Discover the most common variations to a chord progression
The blues, the x and m variations
The most common variations
In beginner chord progression, we learned about diatonic chord progressions (chords built off the major scale).
Here at intermediate, 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 all chord progressions in popular music.
All these variations are very common and originate from the Blues where we temporarily move between minor and major.
Let’s take a look at how the blues did this and how it’s influenced the melody in not just blues, but all popular music we hear today.
We start off with chord I and IV, which in a blues environment are dom7 chords.
The most important variation that started it all – The I7 chord
When the Blues first began 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 used to swap between the different chords in order to form a progression for the singer to tell their story over.
Instead of chord I being a major chord or when extended, a maj7, Blues musicians decided that a dom7 chord was a better idea.
What’s more, they simply moved that whole pattern to fret five to get the IV chord and did the same thing there, so A7 – D7 for example.
Notice that the 3rd is a C# (2nd string, 2nd fret)
A singer would naturally choose to phrase using chord notes since they feel the most comfortable to sing.
Over the A7 chord, a singer naturally choose the notes A, C#, E or G.
In relation to the A chord, this is a m3rd.
Moving from A7 to D7 is not harmonically correct, Beethoven and Mozart would have been furious – It should be Amaj7 – Dmaj7!
The D7’s b7th interval, the C, is a semitone away from the A7’s major 3rd interval, the C#.
By switching between the two dom7 chords we have created a movement between major and minor.
In this video, I demonstrate how to play on this switch between major and minor. This is the very foundation of blues and therefore popular music so very important stuff!
How to play minor over major
From A7 to D7, I play on C# to C.
Coming back from D7 to A7, I play C to A, resolving “from minor” to the root of A.
From A7 to E7, I play the b7 of A. This is a m3rd of an E chord, which resolves up to a 3rd.
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 from minor to major as a result of it!
The IIx chord
Originally, chord II is a minor chord that belongs to the Dorian mode. 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, creating a variation on the classic II – V – I progressions.
Chord IIx in songs
In the beginner and intermediate acoustic songs you’ll find IIx in these songs:
- American Pie – The IIx is found in the chorus
- I’m Yours – The IIx comes in the tag and the instrumental part
- Robin Hood – The IIx is found in the chorus and outro
- Sunny Afternoon – The IIx is found in the chorus
Among the advanced songs, the IIx is found even more frequently.
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 an E chord.
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.
To learn the characteristic sound of the IIIx we need to look among our beginner and intermediate acoustic songs.
Chord IIIx in songs
We can find the characteristic IIIx in these songs:
- Angie – The IIIx chord is the second played during the verse
- Empire State Of Mind – The first chord of the bridge is a IIIx
- One More Cup Of Coffee – Verse and the chorus has IIIx chords
- Rewind – The pre-chorus starts with a IIIx
There are many more examples of the IIIx chord among the advanced and master songs.
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 key.
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 bIIIx, an Eb chord has the notes Eb – G – Bb.
Only the G is still a part of the original key of C.
Chord bIIIx in songs
You’ll find the bIIIx chord in these intermediate, advanced and master songs:
- Beautiful – If seen as in Ab, the last chord of the verse is bIIIx
- Starman – Very briefly at the end of the verse we find a bIIIx
- Take Me To The River – The bridge has a bIIIx chord
- Tenderness – There’s a bIIIx among all the chords
It’s easy to spot when the bIIIx appear, extreme tension!
The IVm chord
The IVm completely throws the feel of our normal IV chord out the window.
The IV chord has a striving feeling, whereas the IVm has a slow down effect on almost any progression, especially when it is used after a normal IV chord.
Many songwriters secret weapon, the IVm is easily spotted by chord progression enthusiasts.
If you want to be able to recognise the sound of IVm you have to find her in songs.
Chord IVm in songs
You’ll find the IVm chord in these songs:
- Baby Won’t You Please Come Home – The outro has a IVm
- Blackbird – The verse contains the IV – IVm movement
- Dream A Little Dream – At the end of the verse we get IV – IVm
- Over The Rainbow – Twice we hear the IVm in the chorus
There’s plenty more IVm chords in amoung the songs in the step by step courses.
The VIx chord
Another great trick for songwriters 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, 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
You’ll find the VIx chord in these songs:
- Dream A Little Dream – The VIx appears in the verse
- I Wish – The second chord of the bridge is a VIx
- Sunny Afternoon – The VIx is the first chord of the chorus
- Tenderness – The VIx appear in the outro
With it’s upliftig sound, the VIs is a great surprise chord, perfect when you want to change direction in a song.
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
You’ll hear the distinctive sound of the bVIIx in these songs:
- Angels – Towards the end of the chorus, a bVIIx chord appears
- Beautiful – If seen as in Eb, the second chord is a bVIIx
- I Can’t Stand The Rain – The first chord of the chorus is a bVIIx
- Take Me To The River – A constant use of the bVIIx in this song
You’ll learn more about chords, scales and how to crack the fretboard code when you take the intermediate guitar course.