using them.

Minor Keys

The Nashville Number System is great for figuring out chords on the fly but if you want to work out a chord progression in a minor key it gets a little clumsy.

When we talked about the Nashville Number System earlier in the book we numbered each note of the scale with an Arabic numeral. In a more formal music theory setting we have to use Roman numerals to number each note. This allows us to use upper case numerals for major chords and lower case numerals for minor chords.

For a major scale the first, fourth, fifth and eighth notes of the scale will be major chords marked with upper case numerals. The second, third and sixth notes of the scale will be minor chords marked with lower case numerals. The seventh note is ignored for now. A C major scale marked out this way will look like this:

I   ii   iii   IV   V   vi      I
C   D     E     F   G   A   B   C

This winds up exactly the way it did for the Nashville Number System. It changes when you lay out a chord progression from a minor scale.

In a minor scale the first, fourth and eighth notes are marked with lower case numerals to indicate minor chords. The third, sixth and seventh notes are marked with upper case numbers to indicate major chords. The fifth note will be marked as a minor chord with a lower case number in a natural minor scale. In a harmonic minor scale the fifth note can, in some cases, wind up being played as a major chord. The second note in a minor scale, like the seventh note in a major scale, is ignored.

An A minor scale marked out this way will look like this:

i      III  iv   v   VI   VII   i
A   B   C   D    E    F    G    A

What this tells us is that in a chord progression in the key of A minor we can play Am, C, Dm, Em or E, F and G.

Playing & Feeling Chord Progressions

Once you start to get familiar with the 1-4-5 chord progressions for a few keys the next step is to begin familiarizing yourself with how they sound and, more importantly, how they feel.

It might sound crazy at first, but when you play a chord progression while you are singing you can start to feel the flow of the music pushing the chord changes.

Take a song you already know and change it into a new key. Let's use "Red River Valley" for this example because we have already played it in G. For this exercise we'll play it in D.

When we played "

" in G we used the G, C and D chords. It so happens that G, C and D is the 1-4-5 progression for the key of G. In order to play the song in D we have to transpose the song. This is easy. The 1-4-5 progression in the key of D is D, A and G. If we compare the two 1- 4-5 chord progressions:

   1 4 5
G: G C D
D: D A G

All we have to do is go through the song and change the chords to the new key. The G chords are now D chords, the C chords are now A chords and the D chords are now G chords.

Right about now you are starting to look at the bottom of this page for the song laid out in D for you, but this time I am not going to write it out. You are going to work it out on your own.

Grab your guitar and make a D chord. Any D chord will do. Since we are playing "Red River Valley" in D it's a fairly safe bet that the first chord is going to be D. This isn't always the case, but nine times out of ten it's a safe bet.

Strum a D chord and sing the first line of "Red River Valley".

"From this valley they say you are going"

When you get to the words "they say" that D chord should feel a little off. It's next to impossible to put this into words, but once you start singing the melody there should be this feeling like something should change.

In the key of D our options for that next chord are fairly limited. It's either going to be an A chord or a G chord. Let's try a G chord.

 D                                 G
"From this valley they say you are going"

Whoa, that doesn't sound right at all, does it? Let's try it with an A chord instead.

 D                                 A
"From this valley they say you are going"

After you play the A chord that feeling that something has to give comes back. So do we go to G now, or is it D? I'm not going to give you the answer because part of making this work revolves around you working with chords and learning how to recognize not only when a chord change comes along, but where it needs to go.

The only way to do that is to play a whole bunch of songs, which is what we are about to start doing in the next chapter.

In the following pages I have provided the lyrics and chord progressions for a handful of songs. Run through them with one of the basic guitar strums and sing the lyrics. It may seem a little bit awkward at first because I have not provided any measure lines, but I left those out for a reason. Part of putting this puzzle together involves learning how to feel out the rhythm and chord progression of a song on the fly. In order to play the songs in this section you are going to have to look at the time signature and come up with a picking pattern that flows with the lyrics and the chord progression.

Relax. You can do this. I'll prove it to you. Let's play one together.

"Will The Circle Be Unbroken"
4/4 Time Key of G

I was standing by my window
     C              G
On a cold & cloudy day.
When I saw that hearse come rolling
G                D      G
For to carry my mother away.

Here are the lyrics and chords to the great old country-gospel tune "Will The Circle be Unbroken". Just about everybody knows this tune, and just about everybody loves this tune so it's a great choice for an exercise.

We know from the information provided that the song is in 4/4 time in the key of G.

The first line of the song only uses a G chord, but the sixty-four thousand dollar question is "how many measures?" Well, to figure that out pick a 4/4 time strumming pattern, grab a G chord and start playing and singing. Try to sing the song the way you have heard it performed by other musicians. The phrasing is usually something like, "I was stan-ding by my win-dow. . ."

If you play around with it you'll find that first line is held for two measures. Once we know that things get a lot easier because , as you may or may not have noticed, lyrics usually stay within a framework of measures. If the first line is two measures the second line is most likely two measures.

Sure enough, that second line turns out to be one measure of a C chord and one measure of a G chord.

Now work out the rest of the tune on your own.

"Will The Circle Be Unbroken"
4/4 Time Key of G

I was standing by my window
     C              G
On a cold & cloudy day.
When I saw that hearse come rolling
G                D      G
For to carry my mother away.

Will the circle be unbroken?
By and by, Lord by and by.
There's a better home a waiting
In the sky, Lord in the sky.

Lord, I told that undertaker
" Undertaker please drive slow
For this body you are hauling,
Lord, I hate to see her go."

Well I followed close behind her
Tried to hold up and be brave.
But I could not hide my sorrow
As they laid her in her grave.

I went home, my home was lonely
Since my mother she was gone
All my brothers, sisters crying
What a home so sad and forlorn

Find three or four songs that you really like and just play them constantly for a few days. Then pick another three songs. It may be a little tricky at first to figure out the song if you have never heard it but if you look at the lyrics there is a certain kind of poetry to them. Spend some time singing the lyrics while strumming and changing chords. After a while it all just makes sense.

If you really want a recorded version of a tune there is an almost limitless number of resources. Check your local library for recordings. Ask a musician friend to help you. Bug your local radio stations to start playing more folk music. Surf the Internet. Sites like and have an amazing number of free sound files to work with. Look around and see what you can find.

Don't think you are limited to these tunes. Pick up a copy of Rise Up Singing, The Folksingers' Wordbook or any other songbook. Then play anything and everything that catches your fancy. The important thing is to start working on getting the feel of a chord progression. When you are not practicing listen to recordings and see if you can spot where chords change in the song.

Most importantly, have fun!

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