Building A Tune From The Ground Up

Part 1: The Chord Progression

A couple of friends of mine are getting married next year & they asked me if I would play at the wedding. Without really thinking about it I offered to write a piece especially for the event, and so I found myself with a new commission.

I decided to try writing a waltz, as I’ve never done anything like this before & it seemed appropriate for the occasion. So… where to begin? Well, it’s a wedding so “happy” is the vibe to go for which means a big, major key tonality. No twisted jazz altered-dominant shenanigans allowed, and definitely no spooky locrian mode nonsense. Well, we’ll see…

In the end, I decided to start off simple, and came up with a fairly run-of-the-mill chord sequence as the basis for the verse:

|G / / |D / / |Em / / |C / / |

|G / / |Bm / / |F / / |D / / |

I usually like to have the whole chord progression in the bag before I tackle writing a melody, as I find this makes writing the melody so much easier. So, the next job on the list was to figure out what I was going to do for the chorus. One little trick I’m quite fond of is to set out the chord which gives the whole sequence a sense of finality or focus (in this case G major), and place it some way into the sequence rather than right at the beginning, thus building up the suspense a little as I work my way towards it. This is a very effective way to keep the listener interested & engaged in the music, much like a storyteller keeping you wondering what’s going to happen next. There are many ways to “steer” a chord progression toward a point you want to finish up on & if you need some advice on this kind of thing, you can download a comprehensive free guide on the mechanics of chord progressions (including audio examples) by clicking HERE.

Anyway, here’s the chorus chord sequence I ended up with (I couldn’t resist that cheeky little diminished chord, by the way). The G major chord is the focus of what’s going on but, as you can see, it only makes a couple of appearances for half a bar at a time. Never the less, it IS the chord around which everything else is in orbit. Try playing the sequence and end on any of the other chords involved, then try ending it on the G & you should hear that this is very definitely the chord which ties up all the loose ends and gives it a sense of focus.

|C D |Em D |C G/B |Am |C D |G A7 |C C#dim |D7 |

Anyway, now we have a verse and a chorus, so what next? Well an intro is also on the “to do” list, so I decided to tackle that next. When in doubt, I always tend to fall back on the good old I VI II V sequence. In G major this would mean G Em Am & D. Trying this seemed OK, but not quite what I was hearing in my head. So I turned the G into Gmj7; the Em into E7 & subsequenty into a G#diminished (a close relative of E7 – just change the E note in E7 to an F & you have a G# diminished); then Am becomes Am7 & D turns into D7.

Playing this few times as a prelude to the verse, everything seemed OK, but still not exactly what I was looking for. The problem was that it needed some kind of “lift” as it went into the verse. A key change seemed in order then. It made sense to keep the verse and chorus in G major, and put the intro into a different key so this is what I did. To provide the necessary “drama” I went for a key as distant from the existing G major as I could get – Db major, and simply transposed the G major intro chord sequence to the new key. This gave me a progression of:

|Dbmj7/ / |Ddim / / |Ebm7 / / |Ab7 / / |

|Dbmj7/ / |Ddim / / |Ebm7 / / |Ab7 / / |

The final chord of Ab7 is just as effective (as the D7 would have been) as a way of going to the G chord at the start of the verse due to it containing the same Gb – C interval as found in the D7. Using a replacement chord in this way (known as a “tritone” substitution) is a ploy often used in jazz and blues when a little more drama is needed from a dominant 7th chord – simply replace your existing 7th chord with the one found 6 frets away. Playing this new version of the intro immediately before the verse worked perfectly: a nice way of introducing the main body of the tune with a real sense of “stepping up” when the tune begins in earnest.

What’s next, then? Well it’s about time I started putting some kind of running order together. We begin (naturally) with the intro, then a fairly quiet & restrained verse followed by another with a little more “oomph” to it. Then we have the 1st chorus followed by the original, G major, version of the intro acting as a buffer before the next verse. In order to achieve the same sense of lift when emerging from the intro into the verse, I reversed the orginal key change strategy from earlier. This meant that verse 3 modulates from G major to the key of Db major, giving this chord sequence:

|Db / / |Ab / / |Bbm / / |Gb / / |Db / / |Fm / / |B     |Ab / / |

Which takes us into the 2nd chorus, also in Db.This is just a straight transposition of the chord progression from the 1st chorus which gives this chord chart:

|Gb Ab |Bbm Ab |Gb Db/F |Ebm |Gb Ab |Db Eb7 |Gb Gdim |Ab7 |

Following this we have another chorus with pretty much the same chords, with the exception of the ending which I changed to lead the tune into the middle section…

