Whether you need chord progressions for your own song or an intro for a song you are learning, you want to be able to come up with chord progressions that sound great, natural, and are not too boring, and messing around with harmony to make beautiful chord progressions is one of the most fun and creative things to do in music.
That is what I am going to talk about in this lesson.
Creating 4-chord Vamps with Subdominant Chords
The chords are supposed to loop, so we can start by choosing two chords and then fill in more chords between them.
For most of this video, I will focus on progressions going from a I or tonic chord, to a IV or subdominant chord.
Mostly because there is more variation possible and they are a little overlooked. Then we can take the basic 2-chord vamps and look at different ways to add chords and get more movement.
So let’s first check out these 2-chord options that already sound great and then turn some of those into more complicated vamps. Already here you might get some good ideas, but you can go a lot further.
#1 Cmaj7 Fm6 – IVm
#2 Cmaj7 Bb7 – bVII backdoor dominant
#3 Cmaj7 Dbmaj7 – bII Neapolitan Subdominant
#4 Cmaj7 Abmaj7 – bVImaj7
#5 Cmaj7 F#dim/C #IVdim
#6 Cmaj7 Ab7 – #IV double diminished – German Augmented 6th chord
These already sound great, so the next thing is to add a little more movement to them to make them more like a story in different phases.
Making More Interesting Chord Progressions
The trick to creating these progressions is to get them to make sense by adding chords that move in a logical way. I am not using any exact science or strict rules, so you can use any type of system that sounds natural to you. Most of the time you will see me add chords based on common progressions like a standard I VI II V turnaround, step-wise movement or moving in 4ths.
When I am making the chord progressions I keep in mind this is in the key of C major, so I am in general pulling from C major and C minor, which gives me these diatonic chords to use:
Cmaj7 Dm7 Em7 Fmaj7 G7 Am7 Bø
Cm7 Dø Ebmaj7 Fm7 Gm7 Abmaj7 Bb7
CmMaj7 Dø Ebmaj7(#5) Fm7 G7 Abmaj7 Bdim
CmMaj7 Dm7 Ebmaj7(#5) F7 G7 Aø Bø
And besides that you can add secondary dominants everywhere you want, so if you have a Dm7 you can add an A7(b9) to lead to it, but also an Eb7 before an Abmaj7 (the bVI in minor).
You can check out more about secondary in the video I am linking in the description.
Turnaround with some step-wise surprises
#1 Cmaj7 Fm6 → Cmaj7 Am7 G7sus4 Fm6
Going to Am7 is coming out of a standard turnaround, and from there it is step-wise movement. You might want to notice that G7sus4 is F/G Which makes it very close to F Fm, so IV to IVm in C but with a different bass note. That is really just helping it make sense on another level.
Backdoor dominant and a secondary dominant
#2 Cmaj7 Bb7 →Cmaj7 C7/E Fm7 Bb7
With a dominant chord, you can often add a II chord in front of it to make it a II V. In this case with the Fm7, that also gives you the option of having a secondary dominant which is C7/E.
Another nice way to tie everything together is to have a pedal-point in the harmony, so a note that stays the same through all the chords. In this example, I have a G in the melody of all the chords to get that effect.
bVImaj7 is underrated
#3a Cmaj7 Abmaj7 → Cmaj7 Bb7 Am7 Abmaj7
In this example, I am using step-wise motion to go from Cmaj7 to Abmaj7. You can do this in a few ways, but this one was the nicest with the Bb7.
Instead of using stepwise motion, you can also turn it into a row of secondary dominants like this:
#3b Cmaj7 Abmaj7 → Cmaj7 Bb7 Eb7 Abmaj7
Which is a pretty different sound but certainly works as a progression that moves forward.
Composing With Chord Progressions
Coming up with chord progressions is about composing and improvising with chords so the best way to do this is to just mess around a lot and try to find new ways. There are many ways to get inspiration, but probably one of the strongest is to know and analyze a lot of songs. The advantage here is that if you learn songs you not only know the progression but also really have an idea about how it sounds, and you can always mess around with it.
Another great exercise is to harmonize or re-harmonize melodies to explore what is possible with the chords and how you can use different chords to go from A to B.
#IVdim: Neutral and spicy
The #IV is an uncomfortable chord for a lot of people, but it is a really beautiful sound. Here are two examples that work really well and also both use a C pedal point. The second one is a bit out and dark, but also beautiful.
#4a Cmaj7 F#dim/C → Cmaj7 C7 F/C F#dim/C
This is really just a basic C C7 F F#dim “gospel or country” progression with a C in the bass, but it certainly works. A great example of what you learn from checking out songs like St Thomas or Rhythm Changes.
The next one is a bit weird,
#4b Cmaj7 F#dim/C → Cmaj7 Eb7/C Abmaj7/C F#dim/C
Folk inspired Minor Chords (and a double diminished inversion)
The IVm and Vm chords together have a real folk sound which can be really beautiful and it works great here in combination with the Ab7 which has the heaviest name: (Hans Groiner).
You will also see the double diminished #IV chord referred to as the German Augmented Sixth chord.
#5 Cmaj7 Ab7 → Cmaj7 Fm7 Gm7 Ab7
To me calling it a double dim #IV tells me how it sounds, that’s why I use that. I don’t really have any association with that with German augmented chord, but that is most likely just me.
Another reason for using Subdominant chords
The progressions in this video are pretty natural sounding and will loop very well. If you plan to make songs with the same chords looping for a longer period of time, then it makes sense to not be too specific about the key. Being vague becomes a way to make it not too predictable. This is actually something you can see in a lot of pop music where you even have long discussions and articles about the key of pieces.
Using the subdominant chords makes these progressions less “predictable” and clear than a standard V I. Similar to the effect you have in Radiohead’s Creep, which is almost example 1. Another way to keep it a little more vague is to play fewer notes, so sticking to triads can be useful too.
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