I’ve learned a lot by watching other guitar players like James Taylor who is both smart and a little lazy. I like that, though, because I’m the same way. Rather than remembering odd chords like C#min, which fret that’s barred across and the chord shape, I’d rather focus on making fast chord changes in an area of the guitar’s neck that I can better control for sound. But maybe you don’t know all this, so a small refresher could be in order.
Honestly, most western music has a chord progression which is reasonably similar, believe it or not. But knowing this requires a little music theory. Rather than going into that, I’ll just say that it does and that we can use a trick to make this a lot easier.
Circle of Fifths
Somebody spent the time to organize all the chords and their relationships with each other. It’s called the Circle of Fifths because any major chord clockwise from the last is the “fifth” in the last one’s progression.
For example, in the key of Cmaj: C, D, E, F, G… that G note is the fifth note of Cmaj. So you’d expect Gmaj to be the next clockwise chord and of course it is.
Majors and Minors
A Cmaj scale begins with C and has all white notes on a piano in its scale. Oddly enough, an Amin scale begins with an A and also has all white notes on the piano in its scale. So depending upon the lowest of three notes you might play within a Cmaj or Amin, it might sound similar. The distinction is probably even less on a guitar with only six strings and a limited set of octaves, given the tuning.
We then say that Amin is the relative minor to Cmaj. In the Circle of Fifths, you’ll find them either on an inside/outside ring close to each other like the one above.
All Kinds of Time – Fountains of Wayne
The guitar song I’m learning today is something I bought from iTunes yesterday. It sounds simple enough and I’ve just searched for the guitar tabs although they’re often unusable as published. I say this because a lot of guitar players out there don’t know enough musical theory to make this easy.
What I do get from these websites is the key that the song was written in and an attempt of someone’s to follow the chord progression. I’ll then use this as a starting point to make this a useful tab.
Circle of Fifths + Capo = Win
A capo is a device which you can attach to the neck of your guitar to basically change the pitch of all strings at the same time. By putting a capo in the right place, you can adjust what chord you actually play to get the chord you want.
Back to the chords in question, All Kinds of Time includes the following chord progressions.
Intro & most stanzas of the song: Emaj, Bmaj, C#min, Amaj
Chorus: Emaj, Bmaj, Dmaj, Amaj
Bridge: Amin, Emaj, Bmaj, Amin
Unfortunately, that’s a lot of barred chords. In theory, they’re alright but they don’t allow you to easily add/remove strings (hammer-on/pull-off) to make things a little more interesting. If I can move things down to the first position, I know that I can do this so it’s worth the effort.
Looking at just the intro for a moment, I’ve written the chords as numbers (1 through 4) on the Circle of Fifths. Now that we know the song progression’s shape, it’s easy enough to play it either in a different key altogether or—by adding a capo—we can play in the original key but in a different set of chords that will end up sounding like this.
So my first attempt was to try to change it—as played—into the key of Cmaj. This resulted in a collection of chords which I was mostly happy with but I didn’t like one of them. Next, I then moved it into the key of Dmaj as played and that works out much better.
The Easier Way
Add a capo to the 2nd fret and play the song with the following chords instead (as if the capo is the nut).
Intro & most stanzas of the song: Dmaj, Amaj, Bmin, Gmaj
Chorus: Dmaj, Amaj, Cmaj, Gmaj
Bridge: Gmin, Dmaj, Amaj, Gmin
Only the Bmin (second fret) and the Gmin (third fret) now are fretted chords and the rest are all in the first position. Having drawn the chord progression numbers on a laminated Circle of Fifths, you can then just move them around and the same shape as used before, just with a new starting position.
This puts a Dmaj chord as the one most-used and it’s quite arguably the prettiest-sounding chord for hammer-on/off decoration on the E string. The Amaj and Bmin chords get similar treatment on the same B string. The Gmaj can be decorated on its A string. It sounds rather good and I’ve only just begun playing it today. This would have been hopeless, as found on the Internet and I’ve just turned it into a playable song with a little trickery that I learned from James Taylor.