It’s tempting to view a chord progression
as a sequence of fixed note formations that
we grip and release, one after the other.
This makes sense on a tactile level because,
after all, it‘s what our fingers are doing. But
if we only think of chords as discrete grips,
we may overlook how each one is connecting
to its neighbor. And when we don’t pay
attention to these harmonic transitions, we
can wind up lurching around the fretboard,
playing voicings that don’t dovetail musically.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact,
some styles demand sliding up and down
the neck with barre or power chords to create
a jagged effect. But, as we’ll discover in
this lesson, there are other ways to navigate
One approach involves making the smallest
possible shifts between the notes in one chord
and the next. This technique yields a flowing,
molten sound, and it’s well worth exploring.
Rules of Engagement
The concept—which, incidentally, we’re
borrowing from horn and string arranging—is to have the notes in one chord move by
either a half-step or whole-step to the notes
in the subsequent chord. Occasionally, we
interrupt this stepwise
motion with a leap
of a minor third (three half-steps), but that’s
the largest move we make. Sometimes, one
of the notes remains the same as we switch
chords. This common tone
acts as sonic
glue, binding adjacent voicings, even as
It’s fun to visualize this process as moving
beads on wires. In other words, imagine
each chord tone is a bead that either stays
put or shifts up or down on its string by
one, two, or three frets (a half-step, wholestep,
and minor third, respectively) to
morph into the next voicing. It’s a game:
Can you play a progression without breaking
these strict rules?
So we can clearly picture the note-to-note
movement, let’s keep things simple and
stick with three-note voicings on the top
three strings. Most of the chords we’ll play
in this lesson contain four or more notes in
their full form, but we’re going to cherry-pick
three that allow us to follow our bead
Download Example Audio 1...
For starters, play through the voicings in
to loosen up your hands and get
familiar with the fingerings we’ll soon stitch
into a progression. Many of these will be
old friends, but some—D7 and A9, for
example, in grids 2 and 3—might be new.
As you fret each of these chords, notice
how three do double duty, depending on
where they’re positioned: A7 and Eb° (grids
1 and 8), D7 and Eb°7 (grids 5 and 6), and
Dm and D6 (grids 9 and 11). This “shared
shape” phenomenon happens because
we’re selecting a subset of a chord’s available
tones. (If we were to fret the chords in
their entirety, we’d spot their physical differences.)
Expert rhythm guitarists routinely
use multi-purpose fingerings to craft their
parts. It takes time to master such musical
sleight of hand, but the payoff is huge.
Download Example Audio 2...
Let the Games Begin
Now it’s time to put our rules into action by
playing Fig. 2
, a 12-bar blues progression
in the key of A. As you change the first two
chords, watch those beads shift when you
move from A7 to D7. Check it out: On the
1st string, the top note, C#, drops a fret to
C. On the 2nd and 3rd strings, each note
moves up two frets, (G–A and E–F#, respectively).
Excellent! We’ve created contrary
, which serves to draw listeners into
this chord change.
If you peer closely at the A7–A9–A7 changes
in bars 3 and 4, you’ll see common tones
(for instance, the 2nd-string G occurs in all
three voicings), two whole-step moves, and
a minor-third leap. Nice and tight—so far,
The A7–D7 shift (bars 4 and 5) is very
economical, consisting of a common tone
and two half-step drops. Conversely, the
D7–Eb°7 change incorporates three upward,
minor-third leaps. This parallel movement
is immediately balanced by the contrary
motion in the Eb°7–A7 change across bars
6 and 7.
At this point, you’ve seen enough to know
how the bead game works. As you complete
the progression, take a moment to
evaluate each chord change and track its
note-to-note movement. You’ll find that
right through the end of bar 12, every
change consists of common tones and half-step,
whole-step, or minor-third moves. The
only exception is when we reach the end of
bar 12 and jump back to the top to repeat
the progression. Because bar 12’s E7 and
bar 1’s A7 share the same fingering, try sliding
from E7 to A7 for a dramatic break from
our otherwise frugal motion.
By the way, the A7–Eb°–Dm–A7 move in bar
8 makes a dandy turnaround or intro. With
little effort, you’ll be able to insert it into a
blues or even a fingerpicked folk song.
The next step is to incorporate the bead
game concept into your playing. We’ll be
using this technique in upcoming lessons,
but to really own it, you’ll need to explore
it yourself. One way to get started is to
transpose this lesson’s progression down an
octave, placing it on lower strings. Though
the chord shapes will look different—and
you’ll find more than one place to fret
them—the common tones and half-step,
whole-step, and minor-third moves will all
remain the same.
Next month, we’ll look at a trick for generating
voicings that are tailor-made for a hybrid,
plectrum-and-fingers picking technique.
Stepwise motion. When a melodic line moves up or down in half- or
whole-steps (distances of one or two frets, respectively), it employs
Contrary motion. When two lines move in opposite directions—one
ascending while the other descends—they produce contrary motion.
This can also occur during a chord change when one voice moves up
as another moves down.
Diminished Triads and Diminished 7th Chords. Every chord type
has a formula that’s derived from a major scale. (For more details
on scale and chord formulas, see the November 2010 Rhythm &
Grooves.) The formula for a diminished triad is 1–b3–b5, or the first,
lowered third, and lowered fifth tones of a major scale. We add a
fourth note to generate a diminished 7th chord, which has a formula
of 1–b3–b5–bb7. A common way to identify a diminished chord
is with a degree symbol, as in C°.
To identify the notes in a diminished chord, simply apply the appropriate
formula to a parallel major scale. For example, to unpack a
C° or C°7, we start with a C major scale (C–D–E–F–G–A–B–C) and
then run the corresponding formulas. This yields C–Eb–Gb (C°) and
C–Eb–Gb–Bbb (C°7). Sonically, a bb7 note is the same as a 6, so many
musicians choose the latter as a kind of shorthand when spelling a
diminished 7th chord. Using this informal approach, we’d identify
C°7’s component notes as C–Eb–Gb–A.
Senior Editor Andy Ellis is a veteran guitar journalist.
Since cutting his teeth on British Invasion bands—the
Who, Yardbirds, and Pretty Things got the party started—
he has been a certified guitar nut. Now based in
Nashville, Andy backs singer-songwriters on the baritone
guitar. He also hosts a weekly radio program, The Guitar
, that broadcasts on-air and online. For the broadcast
schedule, links to the stations’ streams, archived
audio interviews with inspiring players, and more, visit