If you can play cover songs, you already know most of what you need to know for writing chord progressions for your own songs… here’s the missing piece!
Stop endlessly jamming on your guitar, hoping to find that next chord that makes it all work!
Keep reading to learn a quick way to write chord progressions for the verse, pre-chorus, chorus and bridge to a song. For speed and efficiency, the focus is just on the chord progression. Don’t get distracted with HOW you play the chords for now, save writing the arrangement for later.
Write a draft chord progression… if you discover a better pattern for your song you can change some of the chords later.
Below the video lesson is a written version of this chord progression transformation to help you work it into your songwriting. There are also other chord progression ideas I couldn’t fit into the video and links to other songwriting resources to help you write the songs you hear in your head.
How to Write a Chord Progression
You can write a chord progression from scratch but you can also borrow chord progressions from songs you like and change them. If you love a song there are some good songwriting ideas you can borrow if you know how to listen for them.
Chord progressions are not copyrightable because there is a limited number of possible chord progressions. So, I’ll show you how to borrow a progression from a song you love and use some creativity to transform it to fit your song. The copyright lawsuits you might’ve read about are usually because the second song sounds too much like the original… they didn’t transform them for the new songs.
If you haven’t seen The Axis of Awesome, watch this, they show you dozens of hit songs with the same chord progression: I V vi IV, in the key of A: A E F#- D
The trick is to use the ideas you love from other songs, not the exact notes. In the case of a chord progression, how you play it (the arrangement) is what makes it special.
Chords are building blocks, how you put them together and dress them up is what will make your song special.
Transforming a Chord Progression
You can borrow a chord progression from anywhere. If you’ve written a chord progression you like, you can also use this process to find a better variation that works for the song you’re working on.
Here are a few easy ways to transform a chord progression
1. Transpose it, put the whole thing into a new key
2. Change one or more chords by substituting a different chord. Put a different chord in there.
3. Change the quality of one or more chords, from major to minor or minor to major. Turn a major chord into a dominant chord.
4. Change the order of the chords, this can be hit or miss
5. Change the voicings, where you play it on the neck.
6. You can adjust the harmonic rhythm, how fast chords change, and
7. You can also leave some chords out, or
8. add new ones…
In my video, at the top of this article, I demonstrate with two examples: Jammin, by Bob Marley and the Wailers, and Blinding Lights by the Weeknd. Despite being two completely different styles, it’s possible to combine them in a song.
Jammin’ Chord Progression
Jammin’ by Bob Marley has: B- E G to F#
Transpose it: A- D F E
Change the quality of a chord: A- D- F E or A-7 D-7 F7 E7
Playing in a different position on the neck can also lead to discovering other variations (pro tip: remember “mistakes” you make, they can often be interesting discoveries!)
Change a chord to another, like the D- to C in this example: A- C F E
Check out Bob Marley and the Wailers playing Jammin’ Live:
Blinding Lights Chord Progression
Another example is Blinding Lights by the Weeknd: in the original key the chords are F- C- Eb Bb… I play it with D- A- C G so it’s easier for me to sing and play it.
Change the order to: D- C A- G or D- A- G C on open strings and then higher up the neck.
The Weeknd: Blinding Lights (Official Video)
Writing Draft Chord Progressions for the Verse and Chorus
So for the verse let’s try the Blinding Lights progression with the chords in a different order
D- A- C G, the second time, let’s end it with two bars of G so it sounds unfinished.
The chorus progression is a transposition of the Jammin’ progression with the D major changed to D minor: A- D- F E.
Writing Chord Progressions for the Pre-Chorus
The pre-chorus connects the verse to the chorus, lyrically or musically.
In this case, I could move directly from the G chord to A- at the start of the chorus (Jammin’) but because they are in the same key of A-, moving away from A- in the pre-chorus makes the start of the chorus stronger. I’m heading back to A- with the Jammin’ progression, so for a pre-chorus, let’s find a way to clear our ears and make A- sound fresh.
