The thing I love about music is its simplicity.
A composer writing a symphony is going to use the same basic set of concepts as a guy plunking out a banjo tune on his front porch. The application might be different, but the rules of the language remain the same.
The goal of this chapter is to provide you with some basic tools for figuring out chord progressions, but since everything in music theory is connected we will have to begin by looking at scales and some other concepts.
The good news is that this stuff is not just easy. It’s also universal. You will be able to apply the information in this chapter to almost any fretted instrument.
Like the old saying goes, “if you learn one thing, you learn ten thousand things.”
The Chromatic Scale
In Western music there are twelve musical notes named after the letters A through G with a note (or half step) between each pair of letters except between B and C and E and F.
Your half step is either a sharp (#) or a flat (b.) The half step between A and B can be called either A# or Bb.
A# means that the A note is raised one half step higher. Bb is the B note lowered one half step. A# and Bb are the same note and the other half steps follow the same pattern.
A A#/Bb B C C#/Db D D#/Eb E F F#/Gb G G#/Ab
Once you understand the idea of half steps you can just write out your chromatic scale like this to save space and make it a tad clearer. The ” | ” symbol will be used to represent a half step.
A | B C | D | E F | G |
We are starting the chromatic scale in the examples above on A, but you can start a chromatic scale with any note.
D | E F | G | A | B C |
The other thing to be aware of is that these notes repeat each other in a sort of loop. Twelve steps in either direction will take you back to the note you started on.
D | E F | G | A | B C | D | E F | G | A | B C | D
The frets on your banjo are laid out in half steps that follow the chromatic scale.
Your first string is tuned to D. If you play the first string open and then play each fret all the way down to the twelfth you wind up with a complete chromatic scale. This applies to any string on any fretted instrument.
Think about that for a second. This applies to any string on any fretted instrument. Remember what I said about the simplicity of music? Go pick up a mandolin or any other fretted instrument and you will find that the fretboard always follows the chromatic scale. Once you understand that and become familiar with how we can manipulate the chromatic scale you can just pick up just about anything with strings and figure out how to play it.
A scale is nothing more than a sequence of notes selected from the chromatic scale. The sequence of notes chosen is dictated by the mode we are playing in. A mode is nothing more than a series of whole and half steps. Most of the music you are going to run into will be played in either a major or minor mode.
Major and minor modes also dictate the key signature of a song. When I say that a song is in the key of E what I am telling you is that we are going to play in the major mode with a root of E.
To create scales in major mode simply follow this pattern: Root, whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step.
Choose a root note. For a G major scale you would choose G as the root. A whole step from G is A. A whole step from A is B. A half step from B is C and so on.
After following the whole and half steps you end up with a G major scale: G A B C D E F# G
This graphic illustrates how the whole and half steps create the G major scale.
If we were to start with C as the root we would end up with a C major scale with the notes C D E F G A B C.
The cool thing about knowing this pattern of whole and half steps is that you don’t have to memorize individual scales. The fretboard is laid out in half steps so moving up or down two frets would be a whole step. That means you can choose a string at any fret and create a major scale just by moving up or down the fretboard following the pattern of whole and half steps in the major mode.
Once you can do that the next step is to start moving scales across the fretboard. This is just a matter of moving up or down the scale until the next note becomes available on an adjacent string.
If you take into consideration that all fretted instruments follow the chromatic scale it suddenly becomes possible to find scales on any stringed instrument.
Minor mode works under the same set of concepts as major mode with a separate set of whole and half steps. The steps for a minor scale are: Root, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step.
If we choose a root note of A and follow the whole and half steps of the major more we wind up with an A minor scale made up of the notes A C D E F G A.
Just like the major scale, this pattern will work anywhere on the fretboard.
Once we have some major and minor scales written out we can take a look at chord progressions.
A chord is a sequence of notes played together. Whether it’s three or more strings on your banjo or a string quartet playing four different notes simultaneously it’s still a chord.
Every note in a scale has a chord associated with it. That’s why every song, even the old and freaky fiddle tunes that folklorists swear are “inherently cordless” (insert a big roll of the eyes here) will have some kind of a chord progression.
In formal music theory the chords associated with each scale note are based on intervals and/or degrees of the scale. I’m not going to go into intervals here simply because it’s not going to help you play the banjo right now. If you want to get deeper into the theoretical side of music you can pick that up on your own.
What we are going to do is look at the chords and chord progressions that are built from major scales.
Write out any major scale and assign each note a Roman numeral starting with the root as I. The second, third, sixth and seventh notes will be given lower case numerals and the remaining notes will be uppercase.
I’ll write out a G major scale for this example.
G A B C D E F# G I ii iii IV V vi vii0 I
The little ” 0 ” next to the seven indicates that the seventh chord of the scale is diminished. I’ll get to just what that means in a moment.
We are using upper and lower case Roman numerals to distinguish between major and minor chords in the scale.
The lower case numerals indicate minor chord forms. In the key of G these chords are Am, Bm, and Em. The seventh chord isn’t major or minor. It’s a diminished chord.
The upper case numerals indicate major chords. In the key of G our three major chords are G, C and D. This is actually the “one-four-five” progression referred to when people use the Nashville number system. For the most part folk songs will revolve around the three major chords of the scale.
The I chord is the root chord for the scale. This is usually, but not always, the chord a song begins and ends on.
The ii, iii and vi chords are marked as minor here but they can and sometimes are played as major chords. A iii chord played as a major is sometimes called an “off chord” at jam sessions.
The vii 0 is the weird one. Because of it’s place in the major scale it is theoretically supposed to be a diminished chord, but in folk music you’ll often run into the vii 0 being played as a major chord. Go back and look at the chord progression for “Little Maggie” and you will see that we are playing an F major chord. Not F# or F#dim, but F major.
