A great way to create more interesting chord progressions is to use a pedal note or pedal point.
A pedal note is a static bass note that sticks around for a few measures while the chords change over the top. You can use them in progressions like this:
Or like this:
You’ll see that slash notation again – where the note after the slash is a bass note that’s not the root of the chord above it. Except, unlike with inverted chords, the pedal note isn’t necessarily part of the chord above. This might look weird, but as long as the pedal note begins and ends with a chord above that has the pedal note in it somewhere, it should sound OK. (So you could try switching up the last chord in the first example for A minor, but you might find jumping from G/C to A minor sounds weird.)
Because pedal notes just sit there while the harmony moves on top, they tend to have a solid, static effect. That means they work well in songs with slower tempos, or at the very beginning of your verse where you generally want to keep the harmony simple so you can build on that with more adventurous chords later. It also means you pedal notes won’t always work if you want your song to be upbeat or driving.
In theory, you can put a pedal note on any degree of the scale, but the vast majority of pedal notes in songwriting are on the tonic, the root note of the scale, like both of the examples above.
In fact, this is a great place to start if you want to explore what pedal notes can do: either create a four-chord progression by using a tonic pedal and finding four chords that work over the top, or create a eight-chord progression where you put a tonic pedal under the first four chords but the bass moves around in the last four chords.
Be sure to check back next month for Ed Bell’s next tip: How to Write Interesting Chord Progressions: Chromatic Alterations.