Using borrowed chords to spice up chord progressions
Have you ever listened to a song and been surprised when the whole sound and melody shifted to a place that was unexpected?
Have you ever learned to play a song and a chord came along that did not seem to fit with your expectations?
Have you ever tried to analyse a song and been confused by, and unable to explain, the presence of a mystery chord?
Have you ever made up your own chord progression and thrown in random chords that actually sound great?
Have you ever written a song and wanted to be able to push it beyond the predictable sounds of the same old, same old you hear in thousands of songs?
Have you ever wondered how some bands write songs that have a certain je ne sais quoi?
If yes to these or similar questions, it could be that you will enjoy and benefit from the study of borrowed chords.
Index of examples:
 Progression in the key of Ab Major
 Progression in the key of D Major
 An overdriven progression in the key of B major
 Power chord rock in the key of E major
 Playing a 3/4 Progression in the key of G Major
 Progression in the key of C major
 Progression in the key of A major played in 6/8
 Progression in the key of F major played in 6/8
 Progression in the key of B minor
 Progression in the key of E minor
We are going to look at the concept of borrowing chords.
Borrowing chords, put simply, is the act of placing in to a chord progression one or more chords that do not belong in the key of the progression.
We will step beyond the notion of playing a song or progression with only a few chords safely taken from inside a single key. We are going to look at a means of taking the sound of a song to a surprising place.
We will start with a brief analysis of what it means to play diatonically, playing ‘in the key’.
Every key contains seven basic chords which can be found through a process of harmonising the major scale. For any given root note, the seven notes of its major scale give rise to seven chords in a fixed pattern that goes:
major, minor, minor, major, major, minor, diminished.
If you know the seven notes of the scale you can quickly name the seven associated diatonic chords.
Here is the making use of the E major scale and its associated diatonic chords.
For the remainder of this study, we will set aside the diminished chord, simply because it is little used in many of the popular music genres and most beginner and intermediate guitar players will seldom need to use it. Plus, neglecting it and only concentrating on the main six chords makes what we are going to learn so much simpler. That means we are left with six chords to choose from when playing our diatonic chord progressions. Three major chords and three minor chords.
Looking solely at the majors and minors, we can figure the chords of any key if we know the notes of the major scale built on its root. There is another way. Rather than always having to figure out the chords, wouldn’t it be great to have some handy, at-a-glance guide?
I wrote about it extensively here.
It is the Circle of Fifths.
The Circle of Fifths is a perfect tool to find diatonic major and minor chords for any key.
The six chords are grouped together in a simple cluster on an inner and outer wheel.
The major chords will always be on the outer wheel and the minor chords always on the inner wheel.
For every major scale we can label the Major chords as IV, I and V and the minor chords as ii, vi and iii - when reading the outer and inner wheels clockwise. These labels can then be visualised and used as an overlay, a movable grid that encloses clusters of six diatonic chords for any key.
Here are two examples of the overlay used in two different positions. The first has the I chord (the tonic chord) at the 9 o’ clock position and the second has the I chord at the 3 o’ clock position.
Checking with the Circle of Fifths we can see that they would represent the keys (and give us the chords) of Eb major and A major respectively.
It is a simple step of then reading the circle to know the major and minor diatonic chords of both (the I, ii, iii, IV, V and vi).
- Eb major: Eb, Fm, Gm, Ab, Bb, Cm
- A major: A, Bm, C#m, D, E, F#m
We need to adjust the labeling of these overlays when it comes to minor scales. We still have three major chords on the outer wheel and three minor chords on the inner wheel. The tonic chord is a minor chord in the central position on the inner wheel.
Here is the E major scale again.
The relative minor chord of E major is C# minor. This chord becomes the tonic and takes first position in a reordered listing of the same chords. We can then label these chords and this gives rise to the labels we can then use within an overlay for any minor key.
For every minor scale we can label the major chords as VI, III and VII and the minor chords as iv, i and v when reading the outer and inner wheels clockwise.
These labels can then be visualised and used within an overlay, a movable grid that encloses clusters of six diatonic chords for any minor key.
Here are two examples of a using this overlay.
