11 The Logic of Chord Progressions – Guitar Theory


The Logic of Chord Progressions

In This Chapter

  • The difference between key signatures and keys
  • How chord progressions define keys
  • Typical chord progressions
  • Understanding modulations
  • Using the Circle of Fifths

At this point you know a lot about chords. You’ve learned how to construct basic chords from the intervals of the Major Scale. You’ve discovered how to make all sorts of different types of chords from minors to sevenths to thirteenths. And, with the use of barre chords, you can even find most chords anywhere on the fretboard of your guitar.

The next step is to start applying your knowledge of chords in a practical way, playing songs you enjoy using chords found all over the neck. Before doing so, however, it wouldn’t hurt to learn more about how chords are typically used in songs.

Even if you’ve only played a handful of songs, you may have already noticed that certain chords frequently seem to show up together. A song that has a G chord, for example, will very likely also have either a C chord or a D chord, possibly both.

Understanding how chords are used in songs can help in many ways. Learning a bit about chord progressions, and combining that information with your knowledge of diatonic chords from Chapter 8, can help you anticipate chord changes, even if you’re playing a song for the very first time.

Finding the Key of a Song

Songs, as mentioned in Chapter 1, are made up of melodies, harmonies, and rhythm, and chords are the harmony of a song. Typically, each of these fundamental song parts is also a series of patterns. Melodic lines are often repeated throughout a song, as are rhythmic patterns and chord sequences, which are called chord progressions. Some songs, in fact, are progressions of two to four chords played repeatedly. For example, “Sweet Home Alabama,” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, consists of D, C, and G played over and over again. U2’s “With or Without You” is a continuously repeated progression of D, A, Bm, and G.

Take a moment and go back to the chart of diatonic chords for each major key toward the end of Chapter 8. Then look at the chords for “Sweet Home Alabama.” If you look across each of the lines of that chart, you will find only one line that has D, C, and G in it, and that’s the line that starts with G. Likewise, in “With or Without You” only one line has all four of the chords, and that’s the line that starts with D.

You could assume, and you would be correct, that “Sweet Home Alabama” is in the key of G major, while “With or Without You” is in the key of D major. Unfortunately, finding the key of any song is not always this cut and dried.

A Sense of “Home”

To give you a great example of how keys work, have a listen to Track 22, which consists of four versions of “Good Morning to All” (which you will undoubtedly recognize by another name), each with a different ending chord:

Track 22

The chord sequence of “Good Morning to All.”

“Good Morning to All” uses the following chords in sequence for the first seven of its eight measures (each measure has three beats):

First measure: C

Measures 2 & 3: G

Measures 4 & 5: C

Measure 6: F

Measure 7: two beats of C and one beat of G

The melody note of the final measure, Measure 8, is C. The first time played through, F is the final chord. Am finishes the song the second time around while A is used the third time. The last version of “Good Morning to All” closes with a C chord.

Notice that each of these four chords—F, Am, A, and C—contain the note C, which is the final note of the melody.

Which of the four endings to the song sounded (and felt) right?

Hopefully, you found the fourth version of the song to have the most satisfying ending. The first and second versions you might have been okay with, but the third version probably took you a bit by surprise.

Part of the reason is that the chords used in the first seven measures of the song—C, G, and F—are found only in the key of C major. Essentially the whole song is setting you up to want it to end on a C major chord. It makes you feel like you’ve come “home,” to a place where you can feel the song has finished in a satisfying manner. You’ve found its tonal center, which is not just a single note of the melody, but also a chord. Home is where the most satisfying harmony is.

Keys vs. Key Signatures

It’s important at this point to understand that the key, the tonal center of a song, can be different from its key signature, which (as you learned in Chapter 4) indicates the number of sharps or flats used in the Major Scale associated with the song in question.

For example, the Marshall Tucker song “Can’t You See” uses a chord progression of D, C, G, and D, which are the same chords as “Sweet Home Alabama.” While that set of chords is diatonic to the key of G major, the tonal center of “Can’t You See” is actually D major.

This difference between keys and key signatures is very important when it comes to dealing with chord progressions in minor keys, which you’ll learn more about in the next chapter. You’ll also find out more about these differences when you discover all about modes in Chapter 16.

Getting Home

If you ask a beginning guitarist about the key of a song, chances are likely that he or she will identify whichever chord happens to be played first as being the key. This answer is actually right more often than not because songwriters frequently use the starting chord to set the tonal center of a song. However, it’s certainly not a foolproof answer.

If a song starts and ends on the same chord, the odds of that chord being the tonal center are greatly improved. Not all songs end on their tonal center, but a huge percentage of them do.

