The “Stairway” Progression
Zeppelin might be the most famous case, but plenty of songwriters have borrowed these infamous chords.
• Understand how a descending bass line can change the flavor of a progression.
• Learn how to add chromatic elements to your songs.
• Develop a keener sense of song structure.
From the 12-bar blues to a shuffle pattern to a IIm7–V7–I progression, many musical motifs get recycled and repurposed. It's accepted that these ideas are simply out there in the air for songwriters and composers to use, gratis, as musical building blocks from which to create new work. Right?
Maybe not. A few years ago, Led Zeppelin was sued for using one of these common motifs as the basis for "Stairway to Heaven." I was as surprised as anyone. I've been teaching this chromatically descending minor chord progression as an example of a compositional tool for years, citing a series of examples of its use in different situations. But sure enough, the band Spirit had decided to lay claim to the progression.
During the trial in 2016, Jimmy Page admitted that his song and Spirit's "Taurus," "are very similar because that chord sequence has been around forever." Back when Page wrote "Stairway" in 1971, he was surely well aware of what he was doing. This chord progression had really been making the rounds in pop culture.
I've collected quite a few examples of this progression's usage to show what can be done with this motif, compositionally. These examples prove that this progression is nothing more than a kernel of musical information that songwriters and composers have been using for much longer than "Stairway to Heaven" or "Taurus" have been around.
The list below could be much longer, but I've edited it down to what I think are the strongest examples, where this motif is used in the most recognizable way, either as the beginning of a song or a section. So, you won't be seeing "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" by Stevie Wonder or the "Dead Man" theme by Neil Young, but just know that both of those songs are among the many that use this pattern.
Because both "Stairway to Heaven" and "Taurus" are in A minor, I've decided to transpose all the examples into A minor to make it easy to compare them. But first, let's hear both "Stairway" and "Taurus."
Stairway to Heaven (Remaster)
In Ex. 1, we see the opening phrases to both "Stairway to Heaven" and "Taurus." The first three measures are the only overlap in these phrases. Both songs have a descending bass note that starts on the root of Am, then descends chromatically to F. This bass line creates some interest in what could be a rather stagnant stretch of Am. The F# can be used as either an Am6/F# or a D/F#. Essentially, the difference between names here is based on what else happens harmonically around that chord and for our purposes, we can consider them to be the same chord.
Following the F# bass note, both songs have a measure of Fmaj7 and that's where the commonalities end. "Stairway" follows that with a resolution from G back to A minor, which would be a bVII resolving to a Im, while "Taurus" goes to Dm, which is the IVm chord.
If we go way back in time to the 17th century, we find Italian Baroque composer and guitarist Giovanni Battista Granata featuring this motif in his "To Catch a Shad." In the trial, Led Zeppelin used this song as proof that the chord progression is in the public domain. Shown in Ex. 2, the song uses essentially the same progression as "Stairway to Heaven." "To Catch a Shad" was covered by the Modern Folk Quartet in 1963.
To Catch a Shad
Fast forwarding to the 20th century, we discover that Irving Berlin used this same motif for the first four measures of his song "Blue Skies" in 1926, shown here in Ex. 3. The progression descends chromatically to a D major chord, then modulates to C major for the next phrase.
Thelonious Monk used "Blue Skies" as the basis for his song "In Walked Bud," first recorded in 1947. The first four measures are essentially the same, followed by a similar turnaround through a sequence of chords in the key of C major.
Irving Kaufman - Blue Skies (1927)
In Walked Bud
Both Duke Ellington and Richard Rodgers used this progression in the 1930s for their respective compositions "In a Sentimental Mood" and "My Funny Valentine." In Ex. 4, notice how Ellington used the progression, then repeats it up a fourth. The next phrase begins back on the Am chord and resolves to a C major.
Rodgers' "My Funny Valentine" follows the descending line down to F (much like Spirit would later do), and goes to Dm, before a IIm7b5–V7b9 turnaround back to the tonic.
The Beatles never shied away from using a clever songwriting maneuver and our progression in this lesson is no exception—just check out Ex. 5. In 1963, they covered the song "A Taste of Honey" on their debut, Please Please Me. Composed in 1960 by Bobby Scott and Ric Marlow for the Broadway play of the same name, the song features a chromatically descending minor progression in the beginning of the verse.
This progression must have made its mark on the budding songwriters, because Paul McCartney and John Lennon wrote "Michelle" for 1965's Rubber Soul and used a two-measure descending minor progression as the intro, followed by a measure of IVm and V.
