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Passing Chords: Part 3

Improving Your Compositions By Bobby Cole
Published May 2014

In the final part of this series, we develop a basic chord sequence into something more elaborate.

In this, the last part of the series, we'll start once again with an easy and well‑used progression (Chord Sequence 1), and then recap some of the main points I've made over the last few issues. (Well-known songs to use these sequences include the Beatles' 'Let It Be' and the Black Eyed Peas' 'Where Is The Love').

Rework Chord Sequence 1 by adding some passing chords and chord extensions, as shown in Chord Sequence 2. Play in 4/4, moving from left to right, top to bottom, hitting the next chord on each beat. Start slowly and gradually build up your speed, because the number of chords and frequency of the changes can make it tricky at first. The third line in this sequence is a beautiful run that gets you from Bm to G, but it's by far the hardest part to play, so make sure you really learn it. This sort of movement between chords is very common, so if you can learn it in other keys as well it will really help your playing!

Over To You...

I hope this brief introduction has helped you conquer your music-theory fears and improve your compositions. I'll leave you with a few tips you can take on board and work at if you want to develop your chord playing.

Firstly, learn all of your chord extensions. When I was younger, if I saw Am7sus2, I would simply play A minor, and that's just not the same thing! If the idea daunts you, then start with the simplest things and move on from there, working your way through the following list: major, minor, major 7, dominant 7, minor 7, sus2 and sus4, augmented and diminished, 9ths, 11ths and 13ths, and augmented 7ths and diminished 7ths.

Next, don't be put off by sharp and flat keys. Playing in keys such as C# major or Ab major can be frustrating if you're only used to keys with 'white note' roots, but if you can operate in all keys it will really open up your compositions. Playing something in Eb can have a very different feel and texture to playing it in F major, for example.

Learn all of your chord inversions. I've only really touched on this basic but powerful tool. In essence, inversions are a way of taking the notes from your chords and playing them in a different order on the keyboard. For example, Chord Sequence 3 shows you the basic C major chord and its first two inversions. Each chord still uses the same three notes (C, E and G) but they don't sound quite the same. It's not just the sound that makes inversions useful, though; they can also make things easier to play. Think about moving from A major to D major on the piano (Chord Sequence 4). Physically, it's quite a big leap, but understanding how to use your chord inversions can make that change smaller, or help you avoid the leap altogether: as you can see in the example, the thumb stays on the A note. Chord inversions take a bit of time to practice (because you are essentially learning three chords for every one!) but they're very useful.

Finally, you really do need to learn your scales in every key. I know, I said I would go light on the theory, and everyone hates scales, but they have so many benefits to chord‑based players: understanding what key you're playing in and what notes are 'available' enables you to add in note fills and runs, almost without having to think about it.  

For Part One of this series Click Here

For Part Two of this series Click Here