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Standard Chord Patterns For Basic Song Segments

8:44 pm Songwriting

One of the most common ways of writing a new song is to come up with a cool chord pattern or two and then to put lyrics and a melody to them by “singing along” while repeatedly playing the patterns on the guitar or keyboard. I often go so far as to make a simple recording of the new chord patterns and then play it back over and over, allowing the sound of it to suggest a melody line or a set of lyrics. I almost always come up with something, although I admit to having a half-dozen songs on hand right now with fully recorded backing tracks and no lyrics at all. These songs usually have temporary titles like “No Idea” or “Rocker In G.”

OK, but where do these “cool chord patterns” come from in the first place? The answer is that the chord sequences in the verses and choruses of most songs are variations on a relatively small set of standard patterns. If you think about it you can see why. If a chord pattern is weird and atonal, jumping from one oddball chord to another, it will indeed sound unique and “untypical” - and will likely be jarring and annoying as well. There are very few occasions when this is the desired reaction! The fact is, clever variations on familiar patterns are what makes a great song work.

I am going to describe some of the standard chord patterns that I have used as starting points for my songwriting over the years. This is hardly an exhaustive list of useful patterns, and I would be interested in any others you may have noticed in your own listening and songwriting.

Givin’ Me the Blues

The first standard pattern that comes to mind is the 12-bar “blues” pattern, shown here in the key of C (which I will use for all of my examples):

C C C C
F F C C
G F C G7

(Each chord letter represents a 4-beat measure, or “bar,” in all of the examples.) This pattern is different from the others I will mention in that it lays out the chords for an entire verse (ironically called a “chorus” by blues musicians) rather than for a single line that may or may not be repeated.

The most interesting thing about using this pattern is not using this pattern, at least not exactly. The variations are everything. The last of the three lines is particularly susceptible to being changed, perhaps to something like this:

G G# - G C F - G

(Hyphenated chords get two beats each.) If you pick up your guitar and play the pattern with this third line in place you will hear for yourself what a difference it makes. And yet it is still based on the standard 12-bar blues pattern! Hey, while you’re playing, see what other variations you can come up with. (Tip: Try using some minor chords.)

Almost as venerable as the 12-bar blues pattern is the standard “doo wop” pattern (used in many songs of that mostly-vocal genre):

C Am F G

Pick up your guitar (again) and play this four-bar line over and over at midtempo, and you will notice how many songs (mostly oldies) it begins reminding you of! In a typical song structure, there would be one or two verses with four lines of this pattern in each, then a “bridge” (a different-sounding part) in F, then back to more C, Am, F, G. Of course, you could have two lines of this pattern, a third line that was different, then back to doo-wop for the fourth line. Why not?

If you want to use this “doo wop” pattern in your songs, you should probably experiment with some variations. For example, a simple change results in:

C Em F G

This sequence has a whole different “feel” to it. Substituting a relative minor works too:

C Am Dm7 G

(Dm is the relative minor of F.) Different again, eh? There are a lot of other ways you can twist this familiar pattern around.

Around the Round

OK. Now I will show you four simple patterns based on the “cycle of major chords” associated with a given key. Briefly put, these are the three chords that sound the most natural in that key. For the key of C, the three chords are C, F, and G, the very same chords used in the 12-bar blues pattern discussed earlier.

The first of my four simple patterns starts at the tonic (i.e. the C chord) and goes “up” the chord cycle then back to the tonic, like this:

C F G C

Variations like using Am instead of the first C and/or Dm instead of the F can really bring this “up-cycle” pattern to life. You might also use the straight pattern for your first line and then “answer” it with a second line featuring a variation. Or just play the line as it is four times and there’s your verse. So many possibilities!

My second pattern starts at the tonic and then goes “down” the chord cycle from the top, like this:

C G F C

This is similar to the previous pattern, but the effect is quite different, as you will hear when you play it. The same kind of chord substitutions mentioned above can work with this “down-cycle” pattern. In addition, using a G chord instead of the final C in the line can create a nice resolution to the next repetition (G “resolves” to C).

The third pattern is an “up-cycle” that starts on the F chord:

F G C C

The way that the F and G chords resolve to the two measures of C gives this pattern a “build and release” feeling. The F chord can be replaced by a Dm7, resulting in a pattern heard most commonly in jazz.

Finally, we have the “waterfall” pattern, which starts at the top of the chord cycle and comes down to the tonic, like this:

G F C C

Repeating a pattern like this over and over gives an especially nice backing to solo over, especially if you can work in some minor chords. Try using Am, Am instead of the two C Chords. Or maybe just an Am chord instead of that final C every other time through.

Although these examples have all been in the key of C for convenience, all of them will work in any key there is. You’ll just have to figure out the exact chords to use for yourself by transposing the ones given here.

I have a few other standard patterns that I will get to in a future article, but hopefully this has given you some new starting points to consider next time you’re just jammin’ around, looking for a “cool chord pattern.” Don’t let familiarity breed contempt!

My song “High As the Sun” (audio, chords, lyrics) uses several of the simple patterns I have mentioned above, and in the key of C even! The verse uses the C, G, F, C “down-cycle” pattern as the first line and the C, Em, F, G “modified doo-wop” as the second. Also, the tag at the end uses the “down-cycle” pattern again and both the intro and the link use the C, G, F, G variation of that same pattern.


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High As the Sun (Bendig) (audio, chords, lyrics)
Mark Bendig: vocals, drums, bass, acoustic guitar, percussion
Jack Burgess: lead acoustic guitar, accordion

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