Most of the songs we play in the Bluegrass and old-time worlds—as well as pop, rock and other genres—are based around the I, IV and V chords, with the occasional ii and vi thrown in.
In the key of G, the I, IV and V are: G, C and D. The ii is Am and the vi is Em.
There are some progressions that break out of this pattern, yet still sound good to us. Take a look at the chords for “Don’t You Let Your Deal Go Down.”
In the key of G, the chords are: E7, A7, D7, G, in that order over and over. (You could play all the chords as major chords, but the 7ths give it a more bluesy sound.)
A chord chart for this song could look like this:
||: E7 | A7 |D7 | G :||
Here’s the first verse with the chords in approximately the right places:
I've been all around this whole wide world,
I've been down in sunny Alabam’.
My Momma always told me, “Son,”
She said, "Never let your deal go down."
You can look at this progression as: VI, II, V, I (or VI7, II7, V7, I).
You can also look at it as following the circle of fourths, which is the same as the circle of fifths but backwards. (Go a fourth up and a fifth down and you end up on the same note.)
You start on E, go up a fourth (E, F#, G#, A) to A.
From A, go up a fourth (A, B, C#, D) to D.
From D, go up a fourth (D, E, F#, G) to G.
Then start over and repeat.
Besides this song, the circle of fourths progression is a very common B part in many songs that follow an AABA form. And that brings up another way to play outside the standard Bluegrass and old time progressions. Instead of verse, verse chorus for songs (throwing in an occasional bridge), or AABB for fiddle tunes, many songs, especially “standards” and many swing and swing-like tunes follow the AABA form.
For example, here’s a progression that follows this form and has a circle of fourths for a B part. One of many songs that use this progression is “Big Time Woman.”
G | | A | |
D7 | | G | |
| B7 | | E7 | |
| A7 | | D7 | |
To follow the AABA form you play the A part twice, then the B part once and end with the A part one more time. Then start over and repeat.
I mentioned earlier that this B part is common. A band I’m in commonly uses it in “Big Time Woman,” “Caravan,” “What’s the Reason?,” and probably a few others, in various keys.
When you listen to songs, especially swing and standards, and try to figure out the chords, when I, IV, V don’t seem to work, give the circle of fourths a try.
Michael Bremer is a writer, editor, publisher and banjo player. He is writing and publishing the Banjo GED series of instructional materials, and also writes and edits for Hal Leonard.
Banjo GED #1: Chords! Chords! Chords! teaches you everything you could ever want to know (and more) about playing chords on a 5-string banjo in G tuning.
Banjo Aerobics (published by Hal Leonard) is a book of exercises to help you gain technique in all styles of playing, and better understand the banjo neck.
Clawhammer Cookbook (published by Hal Leonard) is now available. Here's a link to it on Amazon:
Hal Leonard Folk Banjo Method is basic instruction for beginning players focusing on strumming, basic picking and accompaniment. Here it is on Amazon:
Monday, December 15, 2014 @10:41:33 AM
Great ideas, Michael, but I'd like to urge banjo players to use caution when experimenting with chords and think about what they'd like to accomplish. Do you want to sing and play traditional or contemporary folk music? Do you want to play traditional bluegrass banjo or melodic bluegrass banjo? (Or be able to do almost anything and everything on the instrument like Bela Fleck?) There's a reason that Earl Scruggs, Roscoe Holcomb, and Fred Cockerham sound the way they do, and that's because of what they DON'T do. Earl did not cultivate the melodic picking patterns that Bill Keith did, and Fred did not try to every melody note like the melodic clawhammer players of our day. I'm not criticizing these players and styles--they are great! I'm just saying that more is not necessarily better, and trying to do too much MIGHT NOT get you where you want to go. There are many beautiful folksong arrangements from the 60s Revival with extra chords, and while I love groups like Peter, Paul and Mary, there's a reason why Woody Guthrie and the Carter Family sound different. Simplicity and complexity at both wonderful, but different.
