The most common variations to a Chord Progression!
In beginner chord progression we learned about diatonic chord progressions (chords built off the major scale). It’s now time to study the most common variations.
The standard diatonic chords paired with the most common variations like IVm, IIIx and bVII is what makes up the chord progressions of popular music.
All these variations are very common and come from the Blues where we temporarily move between minor and major.
The Blues created the variations
When the Blues first begun to evolve, being accompanied by a guitar, the instruments were of low quality with very high string action.
Therefore, the early blues musicians tuned their guitars to open major chords such as E, D, G and A.
A bottleneck slide was then applied to swap between the different chords in order to form a progression for the singer to tell their story to.
If the first chord was a dom7 chord they simply moved that whole pattern to fret 5 to get the IV chord and did the same thing there: A7 – D7 for example.
Back in standard tuning and the clue to what this has done to modern song writing can be seen in the chord shapes:
Notice that the third is a C# (2nd string, 2nd fret)
A singer would choose to melodically phrase using these chord notes since they feel most comfortable to sing.
So over the A7 a singer naturally hits the notes: A, C#, E or G.
When we move to the next chord; the IV7, or in the key of A; a D7, we can see that the b7th interval is a C, not a C#.
Inside the chord D7, the b7 is a C, in relation to the A chord this is a minor third
What happens is that the D7′s b7th interval, the C, is a semitone away from the A7′s major 3rd interval; the C#.
To move between C# and C is like moving from A major to A minor.
This has had an incredible influence on vocal melody and the blues guitar solo where we constantly move between minor and major.
Let’s have a video demonstration of this.
From A7 to D7 I play on C# to C, from D7 to A7 I play C to A, resolving from “minor” to the root.
From A7 to E7 I play the b7 of A, a m3rd or E, which resolves up to a major third.
The last A7 to E is quick, but it does go b7 of A, up to 3rd of E, that’s G to G#.
Moving like this between minor and major sounded so good that it soon started being employed everywhere. In fact, any of the diatonic chords can be switched as a result of it!
Let’s examine them one by one.
The IIx chord
When turned into major we call it a IIx chord, this means that the chord has temporarily changed, we haven’t changed key.
Should you be in C major then D (or D7 if extended) would be your IIx or IIx7 chord.
Very often, the IIx7 is followed by a V7 chord which is followed by chord I. This progression is a continuous move of “up a 4th”, using dominant chords.
Many songs use IIx7 – V7 – Imaj7 to vary the classic II – V – I.
Chord IIx in songs
- Robin Hood, the IIx is found in the Chorus and Outro
- A Change Is Gonna Come, the IIx7 is followed by a V7 at the end of the bridge
- American Pie, the IIx is found in the chorus
- I’m Yours, the IIx comes in the tag and the instrumental part
- Sunny Afternoon, the IIx is found in the Chorus, three times
The IIIx chord
Whenever you change chord III, a minor chord, into a major chord you get the IIIx. This is by far the most common variation.
Let’s look at the key of C major, here we have an Em as chord III, change that to a IIIx and we get E.
The main purpose of this chord is to steer more heavily towards chord VI, let’s look at why.
Am chord: A C E
Em chord: E G B, the G – A is a tone apart
E chord: E G# B, The G# – A is a semitone apart
The closer the intervals are to each other, the stronger the pull.
Chord IIIx in songs
- One More Cup Of Coffee, the last chord of the progression is chord IIIx
- Rewind, pre chorus starts with IIIx, also found as second chord of M8
- A Change Is Gonna Come, the IIIx appears briefly towards the end of the verse
- Angie, the IIIx chord is the second played during the verse
- Empire State Of Mind, first chord of the bridge is a IIIx
- Sunny Afternoon, all sections have chord IIIx present
The bIIIx chord
If you change your III chord into a major chord and then flatten it a semitone you get your bIIIx chord.
This chord holds extreme tension since most notes inside it is outside of the major or minor scale.
