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.

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