Basic Chord Progression Exercise

No doubt you’ve been working hard on all the power, open, and movable chords we’ve reviewed recently, and it would be nice to put them to use, right? Here’s a very simple (but effective) chord progression that you can put through the paces, and sharpen your chord chops at the same time.

The progression is in the key of C#m (relative major key is E major). The basic progression goes like this:


Just straight, even quarter-note strums. Couple of things to try once the basics are comfortable:

  1. Alternate strumming directions; strum upward on the downbeat.
  2. Take a look at all the different ways we’ve covered in how to play each of these chords. How many different places can you play an E or an A chord? Even with something like the G#7 chord, you really only need the root, major 3rd, perfect 5th, and flat 7th to get the dominant 7th chord, so the other movable forms we’ve reviewed can be used as well.
  3. Try out all the various different rhythms and beats you can think of, instead of just straight 4/4 quarter notes.

This lesson is much more about basic songwriting and chord progression concepts, than technique. So don’t worry too much about the usual suggestions of strict alternate picking, trying down-up and up-down picking, etc. Focus more on getting a good rhythm going, trying various chord voicings and positions, changing up the order of the progression (try the chords in reverse, or another order), and again trying different rhythms for the chords as you go through them, not just the same strums for each chord.

Let’s try the progression with a slight change in the last bar:


This is a really cool way to lead you back to the C#m to start the progression all over again. You can just go to the B chord if you want, but what’s cool about having the D# (which is the major third of the B chord) as the lowest note of the chord is that it becomes a leading tone.

A chord whose lowest note is not the root note is called an inversion; in this case, the B/D# is a chromatic inversion, because of the E leading directly to the D#, and then to the C# to go through the progression again.

Using the second example, let’s try running through it with a few rhythmic and strumming variations:


As you can see, none of the chords are complete strums anymore. The last halves of the 1st and 3rd bars are good examples of arpeggiated chords; the G#-E-C# ending bar 1 is an inverted C#m triad, while the A-E-G# form an inverted A major triad. The interrelation between scales, chords, and arpeggios is a vital one to understand, and seeing how an arpeggio is really just a broken chord is useful.

Play through the progression in this fashion a few times, and listen carefully to how the chord partials suggest, piece by piece, the same tonalities as before, but this time with more subtlety and nuance. Definitely try your own variations.

This is a very simple example of how you can effectively orchestrate a progression, suggesting pieces of things for the listener’s ear to put together, rather than trying to play everything at once.

If you write songs on guitar, and add keyboard or bass guitar accompaniment, think further about how those elements could be used in this type of progression. The bass could take a “walking”, leading-tone melody similar to what’s suggested by the chord inversion in the last bar, and not just hold down the root note. The keyboard could play partials while the guitar plays full chords (or vice versa).

Obviously, orchestration is an extremely complex subject, and beyond the scope of this post. But it’s a useful concept to keep in mind as you work through the third example here, and think about how breaking chords up into musically relevant pieces can arrange a progression in a manner that’s more interesting and pleasing to your ear.

Again, as far as pure technique, it’s not as important here, it’s more crucial to engage your ears in how things sound and flow together. The basic rule of thumb to alternate pick as much as possible applies as a general rule, but for example, if it makes more sense to you to pick some of the arpeggiated chords in the same direction, go ahead and do it. Or pick the lower notes and fingerpick the upper ones. Or fingerpick everything; for those of you who are unfamiliar with fingerpicking, or would just like to work on that important technique some more, we’ll be going over some classical fingerpicking studies during April.

Of course, experiment with all of the above ideas, first trying all of the chords in the progression in various forms, then with utilizing additional chords, then with completely new combinations.

5 Basic Pentatonic Licks Every Rock Guitarist Should Know

Many classic rock solos tend to be built up from various combinations and sequences of easy-to-play pentatonic licks. Let’s take a look at five powerful “stock” phrases, all based around the standard A minor pentatonic box. Each tab is accompanied by a .wav file, at two speeds (92 beats per minute and 160bpm), so you can hear how it should sound.

Here’s a two-string pull-off lick:


BasicPent01(slow) BasicPent01(fast)

For many two-string legato exercises using box shapes, it helps to use your index finger as anchor, similar to barring a chord, but just for the two or three strings you might be using for the lick.

The next one uses a hammer-on instead of a pull-off:


BasicPent02(slow) BasicPent02(fast)

No doubt you’ve heard similar phrases used in countless rock, metal, country, and blues lead playing. Definitely use a metronome and follow the picking suggestions until you get these licks internalized, then you can start putting more distinctive dynamics into it, and make them yours.