More importantly, it’s how one arrives at this tonal center (in other words, the chord progression used in a song) that helps strengthen one’s sense of the key of a song. Thinking about chord progressions in terms of “getting back home” can help you anticipate chord changes throughout a song.

From Specific to Generic

Up to now the discussion of chord progressions has involved specific chords. In “Good Morning to All,” for example, the chord progression was C to G to C to F to C to G and back to C.

It’s important to understand that the principles of chord progressions apply to all keys. Any specific chord progression in one key can certainly be transposed into a different key.

You’ve already discovered, in Chapter 8, that diatonic chords can be thought of in “generic” terms through the use of Roman numerals. These Roman numerals, as well as the chart at the end of Chapter 8, can help you transpose and play chord progressions in any key. Start out with any specific chord progression (the following example uses “Good Morning to All” again) and then rewrite it in its generic Roman numeral equivalent:

You can then use the generic template to play “Good Morning to You” in other keys. Here are the chords for this song in the key of C as well as the keys of both G and D:

Look at some of the other examples mentioned earlier and see how easy translating chord progressions into generic terms can be. “Sweet Home Alabama,” which is in the key of G and consists of the chords D, C, and G, is rewritten as “V – IV – I.” “With or Without You,” in the key of D and with the chord progression of D, A, Bm, and G, is rewritten generically as “I – V – vi – IV.” Note that the Bm chord, being a minor chord, is given lowercase Roman numerals.

You can now transpose these songs to other keys should the need ever arise. “Sweet Home Alabama” in the key of C would be a repeated progression of G (the V chord in the key of C), F (the IV chord), and C (the I chord). “With or Without You” in the key of A would be A (the I chord in the key of A major), E (the V chord), Fm (the vi chord), and D (the IV chord).

Five to One

Knowing how to translate a chord progression to its generic form is obviously helpful when it comes to transposing, but you’ll also find it makes understanding the logic of chord progression a bit easier. It all basically comes back to that feeling of “going home,” where “home” (the tonal center) is the I chord.

Musically, few chord progressions give a listener the sense of “going home” as changing from the V chord to the I chord. A good part of the reason for this lies in the Major Scale itself. Here is the C Major Scale again. Listen to it on the accompanying sound file (or play it yourself on your guitar):

Track 23

Listening to the C Major Scale.

On this track, the final note is not C, the root note. It’s B, the seventh note of the C Major Scale. And it’s hard to let the scale end on this note, isn’t it? You truly want to play the next note, C, in order to bring the rest of the scale to a sense of closure.

In music theory, each degree of the scale is given a generic name as well as a number:

The generic names of the C Major Scale.

Notice the name of the seventh note is the “leading tone.” That’s probably the most accurate name given to any term in music theory. That last note leads your ears onward, pulling it toward a resolution, a sense of arrival that you’ll get when the root note, or “tonic,” is played again.

This “leading tone” also happens to be the third of the V chord, which is why the V to I progression gives the listener such a strong sense of a tonal center once the I chord is played.

Not only can you hear the strength of this progression, you can also see it in visual terms. Take a look at the notes of the G chord (V in the key of C) and the C chord (I in the key of C) in music notation and see how the chords change effortlessly from one to the other:

Track 24

V to I in the key of C major.

In these two chords, G serves as a “pivot,” a common note shared by both chords. The D note of the G chord moves up a full musical step to E while the B note moves up a musical half-step to C.

The only way to make this stronger would be to use the “V7” chord (the “dominant seventh,” as you learned in Chapter 7), right before the I chord:

Track 25

V7 to I in the key of C major.

Here the addition of F (the 7 of G) creates another strong pull on your ear because it is a musical half-step above the E note of the C chord. It’s almost as if the D and F notes of the G7 chord converge on the E of the C chord while the B and D notes of the G7 converge on the C.

A very short chord change, usually two but occasionally three chords played at the end of a musical phrase, is called a cadence. Listening to either of the last two audio tracks, you can hear why the V to I progression, in terms of music theory, is called the “perfect cadence.” Hearing this progression in a song tends to give a listener a solid sense of just where the tonal center is. And it’s also one of the most common chord progressions you’ll run into.

Four to One

The IV to I progression, which is called a “plagal cadence” in music theory, is used quite frequently as well. While it certainly is pleasant to listen to and helps to give one a sense of key, it’s nowhere near as strong as the V to I progression:

Track 26

IV to I in the key of C major.

Here the F note (being the root of the F chord) leads your ear down to the E of the C chord just as the F of the G7 chord did. But without the added pull of the B to C in the last example, this progression doesn’t have the same oomph.

