If you’ve seen that YouTube video, you’ll know there are a lot of songs that use the chord progression C–G–Am–F. And while it’s totally fine to take us down a well-trodden path with your chord progressions, sometimes it’s fun to be more adventurous. Let’s look at how to do just that.
Just before we do: if you know even a bit about harmony, you’ll know that what’s important is not the chords themselves, but the relationship those chords have to the key they’re in. So a C major chord on its own doesn’t mean anything: it’s whether that C major chord is the tonic (chord I) or dominant (chord V) or something else entirely that gives that C major chord meaning in a larger progression.
Otherwise, just know that the examples I’m going to give you in this article are going to be in C major or A minor, but I’ll also label all of the chords using the standard roman numeral notation so you can use the progressions in other keys. In other words: roman numbers (I to VII) show you which degree of the scale the chord is built on, uppercase letters (e.g. I) indicate the chord is major, and lowercase letters (e.g. vi) indicate the chord is minor.
Again, if that’s left you scratching your head, it’s definitely worth clicking on those links above to get some basic theory under your belt before you read on. But assuming we’re good, let’s get to it.
One of the simplest and most effective ways to enrich your chord progressions is through the use of inversions. Most of the time, chords appear in what’s called root position, with the root – the letter name of the chord – as the bass note. Like, C major – C, E and G – with a C as the bass, the lowest note:
But you can also put one of the other notes in a chord as the bass, making it an inverted chord. Depending which note you put in the bass, you end up with chords in first inversion or second inversion:
(You’ll see I’ve notated the chord names with ‘slash’ notation, where the first letter is the chord name, and the letter after the slash indicates the bass note, which is something other than the root. You’ll also see ‘b’ and ‘c’ added to their roman numeral chord names to indicate first and second inversion.)
In practice, you don’t find many second inversion chords in songwriting, but first inversion chords are not only common, they’re really effective to throw in now and then.
There are two really common reasons you might throw in an inverted chord or two. One is just to add a more floaty, unresolved quality to a chord progression:
If you play the above example you’ll hear how the inverted chord keeps the progression feeling restless and unresolved. Compare that with this version with a regular C chord at the end and you’ll hear what I mean:
Another common reason to use inverted chords is to smooth out a bassline, or just make its shape more interesting. As I say in my book, The Art of Songwriting, it’s good to think of your bassline as a second melody, and think about the contour it makes on its own and with your vocal melody over the top.
Here’s an example:
Play it and you’ll hear what I mean – using an inversion on the second chord neatly connects the C and A minor chords on either side with a cheeky B bass note. Of course, you could play the chord progression with a regular G chord and it’ll still work just great. It’ll just give a different effect.
In fact, that leads onto an important idea – that a) the tools I’m giving you in this article are just that, tools, and b) like all tools, you won’t want to use them all the time. Just because you own a sledgehammer doesn’t mean you’d use it to nail in a picture hook. Just because you know what the word ‘esoterica’ means doesn’t mean you’d use it in every sentence, et cetera, et cetera.
Either way, the thing about mastering all these techniques is that they’re there when you want to create the kinds of effects they create. If you want your song to sound bold, bouncy and/or down to earth, stick with root position chords. If you want something more subtle, restless and/or unresolved, try throwing in an inverted chord or two.
Be sure to check out Ed Bell’s next tip: How to Write Interesting Chord Progressions: Pedal Notes.