Category Archives: Instrumental Acoustic

Structural Chord Progressions

A good way to make songs more powerful and structurally sound is to use chord progressions not only within sections, but also across them. This creates a harmonic relationship between sections and adds to the sense of forward motion, tension and resolution, and overall strength. A change of section can feel more logical and expected, which you can also use to your advantage by doing something harmonically unexpected.

Progression Vs. Succession

First, we must define chord progression. Since there are two ways of placing chords side-by-side but only one term, “chord progression”, everyone calls both versions the same thing. Let’s call the second version, “chord succession”.

In a chord succession, none of the chords have a relationship to the others except that first one and then another is played in succession. Playing E5, D5, and C5 ala Iron Maiden is a good example. Since nothing is going on, there’s nothing to define. It’s not even clear if this is E minor or C major.

Chord progressions, by contrast, are so involved that books are written on them, so we’ll just cover the relevant basics. It is their nature to solidly define a key by concluding with V-I (the key’s fifth chord and first one). The chords of increasing tension precede the chord of no tension, which is therefore the ultimate resolution. Several other chords can precede V-I, such as the famous IV-V-I (D, E, A). This defines the key as A major, provides tension and resolution, and moves (or progresses) the song forward purely by harmony. Let’s use the IV-V-I progression for structure.

Song Structure

So what do I mean by structural chord progression? Let’s say your song has a verse, bridge, and chorus. We’ll decide our song, overall, is in A major despite any key changes within the song. To do a structural progression, we would write the verse in A major (I), the bridge in D major (IV), and the chorus in E major (V). After the chorus, we conclude the progression by returning to the verse in A major (I). See Example 1.

In this example, the indication (V/IV) means “V of IV”, and that A major is not only I in A major, but also acts as the V chord in D major, our next key. Simply by concluding our verse on an A major chord and starting the bridge on a D major chord, we go V-I into D major.

After the verse (I), we continue forward with the bridge (IV) and chorus (V) again (Example 2). At this point, we could either return to the verse music again, or go straight into a solo in A major, but that key is sort of expected at this point, isn’t it?

Why don’t we do something unexpected, such as resolving to A minor (i) instead? It’s a nice surprise, a different tonality (being minor), and is also something we haven’t heard.

The technique can continue within a solo. To determine what keys to use, decide what section (and key) will come after the solo, then work backwards. In our example, the E major chorus comes after the solo, so it makes sense to end the solo in B major. B is V of E and makes E sound like home.

For this reason, at the coda in Example 3, we remain in E major instead of return to A major. By this point, E sounded like home anyway, and structural progressions have less strict requirements for completion.

What if our song has an introduction? This could be in A major, too, but let’s use E major to create a build up to the main music.

Here’s the final structure of our song and a recording thrown together to demonstrate it (progression jam track mp3):

Caveats

Notice how the chorus has a succession in the first phrase (I-vi-I-IV), but because I slipped in the V chord right at the end before returning to the I chord, this became a progression.

To make structural progressions work, we must clearly define the key of each section. The only way is with a chord progression, for if I were to play all the white keys on a piano, the music could either be C major or A minor, or even modal. It must be definitive.

This raises the problem of using progressions constantly when they are all very similar, which is why people avoid them in favor of successions. Still, it is possible to ignore progressions and then slip in the V-I or vii-I motion at the end of a phrase. Either that, or do it at the start of a section and then avoid it, such as the entrance to the solo.

Since structural progressions are less strict, a song does not have to conclude with a finished progression, or even maintain them within a song. Two sections can be related by key when no others are. The song above ends in E major, the key of V, but still feels over.

Coda

"Moshkill" Video

My video for “Moshkill” from NOW WEAPONIZED!

This approach can improve your songwriting and make you think of new paths for song development. The effect is often subtle, almost psychological, and yet helps retain a grip on your listener, something every composer wants. This technique and others can be heard throughout the songs on my album, The Firebard.

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Only Two Kinds of Instrumental Guitarists Get Known

I’m an instrumental guitarist. I admit it.

Is it embarrassing?  I wouldn’t quite put it that way, but the fact remains that the field of instrumental guitar music isn’t given much esteem. There are really only two kinds of us that anyone talks about:

  1. The big guys
  2. The ones who play insanely fast all the time

The Big Three

Musician Joe Satriani

Musician Joe Satriani (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and Eric Johnson. Those are the Big Three.

