You will be hearing a lot about chord progressions from now on. A chord progression is simply a series, or succession, of chords which make up a piece of music. Chords are the setters of rules within a piece of music. Each moment of any tune is backed by a chord which, for those moments, sets the rules. It determines where the melody can go, what the harmonies will be etc. When you hit a clanger (bad note), you're hitting a note which is not allowed by the 'chord of the moment', and your whole audience will know it. It is the composer of the song who determines which chords go where, what the progression will be. The most well known progression is the "12 bar blues" progression, so called because it takes twelve bars to get back to the starting point again (we'll look at that on another page). There are many other familiar progressions which have been the basis of hundreds of hit songs, and there is a whole science to the way chords can lead to each other. Progressions are often the spark of a composition, rather than the melody.
The trickiest part about chord progressions is moving smoothly from one chord to the next. That's what we're looking at here.
Changing from one chord to another will seem virtually impossible at first. Don't despair, we all went through it. Believe it or not, before long it will be old hat and your hand will do it without any thought process whatsoever. What needs to happen is for your hands to get to know the basic shapes really really well so that the muscles of your fingers remember them, not you brain.
Muscle memory is something we all know well and manifests itself every time we tie our shoelaces, ride a bike, open a twist-top bottle, brush our teeth and a million other things we do. Imagine if we had to relearn all of these mundane tasks every time we had to do them! Fortunately, after learning them initially, we don't have to think about them anymore, our muscles remember.
Video 1: I've started out with a nice easy one: moving back and forth between Am and E. The first thing you'll notice is that the actual 'shape' of the two chords is the same. The only difference is that the E shape occupies strings 345, the Am 234. So here all you need to do is transfer the shape, as a unit, from one string-set to the next. Use as little movement as possible. You don't need to lift the fingers off the strings more than a millimetre or so. Make sure that you come down onto the strings nice and cleanly, that you don't choke off any of the open strings with the edges of your fingertips. Relax! There's no need to be all tensed up, that will just make it more difficult. Once you get it right, direct your attention to how it feels, concentrate on that. Also, think ahead—visualize your hand lifting off of chord 1 and moving to chord 2 before you actually make the move and try—right from the outset—to make it musical, so listen to what you're playing, how the two chords relate to each other sonically. Ear memory is just as important as muscle memory. I notice in the movie that I move from the Am to E as a unit, but when I move from the E to the Am, my index finger comes down a fraction of a second after the ring and middle finger. I never realized I do this until I shot the movie. Notice that I don't strum the thick E string when I play the Am, as indicated in the diagram by the red cross.
Video 2: Here is a three-chord progression ... I've thrown in a Dm. Once again, lift your fingers off the strings as little as possible. Make the move from one chord to the next as smooth as possible and as quick as possible. The first E is in fact an E7 chord. You can hear that there's not much difference between to two in this context, although the E7 does lead to the Am a little better. Don't worry too much about squeaks and string noise ... you can hear some in my examples and it's something you'll never eliminate completely. I've shown the back-of-the-neck shot in all of these videos to let you see that my thumb is not moving much at all. It's always positioned pretty much behind my index finger for maximum leverage, but it's all quite relaxed. Apply as little pressure as possible to get those strings ringing out nicely. Too much, and you'll cramp up after a while.
Video 3: These are the three major chords from the key of G. Hopefully you'll be able to hear how well these three chords work together and how one in particular, the D, has a strong pull back to the C chord. That G chord is not an easy one at first but once your fingers know where to go, and how to stretch enough, it's not a big deal. The more you play, of course, the quicker you'll become comfortable with it all. Experiment with different fingers if you want: there is no one way. I threw an Em in there toward the end, which is another chord from the key of G. You'll hear that it fits nicely with the other three and that it changes the mood of the vibe we've set up with the three major chords. The interplay of chord flavors is very powerful and we'll look into the subject in a little more detail later on.
Video 4: Here is a very common four-chord progression. I'm sure you'll recognize the sound of them as they've been used in countless pop songs over the years. Notice that when I move from the G to the Em, my middle finger doesn't need to move anywhere; the same thing happens when I move from the Am7 to the D7: my index finger stay put. As you learn more and more progressions, this will happen automatically. You can also see that, even after 49 years of playing, I need to make a couple of adjustments to my hand position. The main aim when changing chords is to 1) wait as long as possible before starting the move, and 2) make the move as brief as possible, which means moves move fast, and make it clean. The only way to do this is to already see in your mind's eye your hand in the next position. Again, this will take time and once you have it, you still need to practice as often as possible to maintain that 'think ahead' mindset.
Video 5: This is the same progression as video 4, but it's in C, not G. The only difference is that I kept the 3rd chord — the Dm — a triad, I didn't add the 7th. Hopefully, you'll be able to hear the overall sound of the progression is the same. Here again you'll see that my index finger only moves twice even though there are four changes. That's because it occupies the same position for the C and Am and then again for the Dm and G7.
Practice these and as many other progressions as you can as often as you can. That's the only way to move ahead. We'll look at some more soon, but first you'll need to learn some new chord flavors.