Checking with the Circle of Fifths we can see that they would represent the keys (and give us the chords) of C# minor and A minor respectively.
- C# minor: C#m [Ddim], E, F#m, G#m, A, B
- A minor: Am, [Bdim], C, Dm, Em, F, G
Some familiar diatonic progressions you may have encountered along the way, as you spent time learning songs, could be:
1] C, Am, F, G - this is a I, vi, IV, V progression in the key of C major.
2] G, D, Em, C - this is a I, V, vi, IV progression in the key of G major. This is the classic 4-chord progression (in)famously used by Axis of Awesome
3] A, D, E - this is a I, IV, V in the key of A major. The I, IV, V is the staple of blues, rock ‘n’ roll, R&B etc.
4] Am, Dm, Em - this is a i, iv, v in the key of A minor. It is the minor key equivalent of the I, IV, V.
Pick up your guitar and play those progressions for a moment. They should sound good, familiar, comfortable, recognisable. Your ears will make immediate sense of them - especially if you have been learning songs.
You have been learning songs haven’t you?
Playing progressions using only the chords from within the key of the song – playing diatonically - is an instant and guaranteed way of playing harmoniously and always sounding good and right. That said, good and right might not be the sound that is wanted. It can certainly restrict opportunities to play with surprise.
Diatonic and nothing but diatonic can, let’s be frank, sound cliched, dull and predictable if over-cooked with no spice or sauce to mask the bland or add a different flavour.
Which leads us on to considering ways to bring other sounds in to the reckoning. It is time to turn our attention to playing and creating chord progressions that are not wholly diatonic, that use ‘out-of-key chords’. We will do this by borrowing chords. Bringing chords in to our otherwise diatonic progressions that come from somewhere else. We literally go directly to another, a different, key and we simply make use of what we find there for our own ends by bringing it in to join what we already have.
Borrowing chords does not involve changing key. Many songs have one or more key changes as they develop. This is often called modulation. We are not going to be looking at modulation to a different key. This is all about staying in the same key but taking a small diversion to add a little enhancement, some sparkle, an unexpected twist, but one that does not deflect us from the main path.
Let us think of a chord progression, or song, as a meal, by way of analogy. Modulation to a different key could be thought of as having some Italian antipasti, switching to a Madras curry then, perhaps, enjoying a little Moroccan cous-cous on the side.
That is not going to be our dining experience.
We will instead be thinking along the lines of, something simpler but with an unexpected ingredient added in. We may be eating some simple scrambled egg on toast but with a little Tabasco drizzled on top to add a kick. We could think of kneading some bread dough and mixing in a little rosemary to add a small herbal surprise.
A further analogy could be clothes based. Modulation to a different key could be viewed as dressing in designer suits one day, full goth regalia the next and lounging in a track suit at the weekend. Whereas borrowing chords is less dramatic. We retain our usual attire through most of the week. On one or two days we may choose to add some boho chic to our smart-casual dress sense. We possibly sneak in to a house-mate’s wardrobe and use a little of their finery. Perhaps donning a fancy silk scarf, or a bright pair of socks or some other dandy apparel – just enough to spruce up our usual predictable appearance and just for a short time.
There is one more important point to raise before we look at examples of borrowed chords in progressions. Our ventures down the paths of playing in a way that is not exclusively diatonic, introducing new and unexpected sonic events to our music, are going to involve looking at parallel major and minor keys.
We saw earlier that E major and C# minor are relative major and minor keys to one another. They occupy matching positions on the outer and inner wheels of the Circle of Fifths and use the same set of chords, just with a different tonic, home base.
We are not looking at relative major-minor key relationships. Rather, we are going to be using parallel major-minor key relationships. The simplest way to understand this is to know that parallel major and minor keys share the same root note. The key of D major and the key of D minor, gives us an example of parallel major and minor keys. When viewed on this slimmed down Circle of Fifths, notice how the diatonic chords for each are adjacent to one another. The six main chords in the key of D minor are shown in blues, those of D major in black.
This will hold true for all parallel major and minor keys, We will have a set of six diatonic chords for the minor key with a set of six diatonic chords for the parallel major key in an adjacent, clockwise position.