Sure, there are some others that are synonymous with the genre and also got their start in the 1980s when it was cool, like Tony MacAlpine, Vinnie Moore, Marty Friedman (and Jason Becker), but let’s face it – the genre is largely known because of the Big Three, who gave it viability because – wait for it – they actually sold CDs of this stuff! Lots of them! Their songs were played on the radio, even MTV. And they still do tours, most notably the G3 tour, where Satch, Vai, and a guest perform three sets.

Everyone else? Not so much. Years ago Jason Becker admitted in an interview that, despite record label distribution, a high profile gig with David Lee Roth, and loads of magazine cover spots, plus charity functions for him after being diagnosed with ALS, his CDs simply don’t sell. I’ll be honest, I felt better hearing that, since mine don’t sell for squat either and I don’t have any of that!

English: Steve Vai in London in 2001

Steve Vai in London in 2001 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you showed up after the arrival of grunge (via Nirvana) in 1991, you were DOA. In fact, since then, you’re still kind of screwed, as the art of lead guitar hasn’t really recovered in the all years since. I remember when bands were bashing all lead guitar in general as a sign of conceit, shallowness, and artificiality, as if it’s not a valid form of musical expression. They were rejecting the pressure to practice and know fancy scales, but that was overdoing it, methinks.

Since then, who gets known?

The Fast Guys

Then there are the guys who play a million notes per second, their technical skill being the only real reason people talk about their playing, but not their music.

“Shredding” was once a derogatory term for guitarists whose solos sounded like masturbation. You know, playing too fast all the time, throwing in all sorts of exotic scales, and performing every virtuoso trick as often as possible, from tapping to sweep arpeggios, usually without the slightest bit of musical taste. Their technique had machine-like precision, which, for me, robbed it of expression.

Since then, “shredding” has become a term used without condemnation, used to describe anyone with speed.

Still, if you want to get known as an instrumental guitarist these days, you need to have a high NPS. That’s “note per second”. Yes, there are people who actually take the time to count this for different guys and makes lists. Go ahead and google “notes per second guitar” and see what comes up. That’s embarrassing.

There are guys releasing CDs that I personally think are just awful, the songs full of nothing but fast lead playing over mindless backing tracks, and yet people talk about them enough that they get endorsements, magazine coverage, and other stuff.

Who is causing that with their attention?  Usually fellow guitarists. Is that who those CDs are for? Is that what the entire genre, except for the Big Three, has come to be? Insanely fast lead guitar all the time for other guitarists who care only for technical displays of virtuosity? When those people want to listen to something enjoyable, do they put on something else?

Everybody Else

If you’re an instrumental guitarist and focus on songs, melody, and feel over shredding, you aren’t likely to get talked about. And the days of getting instrumental guitar (I’m talking rock here) heard by lots of people are probably long gone. It’s not “marketable” and hasn’t been for over twenty years. A brief window from Satriani’s Surfing with the Alien album in 1987 to 1991 has closed.

For my CDs, sometimes people praise them and then write something like, “he’s not the fastest guy in the world but I’m surprised how much I like these songs.” And I just laugh and want to cry. Not about not being the fastest, but at the subject even coming up and then the admission that the music is actually enjoyable, apparently defying expectation. That says a lot. And it says nothing good – for music, this genre, or me personally.

So is it the fan base that has lost touch with something, the guitarists, or both?

Coda

"Keeping Pace" video

My video for “Keeping Pace” from NOW WEAPONIZED!


At times I’ve expressed my frustration to my wife, saying I should just put out a song like the NPS guys to get some attention I can’t otherwise get. And she replies, in effect, “Would that really make you feel better to appeal to people who care about that?” And the answer is no, so I don’t. Besides, I can’t practice that much without suffering a bout of narcolepsy.

In the end, you have to do what you believe in, for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that if you give up doing something you love to do something you don’t, and you still don’t get the recognition or success you crave, now you’ve given it up for nothing.

I’m hoping for the best of both worlds soon – still doing my particular brand of instrumental guitar, and having a metal band (with vocals) called Z-Order that will hopefully release its debut album in 2013. Who knows? Maybe while doing something I love (Z-Order), I’ll inadvertently draw attention to something else I also love (instrumental guitar).

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