Combining the IV and V chords, as in the V-IV-I progression of “Sweet Home Alabama,” helps make the progression stronger:

Track 27

V to IV to I in the key of C major.

But compare that to going in the other direction, namely IV to V to I:

Track 28

IV to V to I in the key of C major.

Another variation of IV-V-I is ii-V-I, which works well because the ii chord is the relative minor of the IV chord (and you’ll learn all about relative minors in the next chapter):

Track 29

ii to V to I in the key of C major.

But perhaps the strongest IV to I progression involves changing from the IV chord (being a major chord) to the iv chord (the minor chord with the same root) before going to I:

Track 30

IV to iv to I in the key of C major.

In this specific example of F to Fm to C, the movement of musical half-steps—from the A of the F chord to the A of the Fm to the G of the C chord—helps make the progression a bit more compelling.

Common Diatonic Chord Progressions

Here are the most commonly used diatonic progressions (all starting with the root chord), as well as some examples of songs (or parts of songs) that you probably know them from. In the accompanying audio track, each progression is played in C major and is announced before being played. Please also note that seventh chords are often used as substitutes for the V, vi, ii, and iii chords (“V7” instead of “V” or “ii7” instead of “ii,” for example). You’ll be learning more about chord substitutions in Chapter 19.

Track 31

I – V – I – IV

I – IV – ii – V

I – V – vi – IV

I – ii – IV – I

I – ii – iii – IV

I – ii – iii – IV – V

I – iii – IV – V

I – vi – IV – V

I – vi – ii – V

I – V – vi – iii – IV – I – ii – V

“Borrowing” Chords from Other Keys

Chord progressions are not limited to diatonic chords in the key of a song. It’s possible for any chord to pop up, because bringing in nondiatonic chords can make a song much more interesting. But the odds are likely that most of the chords in a song will be diatonic.

When a nondiatonic chord is part of a chord progression, it still serves a purpose. The example of F to Fm to C (IV-iv-I) used earlier helped make an ordinary IV-I progression stronger.

A typical way to make a I to IV chord progression stronger would be to stick a I7 in the middle, making it I-I7-IV. If a musical phrase of a song (usually in the middle of a verse) ends on the V chord, you’ll often find that V chord preceded by a II chord or II7 (the major of the minor ii or ii7 chord). In the key of C, for example, this would mean going from C to D7 to G.

The Circle of Fifths

More often than not, nondiatonic chords serve as a V chord to the chord immediately following the nondiatonic chord. Less often, but still more than occasionally, it may serve as a IV to the upcoming chord as well.

A good way to anticipate what chords are likely to follow nondiatonic chords in a progression is to be familiar with what’s called the “Circle of Fifths,” which looks like this:

As you look at the circle, and if you think of it as you would the face of a clock, you can see “C” at the 12 o’clock position. The key of C, as you know from Chapter 4, has no flats and no sharps. Each of the keys as you go clockwise around the circle from C adds a sharp to its Major Scale. G has one sharp (F), D has two (F and C), A has three, E four, B five, and the key of F has six sharps.

Going counterclockwise from C, each Major Scale adds a flat until you get to G at the 6 o’clock position, so each of the 12 major scales is represented in this circle.

But if you look at the Circle of Fifths in terms of chords instead of keys and Major Scales, you’ll find something even more interesting. In the key of C, G is the V chord. In the key of G, D is the V chord. And this pattern continues all the way around the circle until you get to C being the V chord in the key of F.

Likewise, it works with IV chords in the opposite direction. C is the IV chord in the key of G. F is the IV chord in the key of C. B is the IV chord in the key of F, and so it goes until you get to G being the IV chord in the key of D.

You’ll learn in Chapter 12 that any V chord can be the V chord of the I in either its major or minor key (in the minor key, “I” would be “i”). And this gives you all the information you need to make fairly accurate predictions as to just where a chord progression will go.

For example, suppose you’re in the key of C and an A chord pops up. Because A is the V chord in the key of D and Dm, it’s a very good bet that your next chord following the A is going to be either Dm (more likely because it is diatonic to C, your original key) or D. Should it turn out to be D, then you can also make a good guess that the next chord will be G, since D is the V chord of G.

Essentially, you want to remember that ultimately you want to go “home” to the key or tonal center of the song. If your song is in the key of G and you get a B7 chord, then you want to follow the circle from the B back to the G via the shortest route. B7, in all likelihood, will be followed by Em or E, which in turn will be followed by Am or A, and then D, which will bring you home to G.

