10 Ways to Spice Up a Simple Piano Chord Progression
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As pianists, we all work with the same basic materials—12 pitches, 48 triads and the 60 primary seventh chords. However, what we do with this material determines our personal sound. In today’s Quick Tip, John Proulx will show you 10 ways that you can spice up a simple piano chord progression. You’ll learn:
- 7th Chords & Suspensions
- Inversions & Extensions
- Right Hand Rocking Broken Chords
- Broken 8th Notes
- Broken 16th Notes
- Spreading Out Broken Chords
- Repetitive Patterns
- Chromatic Bass Lines
- Combination Approaches
- Adding a Gospel Feel
The key is stylization, not complication. By learning to play a simple piano chord progression in a variety of ways, you’ll discover how small tweaks can make a big difference! As a result, you’ll feel empowered to construct the perfect piano accompaniment for any occasion.
Introduction: Simple Piano Chord Progression
Today’s piano lesson is in the key of F Major and explores a chord progression using 4 simple chords. These chords are the 1-chord, the 3-chord, the 4-chord and the 5-chord. The image below shows these chords in their most basic form as root position triads.
Keep in mind, at this point, these are only raw ingredients. As a pianist, we must take these basic elements and decide how to best apply them to our instrument. For instance, the example below arranges this simple chord progression in two hands for the beginner piano student. Notice, we’ve added a simple bass line and have applied inversions in the right hand. This creates a full sound with smooth transitions from chord-to-chord.
Songs that Use I-iii-IV-V Chord Progression
The I-iii-IV-V progression is a timeless chord progression that frequently occurs in popular music, including the following songs:
- “Crocodile Rock” (1972) – Elton John
- “Have I Told You Lately” (1989) –Van Morrison
- “Forever In Love” (1993) – Kenny G
- “An Attempt to Tip the Scales” (2000) – Bright Eyes
- Living For the Night” (2009) – George Straight
Now that you have a grasp of the basic chord progression, let’s see how we can make it sound more interesting. Today’s lesson sheet features 10 ways to spice up this chord progression. In fact, you can download the lesson sheet from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also easily change the key of this lesson with our Smart Sheet Music.
#1: Add 7th Chords & Suspensions
The first method we’ll explore to spice up a simple piano chord progression is to replace some of our triads with 7th chords and suspensions.
Adding 7th Chords to a Chord Progression for Piano
Generally speaking, adding the 7th to minor chords is usually in good taste in most styles including pop, rock, R&B, gospel, jazz and latin styles. However, an important consideration for beginner pianists to keep in mind is that you do not need all four notes of the 7th chord in either hand. In fact, that will give you a less desirable sound. Instead, if the root of the chord is in the left hand, then you can generally omit it from your right hand.
The example above demonstrates that when a 7th chord is properly voiced, the right hand will still often play a simple triadic shape. However, the right hand triad may appear to be a different chord. For example, the preferred Am7 voicing shown above features a C major triad in the right hand. Nonetheless, with an A in the bass, the resulting sound is Am7. In fact, this Am7 voicing only differs from the Am voicing in the previous example by 1 note. Can you find the difference? Small changes like this go a long way in spicing up simple piano chord progressions.
Many popular styles commonly use “sus chords” in place of the dominant triad or dominant 7th chord. Remember, the word dominant in music theory is simply the proper name for the 5-chord, just as tonic is the proper name for the 1-chord. The dominant sus chords found in pop music generally use 3 notes, such as a C(sus4). On the other hand, some styles may employ sus chords with as many as 6 notes, such as a jazzy C13(sus4). The diagram below shows various common sus chord constructions. Today’s lesson sheet focuses on the versatile C9sus4, which is common in jazz, gospel and R&B styles. Notice that this chord is often expressed in chord symbol notation as a slash chord—B♭/C.
Now that we’ve learned how to add minor 7ths and suspensions, let’s see how our simple chord progression sounds with these small changes.
You can hear that this progression is already starting to have a warmer piano sound that is characteristic of popular styles.
By the way, if you need to know more about any chord type we cover into today’s lesson, you can find answers in our Piano Chords—The Definitive Guide.
Now, let’s move on to our next method to spice up a simple chord progression for piano.
#2: Add Inversions & Extensions
A second way you can easily spice up a chord progression is to add inversions and extensions. An inverted chord has a note other than the root as the bass note. For example, tonic chords and dominant chords both frequently occur in 1st inversion to connect chords with passing movement in the bass voice. You can use our Smartsheet Lessons to practice all your Major Chord Inversions and Minor Chord Inversions. On the other hand, chord extensions create beautiful piano chord colors by adding notes such as the 9th, 11th, or 13th. You can study this topic in depth in our course on Piano Chord Extensions (Level 2).
