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3 Steps to Generate Chord Progressions on Guitar

#intermediate

Article by Bobby Kittleberger of Guitar Chalk.

Chord progressions, especially in western music, are formulaic.

Unlike melody, rhythm and other aspects of our music the chord progressions that undergird most of the tracks we listen to are mostly the same and do not often stray from convention.

But have you ever wondered why that is?

Have you ever wanted to actually know where these progressions come from and how to build them out yourself?

If we know the right music theory concepts, we can generate chord progressions based on simple major and minor scales without having to guess at what combinations of chords might sound good. This makes us better musicians and better songwriters by giving us a formal way to provide our music with the proper foundation.

All we need to do is learn a little music theory.

1. Start with a Seven-Note Scale

First we should establish that every chord has a root note, which corresponds to some note in a musical scale.

That means the root note of a chord can be given a position within a seven-note diatonic guitar scale, which is the type of scale that degrees are most typically applied to. Let’s take the C major scale, for example:

C – D – E – F – G – A – B

This assumes that you want to build a progression in the key of C. If not, switch it out with something like the E major scale instead or whatever key you’d like to play in.

You can do the same thing with pentatonic scale guitar runs or diagrams, if you happen to have those handy and prefer them. However, there’s some trickery involved there because most pentatonic scales are only five notes and in this case, we need seven.

So for our example, we’ll stick with the key of C.

Our chord progression will be extracted from this sequence of notes.

2. Learn the Scale Degrees

Every seven-note scale has scale degrees, which are descriptors given to each note in the scale, advancing from left to right. For example, if we take the C major scale above, here are the degrees that we give to each note.

From left to right:

Tonic – Supertonic – Mediant – Subdominant – Dominant – Submediant – Leading Tone

So that means that C would be your tonic root, D would be subtonic, E would be mediant and so on in that same pattern.

But how do we know which ones to choose?

When we add roman numerals to each degree, we can easily use the progression circle diagram as a formula for creating chord combinations.

3. Use the Circle Diagram

First, we apply our roman numerals corresponding to each scale degree, left to right, as follows:

I – ii – iii – IV – V – vi – vii°

Now, take a look at the following diagram:

Diagram

You can see where I (our root note) can go to any of the other scale degrees. Once we do, we can draw up a step by step approach for each progression we create.

So let’s start with I going to iii.

1) From I move to iii
2) iii becomes vi
3) vi becomes either ii or IV (choose one – I chose IV)
4) IV becomes either V or vii° (I chose V)

This gives us the following chord progression: I – iii – vi – IV – V – I

We can then plug that back into our scale degrees with the following result: Tonic – Mediant – Submediant – Subdominant – Dominant – Tonic

And if we plug that back into our C major scale, we get the root notes for each chord in our brand new progression:

C – E – F – G – C

If you play this out on the guitar you can hear that it does progress and resolve nicely, giving you a starting point for songwriting or creating some kind of melody.

You could take it in any number of directions:

1) Add minor chords.
2) Turn it into a power chord progression.
3) Transpose it to another key (either change the chords or use a capo).

Once you have it on paper and you learn how to use the diagram, you can come up with as many progressions in as many different keys as you want. You simply need to begin with a basic, diatonic scale in a key of your choice and go from there.

One More Example

Let’s try one more example, this time in the key of F.

Take the F major scale:

F – G – A – B♭ – C – D

We won’t rehash the degrees and numerals, but just refer back to them if need be.

Begin with the root I.

Since we can follow that up with any degree, we’ll go with IV.

From there, we can choose between V or vii°. Let’s go with V.

This gives us the following progression: I – IV – V or F – B♭ – C.

Pretty easy, right? It certainly removes a lot of guesswork involved with chord progressions. And, more importantly, you know these progressions will be based in a theoretical best practice.

And how do you know that?

Because scale degrees represent the tonal direction of notes within each scale, meaning that it’s sensitive to the types of tension that each scale degree creates.

The diagram we showed you takes all this into account. Thus, it’s the formula by which we come up with chord progressions that sound good and are the most musically adaptable.

Concluding

It’s not that you always need to use this system, but learning it and getting to the point where it makes sense to you is important from a music theory perspective.

You’ll have a framework for knowing why certain chord progressions sound good and why others sound like a jumbled, unpleasant mess. Additionally, a connection in your mind between scales and chords will be established.

This is important because the two concepts are not autonomous of one another. Music theory topics are almost always highly coupled and interwoven with one another.

Learn how they’re linked and the fretboard will start to make a lot more sense to you.

Robert Kittleberger is the editor of Guitar Chalk and a staff writer at Guitar Tricks. You can get in touch with him here or via Twitter and Facebook.

Flickr Commons Image Courtesy of Kmeron
4 Comments
Klaus Aagaard Jensen - 2016-02-16

I was schooled with this stuff. But I never use it like this. I think you need to find the tune before you even touch the instrument or think music theory. So you actually know what kind of music it is from the start. I don’t believe you can force that and still make fine music .
I simply find the root notes in my tune and decide if it’s major or minor chords. Later I can analyse and play around with some advanced chords, But if the tune is real good, it’s not even needed.
You need to know about chord progression if you have to improvise to unknown music.

Antony - 2015-12-15

Some really great theory in this article, makes you think logically and sometimes I need a focus or different method to progress my guitar playing. Thanks for this, Tony.

Steve - 2015-12-02

Using C as root, you show the progression as = C – E – F – G – C
Tonic – Mediant – Submediant – Subdominant – Dominant – Tonic

Shouldn’t that be – C – E – A – F – G – C ?

I’m new at this, forgive me if I’m way off base.

adrien - 2015-12-03

Hi Steve, I’m not a pro in music theory either but I think you should ask Guitar Chalk directly on his Facebook or Twitter accounts.

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