In this pre-chorus, from the G chord at the end of the verse, we can play with the F to E motion from Jammin’. For example: F G F E, and add some 7ths, F7 G7 F7 E7 the second time…
Songwriting with Contrast
Contrast is your songwriting friend. Each section should sound a little different, some pop songs use the same chord progression for more than one section. I find that tough to create enough contrast, so I prefer using different progressions. You can create contrast using:
1. Different chords, a
2. Different key or
3. Changing the order of the progression so the tonic or main chord is in a different place in the progression.
For example, move it from the beginning to the end. In Jammin’ it’s the first chord. In Blinding Lights it’s the third chord. The way I play the chord progression, it sounds minor instead of the original major, so in A- instead of C major.
You can also add contrast by changing the speed of the chords. Faster chords makes it seem like the music is accelerating and increases the energy.
Starting with contrast in the chord progression is the first step, but also create contrast with changes in the lyrics, melody and arrangement.
Writing Chord Progressions for the Bridge
Contrast is important for every song section, but especially important in the bridge. Bridges are notoriously difficult to write because you need to balance “something different” with “it sounds like it belongs with the rest of this song” (Read How to Write a Bridge for a detailed breakdown of writing an effective bridge without losing your mind…)
In this example, to create a contrasting bridge… let’s steal from Jammin’ in the original key for a different sound… B- E G F#
Let’s try alternating B- and F# and slide an E7 at the end to pull back to the original key of A-…
Maybe B- F# a few times… or the other way F# to B-… this holds some promise:
F# B F# E twice gets us back to A- in the chorus!
Draft Chord Progression
Verse: Blinding Lights:
D- A- C G D- A- G G
F G F E F7 G7 F7 E7
Chorus it with Jammin’
A- D- F E A- D- F E
Then Bridge with a Jammin’ Variation
F# B- F# E F# B- F# E
And then Jammin’ out on the final chorus
A- D- F E A- D- F E
And either end it on the E chord for an unfinished sound or resolve it back to A- to make it sound complete.
Bonus: Special Chord Progression Considerations for Each Song Section
There are differences in each song section because they each serve a different function within the song. Read Parts of a Popular Song for more details about writing different song sections.
Chorus Chord Progressions
Choose a chorus chord progression you like.
Then change one or more chords by using a substitute chord.
Change the quality of one or more chords, Transpose the entire progression.
Option: change the chords faster in the chorus than the verse.
Bonus, use some of the chords from the verse, or transpose to the key of the verse.
Use a different harmonic pattern than the verse.
For example, if the verse starts on I, then end the chorus on I.
Verse Chord Progressions
Choose a chord progression from a verse you like.
Change a chord, substitute a different chord.
Change the order of the chords.
Transpose it to a new key that fits your vocal range.
Pre-Chorus Chord Progressions
Write a pre-chorus that’s the same length as the chorus. You can experiment with different lengths once you have more experience writing pre-choruses.
Connect the last chord of the verse to the first chord of the chorus.
Borrow a pre-chorus you like, transpose so it connects to the first chord or key of the chorus.
Emphasize the dominant of the first chord in the chorus or the key of the chorus.
Bridge Chord Progressions
Write a bridge that’s the same length as the chorus. You can experiment with different lengths once you have more experience writing bridges.
Choose some chords from your verse &/or chorus
Bonus: Invert the tonic-dominant pattern of either the verse or chorus
For example, verse = I V V I, then bridge = V I I V
Verse = I IV V vi, then bridge = vi V IV I
Option: make the end of the bridge V of the chorus to push into the final chorus.
Drafting Chord Progressions
Is this the final chord progression? Maybe….
It’s the first draft. It’s easier to work with something than nothing. You can always change your something to something else later. Maybe you’ll find another chord or a different order that sounds better.
It’s faster to write a draft and improve it until you have a final draft, than to struggle trying to write the final draft the first time… Going for “perfection” is never the fastest way! I’ve done that struggle enough times, trust me on this!
Pull ideas from different songs and discover something that works for your songs.
Now you have the power, go write some cool chord progressions!
Leave a comment to help other songwriters:
What’s your best takeaway from this article?
What are your chord progression questions?
For more help with Writing for Different Song Sections:
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