As we just discussed with the ii, iii and vii 0 chords, this is not cast in stone. You can theoretically use every chord in the chromatic scale in a song, but nine times out of ten the chords are going to stick to the framework we’ve just outlined in the major scale.
The reason this basic structure is helpful is that you can use it as a mental reference when you have to work out a song on the fly. If you know the song is in G then the odds are pretty good that the G, C and D chords will be the used in some fashion. If the song suddenly takes a weird turn then it might be the iii chord being played as a major. In the key of G that would be a B chord.
Common Chord Progressions In Major Scales
The key isn’t to memorize every scale. As I’ve said before memorizing won’t help you much. The key is to develop an intuitive feeling for the way chord progression work regardless of the key. A good way to start working on that is to transpose a song you already know into different keys.
People make transposing seem a lot tougher than it really is. All we have to do is move to a new scale.
Take “Cripple Creek” for example. Earlier in the book we played it in G using the chords G, C and D.
It just so happens that these are the I, IV and V chords in the major scale. To play the song in D all we have to do is pull the I, IV and V chords from another scale and swap things around.
We will go into transposing melodies a little later on in this book.
Minor chord progressions are charted out much like major progressions, but the order of major and minor chords change.
i ii0 III iv v VI VII i A B C D E F G A
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 usually a diminished chord.
Just as the major scale has the I-IV-V progression minor scales use an i-iv-v7 or i-iv-V7 progression.In A minor those chords would be Am, Dm, and Em or Am, Dm, and E7.
Common Chord Progressions In Minor Scales
As I mentioned earlier in this chapter chords are build on the intervals and degrees of the scale. What that means without writing out enough theory to make both of our heads explode is that a major chord is made of the first, third and fifth notes in the scale.
To make a G chord those notes would be G, B and D. Find those three notes anywhere on the fretboard and play them together and it’s a G chord.
Other chord forms or flavors are made up of different combinations of notes. I’ll chart a few of them out for you to experiment with.
Minor chord: 1, 3b, 5 notes in the scale.
Major 7 chord: 1, 3, 5, 7 notes in the scale.
Minor 7 chord: 1, 3b, 5, 7b notes in the scale.
Dominant 7 chord: 1, 3, 5, 7b notes in the scale.
Diminished chord: 1, 3b, 5b, 6 notes in the scale.
Augmented chord: 1, 3, 5# notes in the scale.
6 th chord: 1, 3, 5, 6 notes in the scale.
Suspended chord: 1, 4, 5 notes in the scale.
You don’t have to memorize the notes of every chord form, but understanding that chords are built from scales will help you find melody lines and scale patterns on the fretboard in jamming situations.
Before you head to the next chapter spend some time tinkering with chord progressions. Listen to how even a progression as simple as the I-IV-V can be bent and reshaped into different sounds.
The next step is to use those sounds to create melodies and exciting rhythms.
Moveable Chord Forms
Because the fretboard is laid out in half steps along the chromatic scale you can move chord forms up and down the neck. What this means is that you can learn almost every available chord on your banjo just by moving around a handful of chord forms.
The G Position:
The G7 chord follows the same pattern.
The C Position:
The F Position:
The Am Position:
The Em Position:
The Dm Position:
When you hear a bass or guitar alternating between high and low bass notes they are playing two notes of the chord in what is often called a “root-five” pattern.
I know what you’re thinking, why is it called root-five if there are only three notes in a major chord?
Major chords are made from the first, third and fifth notes in the scale. For example, a G major chord is made up of the notes G-B-D. To play an alternating bass over a G chord we would play G (the root note) and D (the fifth note) of the G scale. “Root-five.”
The practice pattern I pointed out earlier as being one of the most useful is a root-five pattern because we were alternating between the G (root) string and the D (“five”) string.
In a jam session listening to the bass pattern of the guitar or bass can assist you in spotting chord changes. Once you start to recognize the pattern you will begin to feel the alternating bass pushing the song into the next chord.
Backing up your voice by playing a frailing strum with alternating bass can really “fill out” the sound of a song.
One thing to be aware of when it comes to using this idea is that the banjo has limits when it comes to bass strings. For example, when a chord progression goes to C (a C chord is made of the notes C-E-G) we have to compromise a bit because we don’t have a low C string in open G tuning. We could retune the fourth string to C, but that opens up a separate set of problems. The easy solution is to compromise and play the E note on the fourth string at the second fret.
Let’s try playing the verse of “Cripple Creek” using the root-five pattern.
4/4 Time Key of G
Try working out high and low bass patterns for other chord progressions on your own.
Chopping And Vamping
Another useful tool for working out a chord progression for playing backup is the chop.
In the basic frailing strum we are counting out each measure with the emphasis on the first and the third beats. The quarter notes (bump) in the “bump dit-ty” stand out a little more than the eighth notes (dit-ty) so the count comes out as ” one two and three four and”.
To play the chop we switch the emphasis over to the second and fourth beats. To do this we rest on the first beat, strum on the second beat, rest on the third beat and strum on the fourth beat.
This changes the count to something more like “one chop three chop “.
In order to emphasize this altered count we add in a left hand technique called vamping. To vamp all we have to do is slightly lighten up the pressure of our fingers on the strings just after the strum. The idea is to only lift up enough to stop the ringing of the chord. Your fingers stay on the strings to deaden them. This cuts the ringing of the strings short.
This is a great way to feel out chord progressions in a jam session and add a little salt and pepper into your backup playing. For maximum effect you should use closed chord positions such as the F-position G chord when “chopping”.
Now try playing “Cripple Creek” using the chop.