Strong Root Progressions
When you are doing your own arrangement of a song for solo performance on a chordal instrument such as guitar or piano, or when you are looking at other ways to improvise over a chord progression, being familiar with strong root progressions is essential. First we will look at what this is, and then we will show how to use it in an arrangement, or as an improviser.
First, this is one of the most common progressions that occurs in music. What we are referring to here is chord motion, up a fourth, (or down a fifth), or down in half steps. The II, V progression we talked about in an earlier article is an example of this. In the key of G we would have an Am7 chord going to a D7 chord, which is our down a fifth motion. This type of motion goes counter-clockwise around the cycle of fifths, and is one of the most common types of chord motion that you will encounter. This motion continues with the D7 going to the Gmaj7, where it comes to rest.
The second type of motion is down in half steps. Taking our same key of G example, this would give us an Am7 going to an Ab7, to end up on Gmaj7. Notice the difference here; the roots move down in half steps, as opposed to the motion down in fifths above. If you have been following these articles, you may notice an additional thing here. This is what happens when you use a flat five substitute for the D7 chord. Either way, you get the half step down motion we are looking for.
In an arrangement, you can use either to make the progression you are dealing with more interesting. For example, take the VI, II, V, I progression. We will remain in the key of G, which will give us:
Em7 - Am7 - D7 - Gmaj7
Now take our strong root progression principles, which allow us to come up with the following variations:
Em7 - Eb7 - D7 - Gmaj7
Em7 - Eb7 - Ab7 - Gmaj7
Bb7 - Eb7 - D7 - Gmaj7
Bb7 - Eb7 - Ab7 - Gmaj7
While we have used Dominant sevenths here for the substitutes, depending on the melody of the song, other types of chords could also work. Dominants almost always are a safe choice, but the melody of the song is always the most important deciding factor. Notice how both types of motion are demonstrated here. In the first progression, we move down in all half steps, and then down a fifth. In the second, down a half step, down a fifth, and down a half step. Analyze the next two yourself to make sure you get the idea.
As an improviser, you can use this same thinking to build your lines. Try thinking this way and playing this kind of line over the Vi, II, V, I progression and hear how it sounds. This will help you to play "outside" the progression, while still keeping your line moving in a logical direction, allowing you to resolve the line inside the key, creating a nice tension and release for the listener.
The only way to really get this is to do as much of it as possible, until it becomes second nature to you, and you no longer have to think about it. As with anything else, you want to get to the point where you hear and execute these concepts without the thought process getting in the way. This kind of thing has to become second nature, and if it does, will go a long way toward making your arrangements and improvised lines much more interesting and musical.