Again, this circle will work in both directions. Remember the earlier example of “Can’t You See” by the Marshall Tucker Band with its D to C to G to D chord progression? This is an example of how the circle works in terms of IV chords. If you know you’re in the key of D and a C chord turns up, you’re most likely going to get back to the I chord of D through the G chord.

Common Progressions Involving Nondiatonic Chords

This isn’t totally foolproof, but keeping the Circle of Fifths in mind will help you navigate most progressions involving nondiatonic chords. Here are some fairly common chord progressions involving nondiatonic chords that are good to know:

Track 32

I – VII – IV – I

I – II – V

I – IV – II – V

I – III – vi – IV – V

I – III – IV – V

I – VI – II – V

I – VI – ii – V


When a song brings in nondiatonic chords, it temporarily brings about a change in its tonality. This temporary shift in tonal centers is called a modulation. More often than not, modulations are very brief, lasting only for two chords or occasionally three.

Sometimes, though, modulations can last much longer. In John Lennon’s “Merry Xmas/War Is Over,” for example, the verse starts out with a I-ii-V-I progression in the key of A (A to Bm to E to A). It then plays that whole progression again but in the key of D (D to Em to A to D) to finish the verse and stays in the key of D through the chorus with a IV-V-ii-I progression (G to A to Em to D) before playing a final E chord in order to start the next verse back in A again.

Occasionally, too, songs will totally change keys and never return to the original key. For instance, the final chorus of the Bon Jovi song “Livin’ on a Prayer” is in B even though the earlier choruses are all in the key of G.

Putting Theory to Practice

It should go without saying that listening to music of all kinds is your best bet to practicing your skills at identifying chord progressions. Start with songs you know. First, think of the songs you play that sound somewhat similar and write them out by their generic chord progressions to see if they do indeed share any progressions.

Next, look at the chord progressions that strike you as particularly interesting. Maybe you know a song in C that has an E chord followed by an F chord. Play the progression to get its sound into your brain and then be sure to play it in different keys as well so that you can identify it in its generic terms.

Your big goal is to get yourself thinking in terms of generic progressions instead of specific ones. Unless you have perfect pitch, you may not always know what chords are being played. But most chord progressions have their own characteristics. Being familiar with these can help you identify them in generic terms and then play them in whatever key the song happens to be.

The Least You Need to Know

  • Chord progressions, for the most part, tend to lead the listener back to the “home” chord, or tonal center.
  • The key of a song may be different from its key signature.
  • Many chord progressions are diatonic, but nondiatonic chords are also used in songs.
  • Using the Circle of Fifths can help you anticipate which chord will follow a non-diatonic chord in a progression.
  • Listening to all parts of a song, not just the guitar parts, is the best training to help you improve your ear.


The Challenge of Minor Chord Progressions

In This Chapter

  • An introduction to minor keys
  • Three different minor scales
  • Creating diatonic chords for the three minor scales
  • Common minor key chord progressions
  • Shifting between major and minor keys

Think about all the songs you know, and then think about how many of them use minor chords. Probably a lot of them, maybe even more than half, have minor chords as part of their progressions.

More importantly, not all songs are in major keys. When one discusses the tonal center of a song, it’s usually described in terms of a root note and either a major or minor key. A song will be in “C Major,” for example, because playing a C major chord to finish it off gives the song a sense of resolution.

And, as you learned in Chapter 6, there are four basic types of chords—major, minor, augmented, and diminished. Augmented and diminished chords, as you might remember, sound anything but resolved! They give the distinct impression that there’s another chord coming along right behind it, one that will hopefully create a sense of harmony after the dissonance of either the augmented or diminished chord.

But minor chords, when played as part of a chord progression, can sound as much as a “home” chord as any major chord, sometimes even more so, depending on the chord progression used in a song.

You’ve just read and listened to how songs in major keys use minor chords (not to mention non-diatonic chords) as part of their progressions. Now you get to examine chord progressions of songs in minor keys.

The Sound of Minor Keys

Take a moment to listen to the following audio sample. You will probably recognize the first pass of the song as the old traditional “This Old Man.” It’s played in the key of A and uses the chords A, D, and E.

Track 33

The second time through, “This Old Man” is played in the key of A minor, using the chords Am, Dm, and Em. You can hear it has quite a different mood, tonally speaking. People often describe songs in major keys as “happy” while songs in minor keys are thought of as “sad.” That’s not always the case, but it’s a good place to begin.

A Minor for Every Major

Just as you learned to describe minor chords in terms of the intervals of the Major Scale, minor keys and scales are also described in their relation to the Major Scale. However, there are three important aspects you need to know before you start in on minor keys.

First, and as you undoubtedly already knew or guessed, there are 12 different minor keys. That seems logical since there are 12 possible minor chords, as you learned in Chapter 6.

