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Chord Progression Construction for Guitar (Scale Harmonization)

OK, we now have enough knowledge to begin looking at basic chord progression construction. We can play any combination of chords we wish, of course, but there are certain combinations of chords that most agree seem to fit together in a more pleasing way than other possible combinations. As with chord construction, we construct progressions with reference to interval numbers.

The most common chord progression you will hear is the I-IV-V, or one-four-five progression. You will find that many popular songs are based on this progression. To build a I-IV-V, we start with the key we wish to play in. For example, if we wish to play in the key of E major we will start with the E major scale and play the chords corresponding to the first, fourth, and fifth intervals.

E major scale: E-F#-G#-A-B-C#-D#-E

So for a I-IV-V in E major, we want to play the E major, A major, and B major chords, then back to E major (I-IV-V-I, then start over). Go ahead and play through this progression with the strumming pattern we learned previously. You may need to take another look at the major chord charts we learned previously. You can hear how the I-IV-V progression fits together.

Now let's try another one. The C major scale consists of the notes C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C. Can you figure out the I-IV-V in C major? It will be the chords C major, F major, and G major, then back to C major, then start over.

OK, let's consider the artistic element of progression construction. You may easily understand how a visual artist will use differing colors to manipulate the visual senses of the viewer, so that the painter is able to convey to the viewer the image that the painter wants him to see. The visual artist may use glaring contrasts of colors, or he may use very subtle shades of the same color, depending on what type of impression he wants to make or how strong he wants the impression to be. He will probably use a combination of each of these extremes and everything in between in a typical work. The musician uses the same kinds of contrasts, but with sounds instead of with visuals. A song typically consists of a repeated succession of sound contrasts, such as a I-IV-V chord progression, played over a number of times. We start with the key of the song as a foundation. On this foundation we build a sense of movement by changing chords, then we return to the foundation. We may wish to have a high sense of musical contrast, such as the movement from the I chord to the IV chord. This creates a sense of tension or unrest. From there we increase the tension of the progression a bit by changing to the V chord. Then we release the tension by dropping back into the I chord. Do you see how this works? The idea is to create a sense of movement through varying levels of tension, then release back to the foundational rhythm. Go back and play through the I-IV-V progressions above and pay attention to the building and release of tension. You will see what we mean.

Now let's consider some variations on the I-IV-V structure. Try playing these in the keys we have looked at, or pick a key of your own. You may want to try a key with chords that you find easier to play at this point. Just start with the major scale of the key and play the first, fourth, and fifth interval chords of the respective scale.

I-IV-I-V

IV-I-V-I

V-IV-I-I

V-IV-I-IV

Scale Harmonization

OK, now let's look at the concept of harmonization for a moment, then we can move into some more subtle chord progressions. We haven't looked at musical notation yet, so we will try to grasp harmonization from our understanding of intervals. Let's take the C major scale for a starting point.

C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C

To harmonize this scale we want to start at each individual note and build chords from the first, third, and fifth intervals of each key, but we do so using only the notes available in the C major scale, rather than using the notes of the respective keyed scale of the chord we are building. Sounds complicated? It's really not, just follow along.

For the C major chord, we will use the 1-3-5 interval notes, or C-E-G. Now for the second chord of the C major scale harmonization, start at the D note and build a major chord: first, third, and fifth interval notes. So D is one, F is three, and A is five. Now, if you remember, a D major scale has a sharp F, or F#. However, we are harmonizing the C major scale, building chords in each key using only the notes available in the C major scale. So we can't have an F# in the D chord, because the C major scale does not have an F#. If you will think of this from the perspective of the D major scale, we have built a D major, but with a flatted third interval. And what happens when we flat the third interval of a major chord? We have a minor chord. D-F-A is a D minor chord. So the second chord in the harmonized C major scale is D minor, or Dm.

See how this works? E is one, G is three, and B is five. In the E major scale the G is raised one half step to a G#. But we are using only the notes available in the C major scale, because this is a harmonization of the C major scale. So we have the E major notes, but with a flatted third. What does this yield? E minor, or Em. So the third chord in the harmonized C major scale is Em. Get it?

You can work it out for yourself with the rest of the notes, and we encourage you to do so. For brevity's sake here are the chords in the harmonization of the C major scale.

C-Dm-Em-F-G-Am-Bdim

Here is a harmonized D major scale:

D-Em-F#m-G-A-Bm-C#dim

Here is E major harmonized:

E-F#m-G#m-A-B-C#m-D#dim

Now hopefully you are beginning to see the pattern that will help you to harmonize the remaining keys on your own. Notice that the 1, 4, and 5 chords are always major. The 2, 3, and 6 chords are always minor. The seven chord is always diminished (seventh interval of the respective key's major scale, not to be confused with a seventh chord type - we will look at those shortly). This pattern holds for all the harmonizations of the major scales.

Now we can experiment with some additional chord progressions. Try these:

I-IV-VI-V in G. (G-C-Em-D) This is a fairly common progression in popular music.

II-V-I-I in C. (Dm-G-C-C) Common in jazz and generally as a turnaround.

I-II-IV-V in D. (D-Em-G-A)

I-VI-IV-V in C. (C-Am-F-G)

After you finish writing out the remaining harmonized scales on your own, you should experiment with various chord progressions and hear for yourself how they sound. Make up progressions and play them. Play straight through the whole harmonization: I-II-III-IV-V-VI-VII. Some of the progressions you come up with may not sound very satisfying. Nevermind that. This is a great chord exercise, and will also help you in developing an ear for music and a sense of the movement of various chord transitions. This will pay off big in terms of helping you to figure out songs on your own from the radio or a recording. You are going to find that you can't play some of the chords you will come up with using this harmonization technique, as we haven't looked at how to construct them yet. We will get to that soon. Just practice the ones you are able to play. If you get stuck, hit the contact link and submit your question.

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