Tired of the same old chords?

Q. How can I branch out from the same I IV and V chords?

A. Falling back on the same old chord progressions is one of my pet peeves for my own writing. I love to try new changes, but you can go too far. If the song seems right, even with a common chord progression, don’t force fancier chords on it. In other words, fancier (or more complex) isn’t always better.

The bottom line for me is, follow the song. Let the song (lyrics, melody, feel) dictate the chords: simple or complex, full or sparse, frequent changes or not.

Rather than worrying about whether you’ve used the chord progression before or not, ask yourself which chords best support the meaning of the lyrics.

Here’s a tip that really works for me. I’m a guitar player, so naturally I write songs with a guitar in my hands. I’m usually strumming, riffing and experimenting almost mindlessly as I work on lyrics. I believe the fingers have a ‘memory’ and they tend to go where they’re most comfortable (i.e. where they’ve been before). So by playing the guitar while writing a song, I’m actually more likely to use familiar old chords and progressions.

The fix is to put away the guitar and write lyrics and melody without that crutch. Once you’ve settled on a melody, then bring out your instrument and experiment with chords. You’ll be surprised. Of course this applies to piano and other instruments, as well.

Another ‘trick’ to keep your songs from all sounding alike is to use different inversions of your chords. The easiest and most dramatic way to do this is to put a different note in the bass (lowest note) of a chord. Beginners are taught to play a C chord with the C note in the base, D chord with the D note in the bass and so on.

[Short music theory lesson: (please ignore this if you already know about inversions). Let’s take any 3 note chord, for example, a C major chord. It consists of 3 notes: c, e and g, in any order. C is considered the root.

The root is frequently played as the lowest note of the 3. But as long as you are playing all 3 notes (c, e and g), it’s still considered a c major chord regardless of which octave the c is played in.

So you can play the c an octave up, with e as the lowest note. It has a particular sound. Likewise, playing a c chord with g as the lowest note has its own sound.

Experiment with that. It’s even more interesting when you do it with 4 and 5 note chords. End of music theory lesson.]

Interesting and luscious chords seem to be prevalent in jazz. If that’s what you’re after, you’ll need to study with a good jazz teacher or get yourself in a jazz jam band and learn from the other members. It’s not rocket science, but it’s more complex than most folk, country, polka, rock and many other genres.

Don’t beat yourself up too much for the chord progression. Focus on the song as a whole, making sure the chords are appropriate for the lyrics, which are appropriate for the melody and so on. If you feel that chords are your weakest area, complete the rest of the song first so you can draw inspiration from that.

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