Let’s move to the middle two strings of the box, and try a nice four-on-the-floor alternate picking lick:


BasicPent03(slow) BasicPent03(fast)

Again, while these are simple phrases, your advantage is that you’re a guitar player, so there’s all sorts of cool dynamics you can incorporate into even the simplest four-note phrase. In the above example, you can use palm muting to get a percussive “chunk” sound, you can add artificial harmonics for a nice “squeal” effect here and there, you can make some or all of it into a legato phrase, whatever.

You can also play it in reverse, or with a different section of the box, or any of the other four boxes, or transpose it to another key.

Are we having fun yet?

This next lick is a fun and easy one, that will work out both your legato and picking chops. Zeppelin fans will probably note its similarity to the final phrase Jimmy Page plays in the middle (main) Rock and Roll solo:


BasicPent04(slow) BasicPent04(fast)

Don’t be afraid of the triplet-16th/eighth note phrasing; once you get it down you’ll appreciate the polyrhythmic quality. It’s a huge element of developing your own phrasing as a lead player.

All of these examples are shown as just simple repetitions, because that’s the easiest way to get it under your fingers. The idea is to build a nice arsenal of these “stock” licks and take a piece here and there to combine and sequence into a great solo.

The guitar is your voice. Everyone has something to say, what’s on your mind?

The fifth lick involves the use of the blues scale. The blues scale is the pentatonic scale, with a flatted fifth (the tritone or “blue note”) thrown in. Here’s the blues scale as it lays along the first two boxes of the A minor pentatonic sequence:

Am Blues Scale

Take a close look at the above diagram; there are only six notes in the scale, repeated throughout two full octaves: A-C-D-Eb-E-G. See where Box #1 and Box #2 border each other and overlap.

So we’re going to throw that blue note in the mix with this last lick. The first bar of the phrase will just take you through the first octave of the scale, with a little back-and-forth phrasing. The second bar features some easy bending, before moving up to the 2nd box for another bend (but this time no release) with a nice chromatic passing tone (the C#, E’ string 9th fret), before ending on the high root note A (B string, 10th fret), by sliding into it from the G note (8th fret) below.

Check it out, and listen to the .wav files to hear the phrasing and nuances. This is more of a “voicing” lick, in that you don’t need (or even want) to crank it up to too high of a speed; dynamics such as bends and slides really don’t sound all that great at Mach 1:


BasicPent05(slow) BasicPent05(fast)

While all of these licks are fairly simple to play and easy to master, the challenge is to make them sound unique. Use all of those dynamics (palm muting, harmonics, slides, legato, etc.) available to you to infuse the phrases with your voice and personality. Since the above exercises are in A minor, they should all sound pretty good over progressions in the keys of Am, Dm, or Em.

While it’s a rule of thumb to play any exercise in every key, not just the key it’s shown in, with pentatonic exercises there are keys that are advantageous to focus on, primarily because of the way the guitar is tuned. So while it would be great if you can transpose all of these into all 12 keys, the best ones to focus on for pentatonics are: Em (open and 12th positions), F#m (2nd and 14th positions), Gm (3rd/15th), Am (5th/17th), Bm (7th), Cm (8th), Dm (10th). The positions indicate where Box #1 will start, as shown on the cheat sheet.

When thinking about musical keys, think about how the relative minor/major factors into it as well. The relative minor key is always three frets (1½ steps) below the major key. So in your five interconnected pentatonic boxes, Box #1 is minor, Box #2 is #1’s relative major. That means the A minor boxes can also be played in the key of C major. The reverse is true as well; you will find some rock songs in the key of E major whose solos are played mostly in the C#m box at the 9th position.

The concepts are more important than rote memorization of every position and every box; once you learn the boxes in one position and get the hang of transposing, you’re most of the way there.

Stay tuned, we’ll have more intermediate and advanced pentatonic licks coming soon! Please feel free to drop a line in comments if there are any issues with playing the sound files.

If you’re ready for an in-depth exploration of the pentatonic/blues scales and boxes, and want to learn how to develop tasty, memorable licks and melodic runs with them, check out Pentatonic Licks & Sequences. Dozens of fresh licks, along with valuable tips and tricks to construct your own! Get some blues you can use with Pentatonic Licks & Sequences!