A Relative Minor for Every Major

The second aspect is a bit of a twist on the first. Every major key and scale has a relative minor counterpart. But “relative” minors are not the same as “regular” minors. For instance, you know that there is a C major chord and a C minor chord. That would be a “regular” C minor chord.

The key of C major has a “relative minor” and it is A minor. The easiest way to determine the relative minor of any key is to know the sixth note of its Major Scale. Or you could simply use the following chart.

Major Relative Minor

So, coming back to thinking of chords, the Am chord is the relative minor of C major.

And, as you may have guessed, the C Major Scale also has a “relative minor” scale and that would be one of the three possible A minor scales.

The Three Possible Minor Scales

Yes, you read that correctly. There are three possible minor scales. And while you’ll learn how they are played on your fretboard in Chapter 16, right now it’s important to know how they are created so that you can understand what chords are typically used in minor chord progressions.

The Natural Minor Scale

The good news is that you already know one of the scales because you now know about relative minors. Take the C Major Scale as a starting point:

As you just read a few paragraphs earlier, Am is the relative minor of C major. So if you start the C Major Scale with its sixth note, A, and continue using the notes of the C Major Scale, you will have created what’s known as the A natural minor scale. And it will look like this:

That may not seem like it’s all that different, but remember that you’re comparing it to the C Major Scale and not the A Major Scale:

Track 34

A Major:

A Natural Minor:

Now, that’s quite a bit different! And you can hear exactly how different they sound on Track 34 in the audio files.

If you write out the natural minor scale in the generic intervals of its Major Scale, you’d get the following formula:

You can see that while the “relative minor” and its major share each note, the major and its natural minor only share four of the three notes—the root, second, fourth, and fifth.

The Harmonic Minor Scale

Strange as the natural minor may have sounded compared to its major, the harmonic minor is even more interesting. Here’s a comparison of the A Major Scale and the A harmonic minor:

Track 35

A Major:

A Harmonic Minor:

Writing out the harmonic minor scale in the generic intervals of its Major Scale, you’d get the following formula:

It’s the interval between the minor 6th and the major 7th that gives the harmonic minor its distinct musical flavor. There’s an interval of one-and-a-half musical steps between those two notes, which is very rare. But, as you’ll soon learn, this interval also totally changes what types of diatonic chords you can create with the harmonic minor, as opposed to the natural minor.

The Melodic Minor Scale

Knowing the notes up through the first five frets of your fretboard means that you know where almost half the notes are.

The melodic minor scale is closest in form to the original Major Scale:

Track 36

A Major:

A Melodic Minor:

Here, the third is the only note that’s different from the original Major Scale. If you write out the melodic minor scale in the generic intervals of its Major Scale, you’d get the following formula:

Technically speaking, there’s also another wrinkle with the melodic minor scale in that it uses different notes going up than it does going down:

Track 37

A Melodic Minor (ascending):

A Melodic Minor (descending):

You can see that there is no difference between the descending melodic minor scale and the natural minor scale. And when it comes to using the melodic minor for soloing or improvising, as you’ll read in Chapter 17, you truly won’t need to worry about it.

Creating Diatonic Chords with Minor Scales

The main reason you want to be aware of these three different minor scales is because each one forms a different set of diatonic chords. And because of that, you will find that chord progressions of songs in minor keys are often harder to anticipate than those in major keys.

Diatonic Chords for the Natural Minor Scale

Laying out the generic diatonic chords for the natural minor scale is as easy as taking those of the Major Scale and then starting on the sixth note:

Degree Major Scale Natural Minor
1 Major Minor
2 Minor Diminished
3 Minor Major
4 Major Minor
5 Major Minor
6 Minor Major
7 Diminished Major

The diatonic chords of the natural minor are almost a mirror image of the major. The I, IV, and V chords are major in the major key but minor (i, iv, and v) in the natural minor.

But it’s the major chords at the sixth and seventh degrees that are the most used in minor chord progressions. Closing a minor-key song with VI-VII-i is almost as strong as V-I in a major key.

Diatonic Chords for the Harmonic Minor Scale

The major seventh of the harmonic minor creates even more interesting diatonic chords for this minor scale:

Here you get a major chord at the fifth position, and V-i sounds much better than v-i. Plus, being able to go from a major at the fifth to a major at the sixth (V-VI) creates a very distinct sound as well.

Diatonic Chords for the Melodic Minor Scale

Finally, here are the diatonic chords formed by the melodic minor scale:

The most important change here is the presence of a major chord at the fourth position. You will find many songs using the minor i chord in combination with the major IV, and it’s an important key indicator when it comes to playing in the Dorian mode, as you’ll read in Chapter 15.