A few years later, George Harrison used the progression in "Something" from 1969's Abbey Road. This progression occurs in the verse when Harrison sings, "I don't want to leave her now," before coming back to the song's signature turnaround lick. An interesting thing about "Something" is that the verse opens with the same type of harmonic move on a C major chord. So, the first chords are C–Cmaj7–C7.
A Taste Of Honey (Remastered 2009)
Michelle (Remastered 2009)
Something (Remastered 2015)
Ex. 6 shows the first phrase of the song "Chim Chim Cher-ee," written for the 1964 Disney film, Mary Poppins, by brothers Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman. Heavily covered by jazz artists in the mid '60s, this song was most certainly floating around in the popular consciousness. The first two measures are followed by a resolution (IVm–Im) and a turnaround (II7–V7).
Also from that same year was "War of the Satellites," written for the Ventures' In Space record by Danny Hamilton. In this surf rock classic, the descending minor progression is used in A minor, modulates down a whole-step and repeats in G minor, then modulates again to F minor, where it stays momentarily then jumps around chromatically, ascending and descending, before repeating.
Mary Poppins - Chim Chim Cher-ee
The Ventures War Of The Satellites (Stereo) (Super Sound)
Through these examples, we've looked at quite a wide variety of styles, from baroque music to Tin Pan Alley, jazz to surf, show tunes to classic rock. What's fascinating about all of these examples is the way the songwriters were able to take this common piece of harmonic information, put a unique spin on it, and go in different musical directions.
This article was updated on September 20, 2021
Deep Pockets: A Guide to Developing Better Time
- Develop a better sense of subdivisions.
- Understand how to play "over the bar line."
- Learn to target chord tones in a 12-bar blues.
Playing in the pocket is the most important thing in music. Just think about how we talk about great music: It's "grooving" or "swinging" or "rocking." Nobody ever says, "I really enjoyed their use of inverted suspended triads," or "their application of large-interval pentatonic sequences was fascinating." So, whether you're playing live or recording, time is everyone's responsibility, and you must develop your ability to play in the pocket.
So, what is bad time? It's when people rush and speed up the tempo or drag and slow the tempo down in an unmusical way. If your quarter-note pulse is uneven, you can't lock in with what the band is doing because the time keeps moving. If somebody's fills are all wonky and don't land right, that usually means they are not subdividing and are just stuffing notes into the measure haphazardly. These players don't realize what is happening. Don't be one of these players. To develop your own pocket, you will need two things: your guitar and a metronome. A better groove, and a better ability to subdivide the beat, will lead to better phrasing and more control of what you want to play.
The first three examples are designed to eliminate your reliance on the first beat of the measure. Practicing with the metronome on all four beats of the measure is a very common way to practice scales and chord progressions. Remember that in most styles of music, the snare drum is on beats 2 and 4 of the measure. Practice with your metronome as if it's a snare, where the click is on 2 and 4. (A note about tempo markings: Usually the tempo is listed at a quarter-note level, but with the metronome on beats 2 and 4, it's marked as a half-note. So, if the half-note tempo is listed as 120 bpm, the quarter-note tempo would be twice that, or 240 bpm.)
Ex. 1 is a G7 arpeggio played in 3rd position, with half-note tempos of 100, 125, and 150 bpm. The recording of this example has a count off with the clicks on 2 and 4. If these tempos are initially too fast, start with a slower tempo where you can play the example cleanly, putting each note directly in between the clicks of the metronome. You can even start with just a single note at a comfortable tempo, getting used to what it sounds and feels like to put a note directly in between the metronome clicks.
Ex. 2 is the A minor pentatonic scale (A–C–D–E–G) in 5th position, played first in half-notes and then again in whole-notes. This example is designed to help you switch gears between different rhythms.
Ex. 3 is the C major scale (C–D–E–F–G–A–B) in 7th position played in half-notes and whole-notes, but at faster tempo. If you practice different types of scales and arpeggios in this way, you'll discover spots where you may rush or drag the notes.
The last three phrasing exercises are intended to eliminate your need to play on the first beat of the measure. Played over a 12-bar blues in A, each example uses a different rhythm or phrasing structure where you will need to count a lot of empty space to play these rhythms correctly. Ex. 5 is deceptively simple, where you play only on beats two, three, and four of each measure. It takes more concentration than you would think, so be careful that you don't fall back into playing your usual stuff.
Ex. 6 will develop your ability to play over the bar line, which is simply not starting or ending your phrases directly on beat 1. There's a lot of space to count, starting each small phrase on the "and" of beat 3, and finishing on the "and" of beat 1 in the next measure.
Ex. 7 aims to expand your phrasing, creating longer lines by playing a two-bar phrase almost entirely in eighth-notes. The challenge to this exercise is beginning on the "and" of one in the first measure and ending on the "and" of four in the second measure. In each of these examples, practice each rhythm by itself on a single pitch with a metronome, focusing on counting the spaces and playing that specific rhythm. Then, try adding different chord tones or scales when that rhythm becomes internalized.