The example below applies both inversion and extensions to our simple chord progression. For example, the second chord which was formerly Am7 is now an Fmaj9/A—a first inversion chord. This chord has also been expanded to include the 7th and the 9th. In addition, the first and third chords have been upgraded to an “add2” voicing for a warm, contemporary sound. As the name implies, an “add2” chord is a four-note chord made from a triad plus the note that is major 2nd above the root. Keep in mind that the 9th and the 2nd refer to the same pitch. However, the indication of 9th implies that the 7th is present in the chord. When the 7th is absent, the most common designation is the “add 2” chord symbol.
Well done. Now, let’s shift our attention to common rhythm patterns that professional pianists use to animate simple chord progressions into a stylized accompaniments.
#3: Right Hand Rocking Broken Chords
So far, you’ve learned some cool ways to give a simple chord progression a more contemporary harmonic flavor. But you probably don’t want to play all half notes, right? So how do you propel the music forward? Broken chords are a great way to create a classic piano ballad accompaniment.
How do you play a piano accompaniment with broken chords?
To play a piano accompaniment with broken chords, apply a right-hand rocking pattern with two upper chord tones on the downbeats and one lower chord tone on the upbeats.
For the left hand, simple play the roots each chord in the left hand, or for a bigger sound, you can play octaves. Here is an example of our simple piano chord progression using rocking broken chords.
For examples of pop songs that use a rocking broken chord accompaniment, check out the following tunes:
- “Imagine” (1971) – John Lennon
- “When I Was Your Man” (2012) – Bruno Mars
- “Skinny Love” (2013) – Birdy
Next, we’ll examine additional types broken chord patterns.
#4: Broken 8th-Notes
Another way to spice up a simple piano chord progression is to play broken 8th notes instead of rocking 8th notes. In this method, your right hand will play one note at a time. As such, this method often works best when you can arpeggiate a four-note voicing. This frequently requires the addition of a chord extension (see below Fadd2 and B♭add2) or a doubled note (see below Am7) to create a four-note grouping. The following example demonstrates this approach.
In the next example, we will explore this idea in 16th notes.
#5: Broken 16th-Notes
Similar to the broken 8th notes method, we can also play our simple piano chord progression with broken 16th notes. This is essentially a rhythmic compression of the previous example. Therefore, each four-note grouping is repeated before changing chords. The example below demonstrates the broken 16th-note approach. Notice that the final four 16th notes break the pattern in order to create an ascending line that sets-up the repeat.
You’re doing great! Next, we’ll explore methods that employ creative use of space.
#6: Spreading Out the Chord
When applying rhythm patterns to a chord progression on piano, it is not necessary to place a note on every subdivision. In fact, the use of space can actually enhance an accompaniment. Space can be applied in the form or rests, or more commonly, long tones. In the example below, notice that the chords have been spread out between the hands in 16th notes.
Cool! Let’s look at another option.
#7: Repetitive Patterns
If you want to play a simple piano chord progression with a more individual sound, you can employ a repetitive pattern that immediately makes your song distinguishable from other tunes with the same chord progression. In the following example, John uses the repetitive figure F-E-F-C over each of the chords.
Also try playing this example an octave higher for a great piano intro. For additional pop piano accompaniment ideas, check out our courses on Pop & Contemporary Accompaniment Patterns (Levels 1 & 2, Levels 2 & 3).
So far we’ve focused on right hand variations. However, you can also spice up your left hand. Let’s take a closer look.
#8: Quarters with Chromatic Bass
Let’s shift our attention now to our left hand. In the following example, we’ve added hip chromatic passing tones that mimic an electric bass guitar. Specifically, the chromatic passing tones are used to approach the Am7 chord as well as the B♭/C.
Chromatic bass lines also work well with other right hand patterns we’ve already explored. The next example uses a combination of approaches.
#9: Broken Chords with Chromatic Bass
Combination approaches are another great way to spice up a simple piano chord progression. The following example combines broken chords in the right hand from #3 with the chromatic bass approach from #8. As a result, you have a truly original sounding piano accompaniment.
Well done! Let’s explore one final piano groove using our simple piano chord progression.
#10: Gospel Feel Chord Progression for Piano
Another method to spice up a simple piano chord progression is to add passing chords in the right hand. This gives the groove a gospel feel, especially when you add in the slides shown below. Check it out.
Wow, what a great sound! If you want to learn more gospel piano grooves, check out the following courses:
Today’s Quick Tip also features a bonus section on how to incorporate jazz harmony into our simple piano chord progression. Don’t forget to log in with your membership and download the complete lesson sheet to view this content.
Congratulations, you’ve complete today’s Quick Tip. No doubt, you’ve gained tons of insight on how to spice up a simple piano chord progression. If you enjoyed today’s lesson, then you will love the following courses:
- Piano Chord Extensions (Level 2)
- Pop & Contemporary Accompaniment Patterns (Levels 1 & 2, Levels 2 & 3)
- Two-Hand Coordination Exercises (Levels 1 & 2, Levels 2 & 3)
- Passing Chords & Reharmonization (Level 2, Level 3)
Thanks for learning with us! We’ll see you next time.
Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by John Proulx
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