We got to the stage of building triads from any note in the scale. You benefit from this ability in many ways, creating variations, improvising, getting better intonation. It’s just a matter of practice, doing the same move over and over.
Now come the chord progressions. This is where music theory really gets into action. As you play a tune, you notice that the chords change. Playing with back up musicians, rhythm guitar and bass, you distinctly hear and see the changes. The order in which the different chords are played is called the progression.
The most common way to think about chord changes is to start at the beginning of the tune of song. Most pieces begin with the One chord. Almost 99%+ end on the One chord. In between are other chords which go away from, then return to, the One chord.
Out of the seven possible chords created from each of the scale notes, only three or four are used 80% of the time. Getting well acquainted with these chords will serve you in a band situation.
The Basic Chord Progression
The most elementary progression starts with the One chord, goes to one or more chords, then returns to the One. Take Me Back to Tulsa goes only to the Five chord before returning to One. the same is true of Jambalaya.
The One chord establishes the tone center. Any chord you move to creates a feeling of moving away from the center. Some chord choices are stronger than others for giving you a sense of dynamic movement. From the One chord, the strongest move is to the Four chord.
The strength of this move relates to the overtone series and the tradition of European music going back many centuries.
Similarly, the strongest closing chord, the chord that leads us back to the One chord is the Five. It has the same dynamic relationship to One as One does to Four. It’s a similar move, a very strong move, both logical and vital.
Other chord choices take the progression up or down a second or a third. (Going up a fifth, as in the two songs mentioned earlier, is brutally forceful, by comparison.) Going up a sixth or seventh would be the same as going down a third or a second.
I have a preference for going down a third from the one, rather than up a third. This may come from the ancient rock and roll formula of the late fifties. It’s just comfortable, what can I say. Also, my favorite composer, Brahms, was good at this movement.
Many folk tunes and songs use the pattern of One, Four, Five, One as a basic structure. A similar idea is found in the One, Two, Five, One pattern in jazz. Those cats abbreviate it as the “Two-Five” lick.
When It’s Not Over Yet
A common device in folk tunes and songs delays the return to the One. It creates suspense and tension, in a good way. This device takes the progression from the Five chord and goes to the Six. In classical music it’s called a deceptive cadence.
This means we were led to expect a Five-One cadence, or resolution to the progression, but get a Five-Six instead. (Cadence comes from Latin cadere, meaning “to fall.” this implies that the music falls from the Five to the One, falling to the tone center.)
You hear the Five-Six move in bluegrass songs and tunes, especially. It helps create
that high lonesome sound.
You Get the Blues
If I had to vote for the most popular chord progression in the world, the 12 bar blues would get my ballot. I believe it would win any contest for popularity. When musicians get together informally, the first thing they play is 12 bar blues.
As I describe it here, 12 bar blues is a form of musical organization. This is not quite the same as authentic blues. Here, I’m removing the varied colors and textures, showing just the framework underneath.
Each of the 12 bars gets four beats. This is different from my usual tabs. They are in cut time and get two beats to a bar.
We need deal only with three chords: the One, the Four, the Five. We will divide the 12 bars into three sections of four bars each.
The first four bars stays on the One chord. There! That was easy. (There are variations to this format. Let’s just keep it simple for now.)
The second four bar segment goes to the Four chord for the first two bars, then back to the One for the last two.
The third segment gets more active. The first bar is Five, the second bar is Four, the third bar is One, and the last bar usually splits between two beats of One and two beats of Five. The Two last beats in the Five chord lead us to expect more, and the tune starts all over again.
When it’s time to end the blues song, the last bar will be close with a Five-One ending.
In Milk Cow Blues from my book, 43 Fiddle Tunes in Tab, I use a variation on the usual ending by moving from the Two chord, (minor), to the Lowered Two, (major), to the One.
Blues tunes also tend to have a big retard, or slowing down, at the end. This helps signal the end of the song.
Florida Blues, from the same book, is a 12 bar blues, but it’s up tempo, as though it were a six bar blues. It misses the usual turnaround on the Five at the end of the tune. Instead it completes the picture on each ride, or time through the whole tune.
Often in the first four bars, the progression will go to the Four chord on the second bar and return to the One in the third bar. Going to Kansas City is an example of this.
In the last four bars, the Five chord is sometimes held for two bars, and not changed to the Four.
Those are two of the most familiar ways to vary the progression.
Not all tunes or songs called blues are blues. Farewell Blues, a Dixieland tune that has been adopted by bluegrass, is not a blues.
Neither is Basin Street Blues.
By now you may be thinking that the 12 bar blues is a useful form of music to know. I really support this idea. It is a great form for improv. It has had massive effect on bluegrass, rock, jazz and popular music. If it takes you a while to master the form, you won’t be wasting a minute of your time. It’s just worth it to have it.