Sunday, January 5, 2014

On guitars, progressions, rock, and worship music.

My friend Vera is hanging out at my place right now and we're playing guitar together.

I've been playing guitar since I was... I wanna say 16? So about 13 years now, and now I feel old. But she just got her guitar this year. She's learned a lot more in this year than I did my first year; I wasted most of my first year or so trying to emulate power metal songs without learning chords or anything but she can play songs already. Granted, they're cheesy three-chord praise and worship songs, but that's still pretty awesome. (For the record, the first songs I learned were also in that genre... and the same goes for a surprising number of musicians. Churches have started musical careers since time immemorial.)

Anyway, I'm giving her some advice because I can. Specifically, I'm teaching her about how progressions work. She started playing this worship song:

I recognize it because I've played it countless times about a decade ago when I was in worship bands. Anyway, apparently my knowledge of music theory's come to a point where I noticed the chord progression and pointed it out to her. I started playing the song above in A instead of D, and then I, without changing the chords, started singing this song:

They have the same progression. The tempo you play changes a bit, but the underlying infrastructure of both songs is the same.

I expanded on this idea a bit further. I showed her a song I wrote a while back, called "Forsaken Children," and it goes like this (it's a rough take from a year back, excuse the sound quality):

And then I pointed out to her a bunch of other songs that have the same progression:

And to bring it full circle, I remembered a worship song I played all those years ago, and started playing it:

And then halfway through, I switched to this:

From a worship song to a song about getting high with truckers as you flee gambling debts. Acheivement unlocked: Hell.

But yeah, progressions are cool things. There's really no way to have one that hasn't been done before by someone, somewhere, but it's like the skeleton of the song. How you choose to flesh it out from there is what really makes it distinct. However, they all share skeletons with other songs, and it can kinda be humorous when you realize what songs share skeletons with each other.

And this all came up because we were trying to figure out the best way to play "Stairway to Heaven" by Led Zeppelin. There's a whole bunch of stuff out there: this is the accurate but nearly useless lyric-devoid picking field, this is the accurate but difficult chords, and this is the inaccurate but easily-played chords. I figured out that if you pick the chords from the last one, it sounds remarkably like the useless picking field. Not exactly, but close enough to be useful.

So I'm going to mash them together into something that's easy to play but still sounds correct. The easy one is largely useful, but in some places, it sounds too off. Fortunately, both chords are in A minor, so I can directly swap out the complex stuff when appropriate. The Am7-A7sus-Dsus-D-C-D thing in the complex version sounds exactly right and the easy version sounds terrible.

As it happens, I do this kinda thing often. Don't get me wrong, I feel lucky to live in an age where I can just look this stuff up on Google and not have to buy music books. But the quality (and playability) of the scholarship is often lacking, and if I wanna play a song sometimes I have to do custom patches. I did this with Gordon Lightfoot's "Canadian Railroad Trilogy," transposing the entire song into A because it's easier to play and sing. And now I'm doing it with the biggest psychedelic song of all time.


  1. Very astute observation. A lot of singer-songwriters will change the key of a song they want to cover to one more suitable for their vocal range put keep the progression.

    Also, 12-Bar Blues is always the same progression regardless of key

    I - I - I - I
    IV - IV - I - I
    V - IV - I - I