After working on these examples, play over a track and focus on one concept at a time to see if you really have it under your fingers and in your ears. Always remember to keep things simple to begin with. There's plenty of time to make things complicated later on. Cheers!
Pick Like Country Legend “Mother” Maybelle Carter
Mother Maybelle Carter was an innovator who reinvented rhythm guitar—here's how she did it.
Intermediate to Advanced
- Learn how to strum chords and pick melodies at the same time.
- Combine the various elements to create your own songs and arrangements.
- Explore guitar-friendly keys using open strings.
Strum chords and pick melodies at the same time! While Carter-style picking is most closely associated with country legend Maybelle Carter, the technique, and variations thereof, can be heard in the music of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, and even progressive pioneers Yes.
What Is Carter Picking?
Carter-style picking—aka the Carter Family Style, the Carter Scratch, the Maybelle Carter Strum, and the thumb brush, among others—is a style of guitar playing popularized by Maybelle Carter. Simply put, while holding down a chord, the higher strings are strummed while a melody is picked out on the lower strings. It's been debated as to whether strumming the lower strings and putting the melody on the high strings is considered Carter picking. Since we're going beyond the traditional, I'll allow it.
Before we get into more challenging melodies, it's important to be able to play a basic "boom-chuck" strum (Ex. 1), which alternates the root and 5 of any given chord, with minimal movement from the left hand.
Once you have the boom-chuck mastered, strive to add scale movement or walking bass lines, as seen in Ex. 2.
When you're comfortable with scales, try adding chromatic movement to your bass lines. This will spice up your playing considerably (Ex. 3).
Now that you possess a solid bass-strum foundation, it's time to add melodies, and we might as well start with the most well-known song from Maybelle Carter's repertoire: "Wildwood Flower" (Ex. 4). As you can see and hear, only the top three notes of both the C and G chords are strummed, usually on beat 2, while the single-note melody is picked out on the lower strings. This is quintessential Carter picking, but the variations are endless.
Mother Maybelle Carter - Wildwood Flower LIVE!
Ex. 5 was inspired by the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood," which is not only in 3/4 time but is also in the Mixolydian mode, as it emphasizes the V chord, D, in the key of G. Note that the first time through the chords are only strummed as a quarter-notes, the second time the chords get eighth-note strums.
Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)
Intriguingly, Donovan's "Catch the Wind" predates "Norwegian Wood" by a few months, conceivably providing Lennon with the stylistic inspiration, as it has for Ex. 6. Pay attention to the fact that the pinky stays consistently on the 3rd fret of the 1st string.
Donovan - Catch the wind
Ex. 7 comes to us from Joan Baez's version of "The Lily of the West." In this example, an Em chord is strummed throughout, while the melody moves all the way up to the 3rd string, thinning out the strum a bit, yet still implying Em. You may need to spend extra time practicing the hammer-ons and the slide to keep them as robust as the picked notes.
JOAN BAEZ ~ The Lily Of The West ~
Ex. 8 is an usual variation that can be heard on the Rolling Stones' "Country Honk." A boom-chuck strum alternates with a thick, three-note melody/bass line of sorts. I recommend isolating and repeating the D chord measures, as your pinky is sure to get a workout there.
Country Honk (Remastered 2019)
As I mentioned earlier, traditional Carter picking emphasizes melodies in the bass while strumming the higher strings. Still, that doesn't stop Neil Young from reversing the technique—putting melodies on top while keeping fat, full chords on the bottom. You'll need to fret the F chord with your left-hand thumb on the low string to maintain the bass while picking out the melody. Check out Young's live version of "Cowgirl in the Sand" for such a sound, which Ex. 9 emulates.
Neil Young - Cowgirl In The Sand - Carnegie Hall / Official Bootleg (Official Music Video)
Our final specimen, Ex. 10, emerges from an unexpected source, Steve Howe of Yes. Listen to Yes' "And You and I" for a progressive variation of Carter Picking. Once again, your pinky will get a workout. It is Steve Howe-esque after all.
And You and I (2003 Remaster)
Pick Your Own
While in theory, Carter picking will work in any key, I find it best to stick with the guitar friendly keys of G, C, D, A, and E as the abundance of open strings allow you to easily fret chords, as well as play melodies, freeing yourself from being anchored to barre chords.
If this style is new to you, I suggest learning all the songs I mentioned, and then make an arrangement of one of your favorite melodies. Lastly attempt to compose your own, original Carter-style piece as the possibilities are infinite. Good luck!