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The Mystery Behind a Great Chord Progression

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Jason Youngclaus

When I first learned to play guitar I started with a chord book. My goal at the time was to be able to play a few chords and sing along decent enough to feel like I was creating something that might, you know, make me seem interesting. At the time, I had no clue what a triad chord was. I had no idea that a major chord consisted of the root, the third and the fifth. It made no difference to me how chords were constructed musically I just knew they sounded cool when they rang out. Then somebody, I can’t recall who, came along and told me I could play “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” with just 3 chords: G, C, and D. I need to be able to do that, I thought. And I was off from there. 

To this day I still haven’t taken a music lesson. It’s probably a stupid decision to never take a music lesson, I’m sure I’d be a technically better instrumentalist if I took lessons. But not taking lessons forced me to learn things the slow, grueling old fashioned way: Every groundbreaking moment I had in my guitar development was a discovery I made on my own. This probably sounds really vain, self-serving and deluded. It may be — but the bottom line is learning somethign completely by self-discovery has its advantages. You’re doing it the hard way. Every inch farther you move you do so because you forged the way. I think that learning this way instills things into your brain more intuitively and at a deeper level than if someone else reveals the secret to you. 

Or maybe it is all just stubborness and vanity. Who even cares? It was fun and whatever the case, its the way I learned and I can’t change that now. I learned to play guitar by studying songs that I really liked based on their chord progressions. I certainly can’t claim total self-discovery. Song books and guitaretab.com were a resource I couldn’t have lived without. They were my Key to the Highway. The funniest part is that while learning I actually thought I was playing the songs correctly half the time — not knowing that I was playing the wrong voicings, the wrong inversions, barre chords missing notes. I still remember my roomate, who was learning the guitar with me say, “Jay, you didn’t learn that song at all you’re just strumming the fucking chord progression over and over!!!” He was absolutely right, I was not playing the song correctly at all. I was garbage, but I was loving being bad at something. And I’ve come to realize that whenever you want to become good at something you have to enjoy being bad at it first. It’s like a golden rule of skill development. Anything worth learning simply cannot be learned overnight. I was slowly forging my own style and I was having fun discovering the archicecture and geometry behind great chord progressions. To this day, I still find chord progressions to be the most fascinating thing in music. They get me off more than a perfectly tabbed out riff, more than a technically rendered solo, more than the melody flowing through the chord progression itself. The chord progression is what opens up the possibility inherent in the musical landscape. So with that in mind I’d like to name a few songs that I think have incredibly awesome chord progressions. Chord progressions that, when you look at them on paper you say to yourself — how the hell does that work? How does it sound so seemless? Those chords aren’t supposed to work together but they do! WTF! So with no further ado…

(1) “Maybe I’m Amazed” by Paul McCartney: I remember when I first learned barre chords I learned the chords to this song. I had no fucking clue what was going on. How is this chord progression that circles around a Bb move landing perfectly in Dmajor and sounding so perfect? The key modulates up to D Major and when it does it sounds like an absolute revelation. It’s almost like being transported to another world. The music itself seems to mirror the words to the song, in this sense. Amazement and a sense of wonder is what you feel when Macca hits that D chord and rips those vocals over it. It’s almost like a pure feeling, a bliss that you didn’t think was attainable — and here you are feeling. The guy was really in love when he wrote this, its pure genius and inspiration. Go ahead strum along to it, or if you’re a piano player just pound the chords out — it’s amazing. I also encourage you to listen to the live version from the 1976 Wings album. The high note that Paul hits on the final “who could ever help me” melody line will make the hair on your arms stand up. 

Link: https://tabs.ultimate-guitar.com/tab/paul_mccartney/maybe_im_amazed_chords_202741

(2) “Lithium” by Nirvana: That Kurt Cobain is a musical genius is obvious to anyone who has ever played an instrument. Seriously, try writing something with this kind of poweful musical momentum. The fact that he uses the III chord and the flat-V in this close of a proximity (and it still sounds so seemless and catchy) is plain ridiculous. I still don’t know how it works, but it works better than anything I’ve ever heard. The energy that is built up through this dexterious musical tension is simply beautiful. Such raw energy. Strum along to it! Note: to play this the way he wrote it, you should tune the entire guitar down a full step and play it in E formation. So either use the icon to tranpose the thing up one full step or just play along to the one that’s in E. 

Link: https://tabs.ultimate-guitar.com/tab/nirvana/lithium_chords_1119299

(3) “Angel” by Jimi Hendrix: What planet was this guy from? What energy source was he tapped into? He was painting colors with his guitar that don’t even exist in our corner of the universe. But they exist somewhere, because he played them for us — right? This song (released after he passed on the Cry of Love album) has such a serenely beauitful flow. In this case, he weaves his way to the IV chord towards the end of the verse but the musical excellence is such that the IV chord transforms into the V chord of the key a full step down. Another example of a song that effortlessly modulates into a lower key. Your ear barely notices it but you deep down if you let the music hit you, you feel transported someplace deeper. The other totally genius thing about this chord flow is the voicings he came up with: just totally original and sparkling. IMO songs like this are what put Hendrix on another level. Yea, he’s arguably the most fluid and innovative lead guitarist in Rock History but he could also write chord progressions like his name was Stevie Wonder or David Bowie. Absurd, try to learn it with the voicings he used. They are something else, and he has so many songs like this. Endlessly fascinating the way he used chords and some of the lesser known tracks are the most interesting. 

Link: https://tabs.ultimate-guitar.com/tab/jimi_hendrix/angel_tabs_676105

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