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.
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