• Understand the key elements of progressive rock.
• Create and learn phrases using odd time signatures and rhythmic displacement.
• Delve into the styles of Alex Lifeson, Steve Howe, David Gilmour, and other greats.
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Put away your cape and grab your axe. No, your other axe.
The progressive rock genre started in the late 1960s as an effort to elevate the artistic credibility of rock music. Extended musical forms, time signatures other than 4/4, and modal harmonies and melodies are some of the musical tools that separate this genre from other styles. Guitarists like Steve Howe (Yes), Alex Lifeson (Rush), David Gilmour (Pink Floyd), Robert Fripp (King Crimson), Ty Tabor (King’s X) and John Petrucci (Dream Theater) used open string voicings, harmonized lines, and time signature shifts to create a more expressive and melodic style of playing.
In this Style Guide, we’ll focus on just a few of the guitar techniques that are at the foundation of progressive rock—open string chords, harmonized lines, time signatures, and soloing style. Once you understand how these pieces work, you can combine and rearrange them to create your own journey to the center of the earth!
Mixing different time signatures is a prominent aspect of progressive rock. While 4/4 is not completely abandoned, it’s good to get a handle on 5/4, 6/4, and 7/4. The first measure of Fig. 1 is an A minor riff in 4/4, and here we keep it simple by only using scale tones 1, b3, and b7. By changing the last two eighth-notes to quarter-notes, you can make the motif work in 5/4. I used a similar process to morph the original riff into 6/4 and 7/4. By adding notes or changing rhythms, you can adapt any riff to different time signatures.
Once you have a list of riffs, start putting them together in various orders. Every measure could be a new time signature, or you could change only one measure. Fig. 2 is a four-measure phrase using the sequence 6/4–7/4–6/4–5/4. Remember, be progressive! Build a nine-measure phrase in 6/4 or a five-measure phrase in 7/4 … the list goes on.
Expanding on the previous example, Fig. 3 changes the harmony in measures two and four to reflect a Gmaj7 sound. This give the entire phrase a modal, A Dorian (A–B–C–D–E–F#–G) vibe.
It’s also common to see measures of 3/8, 6/8, or 9/8 injected into a quarter-note-based phrase. Fig. 4 uses the original riff and is offset by measure two (a short motif in 3/8) and measure four (an expansion of the 3/8 motif). These can be tricky to play. If you’re used to counting quarter-notes, the time will seem to turn around, especially when moving from measure two to three. Start by making the eighth-note your pulse and practice slowly at first!
Take a listen to “Firth of Fifth” by Genesis or “Starship Trooper” by Yes and notice how many sections, chord progressions, and time signatures the bands used to create each tune. Pretty steep!