Common Chord Progressions in Minor Keys

It’s important to note that when it comes to songs in minor keys, it’s rare to use as many of the diatonic chords as you do in major keys. You’ll remember that, for the most part, songs make frequent use of the first six diatonic chords of the Major Scale. The diminished chord at the seventh position occurs very rarely.

Likewise, the augmented and diminished diatonic chords of the three minor scales are hardly ever used. More often than not, you’ll find yourself playing progressions that involve the various major and minor diatonic chords. And more often than not, you’ll also find that most minor chord progressions do not stay in just one of the three minor scales, but instead borrow readily from two of them or even all three.

Here are some common minor chord progressions as well as audio files to give you a sample of how they sound. On Track 38, the progressions are played in the key of Am, using chords in open position.

Be sure to notice the chords of each progression may come from one single minor scale or a combination of the three different ones. This is especially true with the last two examples.

Track 38

i – iv – i – v

i – iv – i – V

i – IV – i – V

i – v – i – iv

i – iv – V – i

i – V – i – iv

i – VII – VI – VII

i – VII – VI – V

i – VII – VI – v – VII

i – III – IV – VI

i – V – VII – IV – VI – III – iv – V

Modulating Between Major and Minor Keys

Just as songs in major keys can have modulations, it’s also a fairly common part of songs in minor keys. More often than not, the modulation will be a shift to the minor key’s relative major. The verses of the Eagles’ “Hotel California,” for example, are in B minor, but during the first line of the chorus the song modulates to the key of D major before returning to Bm at the end of the second line of the chorus. This pattern repeats in the third and fourth lines of the chorus as well.

Sometimes, though, a song in a minor key will modulate to its major key. For example, in Del Shannon’s “Runaway” the verses are in A minor, using a chord progression of Am, G, F, and E (i, VII, VI, and V), which has chords from both the A natural minor scale and the A harmonic minor scale. The chorus is in A major, using a I-vi (A and Fm) progression before finishing with a IV-V-I progression (D to E to A).

Pivot Chords

In the example of the song “Runaway,” the E chord serves as a “pivot” chord, since it is part of both the A minor and A major diatonic chords, being the V chord in both.

For modulations other than shifting from a minor to its major (and vice versa), pivot chords don’t have the same degree position in their respective scales. In the earlier example of “Hotel California,” the G major chord that starts the chorus serves as the pivot chord. In B minor G is the VI chord, while in D major it’s the IV chord.


It’s also important to realize that not every modulation depends on a pivot chord. In many songs, particularly those in major keys, modulations seem to pop up out of the blue.

Being aware of pivot chords can give you a way to remember modulations that occur in songs. Understanding the position of potential pivot chords in different keys can also help you anticipate modulations in songs.

Thinking in More Than One Key

Developing the ability to think in more than one key may seem like a huge challenge, but it’s not beyond your ability at this point. Just as you did with guitar theory, begin with single notes. Any one note can be part of multiple chords, and you already have been playing many chords that share common notes.

Start by thinking of the simple chords you know. The C of the C chord can also be part of the F chord (it’s the fifth) or the Am chord (it’s the minor third). Then work up to pairs of notes, such as the E and G of the C chord (the major third and the fifth, respectively) also being the root note and minor third of the Em chord.

By getting a head start in thinking of notes and chords as being part of multiple keys, you are laying the foundation that will help you play chords all over the neck, as you’ll discover in the next chapter. Plus, you will be setting the groundwork for becoming a great accompanist and/or soloist, as you’ll find out in Part 5.

Putting Theory to Practice

Learning the relative minors of the major keys, especially those you play often on the guitar, such as C, G, D, A, and E, truly doesn’t take that much time and effort. If you pick one to learn each day, such as Am being the relative minor of C, you’ll be able to memorize all 12 in less than a week.

Knowing your relative minors will become very helpful to you, especially as you start using various scales for improvising, creating fills, and soloing, as you’ll discover in Part 4.

And just as you learned with major chord progressions, listening to the chord progressions of songs in minor keys can help you develop your ear, which in turn will help you anticipate possible chord changes in songs. Make note of usual chord changes, such as when a major five chord (V) goes to a major six (VI) instead of I chord, and hear whether or not other musical parts of the song (such as the vocal line or bass line) might be giving clues that it’s coming. That may not always be the case, and you’ll simply have to memorize that particular part of the song, if not the whole song.

Thinking of listening as part of “practicing” may seem strange, but as a guitarist and musician listening is how you both reinforce and expand your musical knowledge and skills.

