Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Theory Behind Guitar Chord Progressions and Playing By Numbers

Understanding chord progressions is essential to learning guitar music theory and becoming a good player. Recognizing chord movement and playing by numbers can help you to:

• Chart, learn and remember songs better
• Apply scales correctly
• Play by ear
• Compose and improvise your own music
• Understand guitar theory and apply it to the fretboard

Major Scale Triads
If you're already familiar with major scale patterns and basic guitar theory, then you can begin to understand guitar chord progressions. The major scale has seven notes and each one can be played as a chord. To build guitar chords, each note is combined with notes three and five degrees ahead in the scale. For this reason, these intervals are called root, third and fifth (or 1 3 5). Combined, the three chord tones are called a "triad".

Root, Third and Fifth Intervals (1 3rd 5th)
When you apply this chord building concept to an entire major scale not all chords end up the same. For example, some chords have major thirds (two whole-steps or four frets above the root) while others have minor thirds (one and a half-steps or three frets above the root). This occurs because the distance between major scale tones varies (some notes are a whole-step apart while others are a half-step apart). Coincidentally, the fifth intervals are all the same with the only exception being the chord built on the very last scale tone.

Nashville Number System
This order of major and minor creates the following chord sequence: 1. major 2. minor 3. minor 4. major 5. major 6. minor 7. minor (flat 5). Sometimes referred to as the "Nashville Number System," this sequence is the foundation of music theory and is often represented by Roman numerals. Major chords are written in upper case and minor chords are written in lower case as follows: I ii iii IV V vi vii

Keys and Chord Patterns
Different keys have different chords built from different notes determined by different key signatures (sharps and flats). What makes the chord number system so useful, and a must for any serious guitar theory student, is that it remains the same regardless of key. For example, the first three chords in G major are G, Am and Bm, the first three chords in A major are A, Bm and C#m, the first three chords in C major are C, Dm and Em, but in all keys the first chord is major, the second is minor and so is the third. The number system can be visualized on the guitar as a chord pattern so that you don't have to be concerned with key signatures and notes. Move this pattern around the neck and you'll instantly be able to see all the chords for each key. Guitar players have a music theory advantage because of this ability to shift patterns on the fret board.

Learn New Songs
Playing chord progressions and playing by numbers go hand in hand and the concept is easier on the guitar than most other instruments. You just have to know the right way to map things out on the guitar neck. You'll be surprised to realize that many songs that appear to be quite different because of their position on the neck and chords used, are actually the same progression in terms of numbers and theory. No more cluttering your mind with endless amounts of chord information because you'll be able to recognize simplify things with numbers. Can you imagine how much quicker you'll be able to learn and remember new songs?

Learn and Understand Guitar Music Theory
Charting chord progressions has more benefits than just playing songs. Progressions play a role in understanding guitar music theory including applying pentatonic and major scale patterns correctly, identifying modes and modal scales, using intervals and adding chord extensions.

Play By Ear
How do some players know what's coming next the first time through a song? Easy, knowing where to look is half the battle! When you can see clearly all the chords of a key, it's easier to guess the change or even anticipate the movement before it happens. Since many songs are based on typical progressions, you'll become very familiar with common changes. You've probably heard musicians calling out numbers on the bandstand, right? Now you can know what they mean and experience the benefits of the system for yourself. Not to mention, you can sit around and talk theory with real musicians without feeling like an idiot.

Improvise Compose Your Own Music
Establishing keys, determining chord movement, applying scales and playing by ear are all necessary for jamming and song-writing. Don't leave spontaneity to chance, work out the technical details first and then you'll improvise and compose much better.

Play Until Yer Fingers Bleed!
Mr. Desi Serna (Google me!)
Scales, Chords, Progressions, Modes and More


Anonymous said...

Way Back When: 1970? Peter Paul and Mary had a songbook with chord progression suggestions. It was sort of Venn Diagrams. (Not Circle of 5ths and 4ths. Of Course it had I IV V or I V as the most prominent. I imagine it must have had Bm Em Am Dm somewhere. Sound the least bit familiar?

Mr. Desi Serna said...

Sorry anonymous, never heard of it. I have a DVD that teaches guitar chord progressions like I IV V, I V, I vi ii V and so on.

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