Monday, December 15, 2014 @1:12:27 PM
I totally agree, Bart, and you make a good point that I may not have made clear. Most of the content in these Chord Nerd columns will NOT lead you to sound like Earl or Wade or Roscoe or Tommy or any traditional banjo hero.
If you know who you want to sound like, or what exact styles you want to play, there are many great resources to learn from, and you have no need to waste your time with columns and lessons written by someone like me. For Earl, go to the master himself, or one of the many people who teach Scruggs style. For traditional old time styles, I go to Bob Carlin and Dan Levenson, both of whom I have learned a lot from and plan on learning more. (And there are many other great resources out there for old time banjo.)
These Chord Nerd Columns (and my book) come from my own interest in trying to figure out how to play music on the banjo that’s not strictly traditional. I only offer it here in case anyone is interested. If this doesn't take you where you want to go, please ignore it.
This one, #16, is the last Chord Nerd column, at least for a while. But if I ever start it up again (or another column, that knowing me won't be totally traditional, I will start each one with a warning:
Learning anything from this lesson may lead you to play things that don't sound traditional. Play at your own risk.
Monday, December 15, 2014 @2:08:53 PM
I hope you'll write more columns, 'cause there's lots of good info here, well explained, and this is what makes BHO so helpful to so many people. Until now, I didn't know there was a series of Chord Nerd problems, and I'm going to go back and read them and see if I can get some ideas that will work with my very traditional style and preferences. Thanks!
Monday, December 15, 2014 @3:11:06 PM
Hi guys! Just a comment to yours... I started out jamming bluegrass and some country. But I realized that Bluegrass was not my most favorite music style, for not reason i can think of.n So I joined a Contemporary Christian band of 8 members, and played for about 3 plus years. It took a while before i could forget bluegrass style and play the 5-string like another instrument for any style of music, yet with it's distinct sound. I learned more about music in general in those 3+ years than I ever had in my life. But My point is... I love music and like to learn different techniques without sounding like all the Bluegrass Fathers of the century. Interestingly..I get flack from some of my dyed-in-tne-wool Bluegrassers!! And that is why I appreciate this column a lot. Keep it up guys, I learn from you!
Monday, December 15, 2014 @3:16:32 PM
Good article and good comments! I like to do anything that is possible on the banjo and that helps me a lot! Thank you ;)
Tuesday, December 16, 2014 @7:02:44 AM
In my 2nd comment, 3rd line, I meant to say "Chord Nerd columns" not "problems."
Tuesday, December 16, 2014 @7:03:01 AM
Nice article. I'm sorry to hear this will be your last for a while. I've enjoyed this Chord Nerd series. Re: the B7 E7 A7 D7 G progression. I prefer to conceptualize these chords as a fifth away from each other rather than a fourth. You mention that it's the same thing, just a different direction around the circle, and you're correct. Still, fifths makes more sense to my ear since each one serves as a dominant or leading chord to the next. So, working backwards: D7 leads to G; A7 leads to D; E7 leads to A; B7 leads to E. Each chord is the fifth of the following chord and functions as a dominant to the (albeit temporary) tonic that follows.
Tuesday, December 16, 2014 @8:49:34 AM
Thanks to all who enjoyed these lessons!
I'll take a short break, maybe come back with something else for a while (got a couple of ideas) and eventually come back to chord nerd stuff. The more I play and learn, the more things I discover that I can share.
Bart: you might have been right the first time ... at least that's what my wife would say.
sonofhop: Yes, that progression is often called the circle of fifths, and maybe it does make more sense.
Wednesday, December 17, 2014 @6:55:30 AM
Thank you Michael, your nerd tips are always good to read and interesting. Happy holidays to you and yours
and come back soon ;)
Wednesday, December 17, 2014 @12:05:04 PM
Thanks a lot Michael for all your articles, and especially for your BANJO G.E.D. book.
Every banjo player should get one copy in order to widen his banjo neck knowledge. Among all the book I have bought, this is the only one able to provide the right tools for set my playing free and capable of dealing with every musical environment.
Wednesday, December 17, 2014 @2:59:48 PM
Thank you all.
I'll be back.
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'The Scruggs Bend Technique' 36 min