The Least You Need to Know

  • Tonal centers can be minor as well as major.
  • Every major key has a relative minor, whose root is the note at the sixth degree of that particular Major Scale.
  • There are three different minor scales—the natural minor, the harmonic minor, and the melodic minor.
  • Chord progressions of songs in minor keys tend to have diatonic chords from two or three of the different minor scales.
  • Learning to think of notes and chords as being common parts of different keys can help you develop not only your musical ear, but also your accompanying and soloing skills.


Making Fretboard Theory Practical

In This Chapter

  • Trimming CAGED down to size
  • Using major and minor forms of E, D, and A
  • Finding “I – IV – V” anywhere on the fretboard
  • Exploring diatonic chord progressions
  • Using E, D, and A shapes on any chord progression

For some guitarists, the biggest challenge of guitar theory isn’t learning it. Rather, it’s applying that knowledge when playing guitar. After all, having a lot of guitar theory in one’s head is all well and good, but at some point that theory has to make its way onto the guitar’s fretboard.

Using guitar theory in a practical manner means using it in songs, whether one is strumming chords and playing cool rhythm fills or creating solos. Because songs are made up of chord progressions, the best first step is to work at applying the guitar theory you’ve learned so far directly to playing the chord progressions you’re likely to encounter in songs.

Strange as it may seem, the best way forward from this point is to deliberately not use some of the guitar theory knowledge that you’ve gained. Focusing on just the basics of chord construction along with parts of your understanding of the CAGED system will help you learn to navigate your guitar’s fretboard quickly and efficiently.

Returning to Basics

In Chapter 10, you learned that the purpose of the CAGED system is to help you recognize the basic shapes of the five open-position chords (C, A, G, E, and D). You also learned that some pairs of these basic shapes, such as the pair of C and D and the pair of G and E, shared common points.

Next, take a moment to recall what you know about basic chord construction. Each of the four basic types of chords—major, minor, augmented, and diminished—is composed of the root note of its Major Scale, along with some form of its third and fifth.

Now, think about how the strings of your guitar are tuned. The lowest (or thickest) four strings—E, A, D, and G—are tuned in fourths. A is the fourth of E while D is the fourth of A and G is the fourth of D. As you may have noticed in the “Triad Exercise” at the end of Chapter 10, outside of the open-position C and G shapes it’s hard to run an arpeggio of root-third-fifth together on these four lower strings. The stretches involved are not easy for most guitarists, even many professionals.

What’s needed is a slight adjustment in how you think about the way chords are formed and shaped. And, as with all the guitar theory you’ve learned, the basic open-position chords you already know will give you all the tools you need.

Rethinking Chords from the Top Down

If you take the five open-position major chords of C, A, G, E, and D and map out their generic component notes on just the three highest strings of the fretboard, you’d have a chart that looks like this:

The chord components of CAGED on the three high strings.

For both the C and D chords, the root note sits on the guitar’s B string while the third is on the high E string and the fifth is on the G string. Essentially these two chords share the same shape in regards to where their notes are played on the three thinnest strings of the guitar.

The root of the A chord is on the G string while its third is on the B string and its fifth is on the high E string. For the E chord, the root is on the high E string, the third on the G string, and the fifth on the B string.

Only the G chord, which has its root note on both the G and high E strings and its third on the B string, lacks a basic component of its chord, that being its fifth.

By breaking down how the three elements of the basic chords are laid out on the three high strings of your guitar, you can make a good case for using three of the CAGED shapes—E, D, and A—instead of all five. Each one of these shapes places one of its basic chord components (the root, third, or fifth) on one of the three thinnest strings:

What’s also helpful is that this placement of chord component location will apply for all four of the basic chords. Because most of the music you’re likely to be playing on guitar deals with major and minor chords, we’ll keep our focus on those and leave the augmented and diminished chords for future study.

As you get acquainted with this idea of trimming down the CAGED system to just the E, D, and A shapes, also focus for the time being on just the three highest strings. You might remember how, back at the end of Chapter 2, you concentrated on finding the notes of each string just at one certain fret instead of all over the guitar’s fretboard. The same principle applies here. If you can get comfortable and confident in your ability to quickly find and play these three shapes just on the three thinnest strings, you’ll be able to apply that knowledge to finding and playing full barre chords as well.

The E Shape

Here are both the major and minor versions of the E shape across the high three strings of your guitar:

The E shape (major and minor) on the three high strings.

The D Shape

Here are both the major and minor versions of the D shape across the high three strings of your guitar:

The D shape (major and minor) on the three high strings.

The A Shape

Here are both the major and minor versions of the A shape across the high three strings of your guitar:

The A shape (major and minor) on the three high strings.