I wanted to include an improvised guitar solo, so it was important to come up with a progression that would compliment a more “free form” section. I took a leaf out of Joe Satriani’s book here and went for a modal approach. I’ve always loved the sound of the lydian mode, so this is what I decided to use. Now, the lydian mode is what you get if you take a major key and re-orientate it around it’s 4th note. In the key of F major (which is where I’d decided to begin the solo), the 4th degree is Bb, so I laid down a bass line centred around a Bb note, then “hung” some chords from the key of F major over the top of it, giving the following progression:

|Bb / / |C/Bb / / |F/Bb / / |Bb / / |

Then, also inspired by Satch, I modulated this sequence up a minor 3rd resulting in this part:

|Db / / |Eb/Db / / |Ab/Db / / |Db / / |

Deciding that this sounded pretty good, I went up another minor 3rd for the next 4 bars:

|E / / |F#/E / / |B/E / / |E / / |

Spotting that another ascending minor 3rd modulation would take me back to my original G major tonality, I decided to go in this direction. Just for a change though, I went into an ionian/mixolydian mode sequence with the following chords:

|G / / |Em / / |F C |D (pause)|

After all the excitement of the solo, I thought it wise to return to the verse to calm things down a bit. Taking me there, I used the G major version of the intro again. When it came to writing this 4th verse, I first of all tried the same chord progression from verses 1 & 2, but this sounded a little mundane, so a re-write of the chord part seemed in order for this segment. One type of chord progression I’ve always been a sucker for is the descending bass line “Whiter Shade Of Pale” sequence, so I took this and modified it slightly.

Here’s what I came up with – notice the Eb chord, not a chord you’d normally associate with something in a G major tonallity, but it IS found in various modes of G minor. This means it can be used in a G major context as a way of adding a little minor key pathos – a trick used by Radiohead in the song “Creep” and Bryan Adams in “Everything I Do” among many other exmples…

|G / / |D/F# / / |F / / |C/E / / |G / / |C / / |Eb / / |D / / |

To round the tune off it’s back to the chorus again, in G major this time, then into Eb for the 2nd time through. Again, just a modulation to a fairly distant key centre to add a sense of drama & excitement to proceedings. Then for the final time through the chorus, I modulated once more to continue the feeling of building up to a climax. This time I went up from Eb to Gb major with an ascending minor 3rd segment at the end culminating in a G7 chord which resolves into the intro chord progression once again, in C major this time. Here’s the final three chorus parts and the ending:

Final chorus #1

|C D |Em D |C G/B |Am / / |C D |G A7 |Dm7 Fm/D |Bb7/ / |

Final chorus #2

|Ab Bb |Cm Bb |Ab Eb/G |Fm / / |Ab Bb |Eb F7 |Ab Cdim |Db7/ / |

Final chorus #3

|B Db |Ebm Db |B Gb/Bb |Abm / / |B Db |Gb Ab7 |B Cdim |Db7/ / |

|E7 / / |G7 / / |

Final version of the intro section

|Cmj7 / / |C#dim / / |Dm7 / / |Db7b9 / / |

|Cmj7 / / |C#dim / / |Dm7 / / |Db7b9 / / | (end on) Gbmj7

Notice that tritone substitution again? Instead of placing a G7 at the end of the 4 bar intro cycle, I used a Db7 with an added D note, borrowed from the original G7, giving a Db7b9 chord. So much for avoiding any twisted altered dominant shenanigans, eh? Finally, as one last little twist, I used the same modulation idea as I employed at the beginning of the 1st verse by going to the key of Gb major (instead of the expected C major) for the final chord.

So there you have it, a completed chord progression for the wedding tune. This is largely what I stuck to, although there were a couple of places where I added another subtle chord substitution or two, however they’re not really significant in terms of the overall structure, so I won’t bore you with the details. I’ll be honest, it wasn’t until I saw it all mapped in this way that I began to realise just how complex the whole thing had got. I guess I was just so engrossed in each little part, as I was writing it, that I lost sight of how much detail was in the bigger picture. The next job was put the track together in my DAW and come up with a lead guitar part to sit on top of it all. How I went about doing this will be the subject of my next blog, but for now, here’s a preview of the finished tune, melody included, as I will be playing it on the big day. Ladies and gentlemen, I present… “A Waltz In Purple.”


Until next time… have fun!


John Robson Guitar Tuition

The John Robson Jazz Project


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