Let’s look at the notes in C major:
C – D – E – F – G – A – B
The III chord is an Em (E – G – B), the bIIIx7, an Eb7 chord has the notes Eb – G – Bb – Db.
Only the G is still a part of the original major scale.
Chord bIIIx in songs
- Beautiful, if seen as in the key of Ab, the last chord of the verse is bIIIx
- I Can’t Stand The Rain, the third chord of the chorus is a bIIIx
- Starman, very briefly at the end of the verse we find a bIIIx
- Blackbird, in the chorus you could find a bIIIx although it is probably a key change
- Take Me To The River, the bridge has a bIIIx chord
- Tenderness, has a bIIIx with and without bass note variation
Perhaps a little complicated theoretically but at least it’s easy to spot when the bIIIx enters a song, extreme tension!
My favourite example of bIIIx happens in the third chord played in Smells Like Teen Spirit, so let’s hand over to Kurt and the boys for some bIIIx action!
The third chord played is the bIIIx.
The IVm chord
The IVm completely throws the feel of our normal IV chord out the window.
The IVm chord has a slow down effect on almost any progression, especially when it is used after a normal IV chord.
Many song writers secret weapon, the IVm is instantly spotted by chord progression enthusiasts.
Chord IVm in songs
- Starman, the chorus tag goes IV – IVm
- Baby Won’t You Please Come Home, the outro has a IVm
- Blackbird, the verse contain IV – IVm
- Over The Rainbow, twice we hear the IVm in the chorus
- Dream A Little Dream, towards the end of the verse we get IV – IVm
In my favourite IVm example, Goodnight Sweetheart Goodnight, the IVm really stands out, let’s have a listen. Can you work out when it appears?
The VIx chord
Another great trick for song writers is to turn the usually sad chord VI into a major chord, this gives any song a surprise lift.
When extended I used to think that it’s always into a dom7 but recently I have been proven wrong (see below).
Usually though, if it’s VIx, it’s just a major chord rarely extended to dom7.
Check out these examples and see how you expect something sad to happen, but get happy!
Chord VIx in songs
- Sunny Afternoon, when the chorus goes to a VIx it really is a lift
- Baby Won’t You Please Come Home, frequent use of VIx throughout
- Dream A Little Dream, VIx happen in the verse, later a bVIIx joins the party
- I Wish, first chord of the bridge is a VIx
- Tenderness, VIx appear in the outro
Estelle finds the VIxmaj7
In American Boy, the first chord of the verse (after the slide in chord) is an Emaj7, this is a VIxmaj7 chord. The entire progression reads Emaj7 – Cmaj7 – Am7 – Fmaj7/D.
Just when you thought you’d heard it all…
The bVII chord
You have to look long and hard to find a VII chord in a song, but change it into a major chord and flatten it and all of a sudden it’s everywhere!
Perhaps the reason we so easily take to the bVIIx is because moving up a 4th from to another major chord is something we just like to hear.
So when a IV chord goes up a 4th and hits another major chord it just makes sense. In C major this would be F (IV) to Bb (bVII).
If you really want to go to town on this concept, start on IIx7 and just move up a 4th: D7 (IIx7) – G7 (V7) – C7 (I7) – F7 (IV7) – Bb7 (bVIIx7)
Sounds pretty common to me!
Chord bVIIx in songs
- Beautiful, if seen as in the key of Eb, the second chord of the verse is a bVIIx
- I Can’t Stand The Rain, first chord of the chorus is a bVIIx
- Angels, towards the end of the chorus a bVIIx steps in to save the Angels instead
- Stairway To Heaven, at the end of the verse if the song is seen as in the key of G
- Take Me To The River, constant use of bVIIx in this song
- Dream A Little Dream, last chord of the chorus
- Tenderness, bVIIx is here, but then again, what chord isn’t!
To learn more about these songs and how chord progressions are what describe the music, take the Intermediate Guitar Course.