As we study a variety of examples, our starting points will be diatonic chord progressions in one or other of a major or minor key. Then, we can either swap out a diatonic chord and replace it with a chord from the parallel key or we can extend the progression and simply add in more chords borrowed from the parallel key. We will see examples of this as we progress.
Questions, comments, discussion etc …
Better grab a beer and pull up a chair ! Will be good to go over this again. Thx.
Thanks Toby - I have the original discussions and links to the AVOYP that you and @DavidP and @adi_mrok created too.
Looking forward to the next instalment, with my handy interactive CofF app on the tablet next to the PC. I actually remembered all of that, a remarkable feat these days !
Example 1. Progression in the key of Ab major
Yes. Just for the fun of it, let’s do this in the key of Ab major. It is time to bring out the scourge of guitar players, the dark destroyer of cowboy chordists, to flex our barre-chord muscles, to burst our sinews and wrestle with this beast.
Here is our progression in the key of Ab major.
Try playing this barre-chord muscle-max workout through a five-minute song I dare you! haha
In that case here is a short audio sample:
The sound of the chord movements in our Ab major progression are all familiar and safe - totally diatonic.
We will now look at the parallel minor – the key of Ab minor - and borrow a chord, stir things up, step out from the diatonic world briefly to bring a little surprise.
Here’s our reference alongside the full Circle of Fifths. It is vital to know that Ab is an enharmonic equivalent to G#. The usual presentation on the Circle of Fifths shows G#m on the inner wheel. It is therefore necessary to change the G#m to Abm. To be consistent with the key of Ab minor we must also change C#m and D#m to their enharmonic equivalent versions also.
Let us swap our original Db major chord with Gb major from the parallel minor key. We now have this progression in the key of Ab major.
Listen, compare and contrast:
Did you detect a difference?
Me too - I detected a difference.
A difference was detected down here in the murky world of flats.
That was different to the original, and surprising, thanks to the borrowed chord.
We are in the key of Ab major. The Ab major scale is:
Ab Bb C Db Eb F G
The borrowed chord is major and it is built on the note Gb. Within the key of Ab major we do not have a Gb, rather we have G natural as the 7th scale degree. Therefore, the note Gb, when compared to the notes of the key it has been introduced to, is a flattened 7th. Gb major is a VII in its home key of Ab minor, but when used as a borrowed chord in the key of Ab major it must be described in relation to the new territory - hence it is referred to as a bVII. Borrowing a bVII is a common approach when writing a progression in a major key.
What we now have can be described as a I, V, vi, bVII progression. We have not modulated from the key of Ab at all. The Gb major chord is a temporary diversion.
Our original progression
Our borrowed chord progression
This convention of writing chord progressions with their names and by their Roman numerals – with borrowed chords taking theirs in reference to the actual key signature - will be seen through all of the examples that follow.
Once again, side-by-side, here are the links to mp3s of the two Ab major progressions. Listen, compare and contrast.
Plus, here are the tabs:
With the theoretical introduction, and then a first practical application in Example 1, we have hopefully seen and learned something new, something cool, a musical strategy for playing and writing interesting and different chord progressions. It would be great to take this first idea further.
Let’s try to get creative and make our own music by building on the foundations laid here.
With guitar in hand, learn to do a quick play through of both versions of the Ab chord progressions. Hopefully you can manage the necessary barre chords.
A very useful first exercise would be to transpose the entire progression to a different key - using the Circle of Fifths to help of course.
Challenge yourself by taking this progression to new places. Try borrowing a different major chord from the key of Ab minor instead of the bVII (the Gb major chord). Try using the same bVII borrowed chord but in a different place, replacing one of the other chords in bars 2 or 3 instead of the Db in bar 4. Use your ears as you experiment. Do you like the progression more, less, not at all? Remember, if it sounds good it is good.
Further, you may be so inspired and sparked with the gift of musical invention that you feel compelled to record and share your progressions. You may even take the giant leap to use this as a springboard to start to write a song!
Alternatively, maybe this bVII business has left you unmoved, not floated your boat. We all have different ears and tastes. If this music (the Ab major progression) has lost its taste and you would like to try another flavour, worry not. There are many more examples to come in due course.
Questions, comments, discussion …