Unless you’re really into jazz, chord progressions are often simple and straightforward. You might even be able to make the case that, in western music especially, they’re downright boring.
Boiling a song down to just a bass line or the strum of an acoustic guitar can leave us with really basic derivatives of a major or minor scale. However, that’s not exactly a bad thing, assuming we’ve gotten good at dressing them up with distinct melodies and rhythmic variation.
Anyone who knows even a little guitar probably has some familiarity with the following chord progressions:
- G, C and D
- E, A and B
- E, F# and B
In most cases you’ll have some variation of the I, IV and V (the first, fourth and fifth) scale sequence.
Those progressions sound good and provide a solid foundation on which to build melody. This is true for common chord progressions derived from both major and minor scales, as you can see in the following scale sequence diagrams. The I, IV and V sequencing provides some of the most familiar and common progressions in existence.
What if we want to make those progressions a little more interesting?
The good news is we can have simple chord progressions and use intervals with small melodic adjustments to create more variety in our chord voicings. All of this can happen without having to change the actual bass line.
We’ll look at a few different ways to do it.
Integrate a Descending Melody with a Seventh Interval
Let’s start by taking the I, IV and V of the C major scale. This gives us the following chord progression:
C, F, and G
The tab we get for the traditional voicing of each chord gives us three very familiar shapes:
If we know the progression in this form, we can make it a little more interesting by adding a connected melody that descends through each chord shape. For these chords we can start on the third string at the fourth fret, as in the following tab sheet:
I’ve left out some of the higher intervals in each chord to highlight the descending melody, which is easily heard in the progression.
You’re basically interjecting a lead guitar lick into the existing progression, applying one note to each chord.
It’s a simple adjustment but, it helps your progression stand out a little more, particularly in the following ways:
- It creates a melody that harmonizes with the bass line.
- It creates a greater feeling of anticipation at the V chord.
- It creates a greater feeling of rest at the root chord.
- Can potentially serve as a compliment layer to the vocal or dominant melody line.
We can tie the melody line in with our root notes for a more clear and minimized picture of how each interval sounds within the progression.
Going from left to right each chord has been distilled into the following intervals, paired with their respective root notes:
- Major 7th
- Major 3rd
The descending melody sets us up with a C7, F and G progression that provides a slightly more dissonant and bluesy sound than the original pattern. We can draw up a similar voicing in the key of E major, starting with the ii, V and I of that scale. Again, the result is a descending melody with a bluesy seventh flavor.
That scale sequence gives us F♯, B and E. Here’s how it would look with default voicings.
We can use a stripped down seventh chord shape for the ii and I chord (the F♯ and the E) to create a bluesy ascending melody on the fourth string.
Here’s the pattern with those notes highlighted.
Major Seventh Interval Example
The major seventh interval makes it really easy for us to alter chord voicings pulled out of a major scale, especially if we reduce the size of the chord by omitting less consequential intervals like fifths and octaves.
But what if we don’t want a bluesy sound? What if we don’t want to use seventh chords at all?
We can mod our progressions by using one or two connecting open notes that share in the same parent scale from which we derived the original progression.