Connecting All Three Shapes

The next step is to learn how each shape relates to the others when playing the same chord. If you start with the E shape on the first fret (which would be an F chord), you’ll find the D shape and the A shape of the F chord in the following locations:

The F major chord located by the E, D, and A shapes.

Now see how it works for the Fm chord in all three shapes:

The F minor chord located by the E, D, and A shapes.

The spaces between these patterns work regardless which shape you start with. Take D, for instance:

The D major chord located by the E, D, and A shapes.

The D minor chord located by the E, D, and A shapes.

Finally, try the A shape, using it on the third fret to start with (which means it is a C chord).

The C major chord located by the E, D, and A shapes.

The C minor chord located by the E, D, and A shapes.

Using these three shapes, you should be able to find any major or minor chord at three different places along your guitar’s fretboard.

Visualizing “I – IV – V” on the Fretboard

Because most chord progressions involve the I, IV, and V chords, your next step is to learn how these three shapes relate to each other in that manner. It’s a lot easier than you might think for two reasons. First, you can find any V chord by sliding the IV chord up two frets in the same shape.

But it’s also very easy to use all three of the E, D, and A shapes in your I, IV, and V chords because each of these shapes shares a common note with at least one of the other two shapes.

Using the E Shape as the Root

With the E shape as the I chord, here is where you’d find your IV and V chords:

Finding the IV and V when the E shape is I.

When your E shape is the I chord, the I and IV share notes on the high E string while the I and V chords share notes on the B string.

Using the D Shape as the Root

With the D shape as the I chord, here is where you’d find your IV and V chords:

Finding the IV and V when the D shape is I.

When your D shape is the I chord, the I and V share notes on the G string. The I chord in the D shape shares a note on the B string with the IV chord, which is in the E shape.

Using the A Shape as the Root

With the A shape as the I chord, here is where you’d find your IV and V chords:

Finding the IV and V when the A shape is I.

When your A shape is the I chord, the I and IV share notes on the G string while the I and V chords share notes on the high E string.

Adding the Diatonic Chords to Your Map

Because chord progressions often use more than just the I, IV, and V chords, you next want to get comfortable with all of the diatonic chords in these abbreviated three-string shapes. “All” in this context actually means just the first six. As you read in Chapter 8, you will rarely encounter the vii chord in songs.

Diatonic Chords with E Shapes

Starting with the E shape at the first fret, here are your six diatonic chord forms, all in either E major or minor shapes, in ascending order:

Diatonic chords I, ii, iii, IV, V, and vi in E shape.

Diatonic Chords with D Shapes

Starting with the D shape at the first fret, here are your six diatonic chord forms, all in either D major or minor shapes, in ascending order:

Diatonic chords I, ii, iii, IV, V, and vi in D shape.

Diatonic Chords with A Shapes

Starting with the A shape at the first fret, here are your six diatonic chord forms, all in either A major or minor shapes, in ascending order:

Diatonic chords I, ii, iii, IV, V, and vi in A shape.

Putting Theory to Practice

The key to successfully incorporating guitar theory into your everyday playing is to understand that there are no shortcuts. You simply have to play and use the theory you’ve learned whenever you can.

When it comes to employing these three-string E, D, and A shapes, start by adding just one of them into any song you already know. For example, if you’re playing a song where a D chord is followed by a G chord, use the D-shaped G chord at the seventh and eighth frets of the three high strings. Because you’re using the same shape for both chords (and after you’d made this chord change a dozen or so times), you should find that it’s simply another chord change to you, just as switching from D to the regular open-position G already is.

Then start adding more of these new shapes to your playing. Here are some basic chord progressions for you to practice, each incorporating the ideas you’ve learned in this chapter:

Track 39

Practicing the E, D, and A shapes in typical chord progressions.

Try to think of each chord specifically by name as you play it. The more you can think of just how each chord is shaped and placed on the fretboard, the quicker you’ll come to realize that anytime you have one chord to play you now have several options of where to play it. Congratulations on making a huge first step toward putting your guitar theory to practical use!

The Least You Need to Know

  • Trimming the CAGED system down to just three shapes—E, D, and A—helps you to navigate the fretboard quickly and efficiently.
  • Knowing the three-string E, D, and A shapes means knowing three different placements along the fretboard for any basic chord.
  • Each of the three-string E, D, and A shapes can correspond to the I, IV, and V chords in chord progressions.
  • Each diatonic chord can be played in any of the E, D, or A three-string shapes.
  • Practice using your new chord shapes whenever you can. Start by adding one to a song you know well and then add more as you become comfortable doing so.