Lazy Train

Apologies for the lack of posting in the last week or so, but we’ll have lots more stuff coming over the next few weeks — an update on the chord tutorials we’ve posted so far, and at least one more brief chord tutorial to come. Also, we’ll get back into pentatonics, scales and modes, more Licks of the Week, and start working on another great classical piece that will sharpen both your technique and your ear at the same time!

Movable Chords, Part 3

Let’s wrap up our series on movable chords with 4-string forms. As with the 5- and 6-string forms, we’ll be showing the major, minor, dominant 7th(7), minor 7th(m7), and major 7th(M7) chords. Examples are shown in fifth position, so starting on the 4th (D) string, that means these chords will all be in the key of G (4th string, 5th fret).

Here’s the movable G major chord:

G(barre) G(barre)

If you recall the open D position chords we worked with previously, then think of your first finger as taking the place of the open string in that form, serving as the root note in the movable form. There is some contortion of the other three fingers involved here, so you may want to alternatively try barring your 2nd (middle) finger across the G and high E strings, keeping the 4th finger on the B string. It’s still not easy to do, and still have all the notes ring out properly, but practice both ways and see what works better for you.

The good news is that the other four movable forms we’ll look at today are much simpler to do. Here’s the G minor chord:


Not saying it’s easy, but it should be easier than the major chord. Here’s the dominant 7th:


The m7 requires a bit of “bunching”, but not too bad:


It may be easier for some to play the m7 chord with the 2nd and 3rd fingers reversed. Try it!

The simplest chord form out of all of these is the M7, just two fingers:


As with the 5-string “flip-off” chord from before, the middle finger is raised off the fretboard here, you’re just using 1st and 3rd fingers. Even though the 1st finger is just playing the one root note, it’s a good habit to barre it anyway. This will facilitate switching to other chords more easily. Practice the 4-string forms up and down the neck until you’re comfortable with all five of them, then start combining them with the 5- and 6-string patterns.

Between the 5 open position chord forms and the 3 movable position chord forms that we’ve covered over the past couple weeks, probably around 80% of all rock, metal, blues, country, and even some classical guitar can be played. Naturally, there are plenty of chords and chord types that are not addressed in these series, and we will get to some of those soon (especially suspended chords). But getting the open and movable forms under your fingers will get you a long way toward not just learning conventional chord forms, but how chords are constructed in the first place.

Stay tuned, in upcoming posts we’ll go over chord progressions utilizing everything we’ve covered, as well as strumming and arpeggiation (picking) patterns to try on them. Good luck and have fun!

Movable Chords, Part 2

No doubt you’re having fun practicing your barring, getting that index (1st) finger anchored just right. Good news — moving on to 5- and 4-string forms, it definitely gets easier, as far as how much barring is required to make complete chords.

We’re going to stay in the 5th position, but we’ll be leaving the low E out for these chord forms. Root notes will be on the 5th fret of the 5th (A) string, so all chords in this post will have D for the root.

Here is the D major chord:

D(barre) D(barre)

Most people will find the “bunching” of the 2nd/3rd/4th fingers to be a hassle. This is one of those instances where bending the “rules” a bit is strongly encouraged. It’s still a good idea to practice your barring, and holding your other fingers so that none of the notes get choked out by inadvertent contact. But the note barred on the high E string is redundant, another A note, which is the perfect fifth (P5) of the scale. (Check the appropriate cheat sheet on the Free Resources page for more in-depth discussions on the interrelationships between intervals, scales, and chord construction.)

Especially if you’re using a lot of distortion, it can simpler and more effective to just play this chord as the classic Jimmy Page “flip-off” chord, barring the 1st and 3rd fingers:

D(barre)(alt.)D(barre) (2)

For this alternate formation, consider that A note on the high E string optional. It is possible to barre the 3rd finger in such a way that you can still play the A “underneath it”, with the 1st-finger barre, but it is difficult even for intermediate players to do it so that all five notes ring out like they should. Definitely try both styles, and in an actual playing situation, let the song determine which one to use.

The other four chords are more simple and straightforward. Let’s check out the minor formation:

Dm(barre) Dm(barre)

Should be no problems with this one, including shifting from or to another chord.

The dominant 7th chord requires a bit of stretching, but not too bad:

D7(barre) D7(barre)

The m7 chord is just like the minor chord, with the 4th finger lifted:

Dm7(barre) Dm7(barre)_

As with the 6-string chords, play back and forth between the m7 and minor chords, pressing and lifting the 4th finger, but not moving any other fingers.

Finally the M7 chord, which is the dominant 7th with the 2nd (middle) finger applied:

DM7(barre)_ DM7(barre)

You know the drill by now — play back and forth between the M7 and dom. 7th chords, moving only the 2nd finger. Practice shifting through various combinations of all five chords, in various positions along the neck, using different strum combinations. Except for the alternate major “flip-off” form, make sure all five notes ring clear.

On Tuesday we’ll wind up this series, and there will be several follow-up posts showing various chord progressions and picking (including fingerpicking) exercises to practice.

Saturday Shredder Double Header: Tony Iommi

No two ways about it, Tony Iommi stands tall as the architect of metal. Countless riffs and inventive solos later, after forty-five years and innumerable line-up changes, Sabbath in its various incarnations has set a standard for every heavy band that followed. These days, you can probably find more bands influenced by Sabbath than by the Stones or Beatles, seriously.

At any rate, here are two classic Iommi performances from 2009, with Dio, Geezer, and Vinny Appice (Heaven and Hell).

Movable Chords, Part 1

Hopefully by now you’ve had plenty of time to work on all the open position chords we’ve been reviewing over the last week or so. Those are great, and again, nothing sounds quite like an open string or two ringing in with several fretted notes in constructing a clear, resonant chord that you can build a song around.

But movable chord forms will give you maximum versatility up and down the neck, and all around the fretboard. We’ll take a look at the movable versions of the five main chord forms (major, minor, dominant 7th, major 7th, minor 7th) in three segments, using 4, 5, and all 6 strings. This post will cover the 6-string forms.

As with the open chord series, for this series we’ll assume that you have never attempted this sort of chord before, so we’ll start with some fundamentals. Barring is one of the more difficult things for beginners to do successfully, so follow the fingering suggestions closely, and be patient with yourself. Strum slowly through the chord, making sure all notes ring out clear and clean.

A good way to practice barring before trying one of these chord forms is to just use the index finger, barre it across all six strings (pick any position you like), and strum slowly and evenly, maybe a quarter to half a second between each note. By the time you get to the last note, the first notes should still be audible. If one or more of the notes can’t be heard all the way through, you may be slightly altering the pressure of your finger, and allowing the note to choke or deaden early. This is especially likely to happen midway beneath the finger, along the four interior strings (ADGB). Again, maintain even, consistent pressure throughout, and keep at it until you can hear all six notes.

You might be thinking that it would be easier to start with 4-string forms, and move on to 5 and 6 strings. However, it’s actually simpler to learn the concept of barring by starting with all the strings at once. If you can do six strings, five or four strings will be no problem at all.

All of the movable forms we’re going to be checking out will be done at the 5th position. So for 6-string chords, as the 5th fret on the low E (6th) string is A, these will all be A chords. Root notes are indicated in red. Here’s A major:


Try a variety of strumming techniques:  faster, slower, downstrokes, upstrokes, etc. No matter how you play it, you should be able to hear all six notes in the chord.

The interval that determines whether a chord is major or minor is the third, which is played here by the 2nd (middle) finger. So for this 6-string form, to change from major to minor just lift the middle finger:

Am(barre) Am(barre)

It may not be easy to tell in the photo, but the middle finger is actually lifted here, just the barest distance needed. An easy way to build your barring ability is to go back and forth between the major and minor chords, just pressing and lifting that middle finger, without moving the others. When you can play both chords perfectly, moving just the one finger, then you’ve got it nailed.

The dominant 7th form is the same as the major, with the 4th finger (pinky) lifted:

A7(barre) A7(barre)

Again, work back and forth between this chord and the major, this time pressing and lifting only the 4th finger. Work in the minor form also, as that gets more comfortable.

The minor 7th (m7) is the easiest of these 6-string chords to play:

Am7(barre) Am7(barre)_

The m7 may be easier than the others, but it can be deceptively simple. You still want to be sure that all six notes are coming through clearly. Work back and forth between the m7 and the minor, by pressing and lifting the 4th finger.

The major 7th (M7) chord is slightly more difficult than the others, but not too bad:

AM7(barre)_ AM7(barre)

The “bunching” of the 2nd and 3rd fingers in the middle there will probably feel unnatural at first, but stick with it. You may find it easier to switch the 2nd and 3rd fingers. Either way, this will definitely be the most difficult chord in this group to switch from or to another chord.

Try all five chords in various positions, up and down the neck, and in various combinations of chords and strumming patterns.

Stay tuned, we’ll look at 5- and 4-string movable formations in a few days.