Monthly Archives: May 2015


I had a lesson with one of my students Zoe, who is exceptionally talented, intelligent, and cool. She’s been writing songs as long as she can remember, and asked me how to vary her latest song, as she wanted to get out of the rut she was in. So I wrote down a few things for her and demonstrated each thing… and then I photocopied the page, because I knew what I wrote down was pretty helpful.

Here it is:

1. Chord Substitution with complimentary chords

if you have a progression with Am, try FM7 instead, on the second pass (all of the notes from Am, plus F)

2. Chord substitution with out-of-key chords

If you have a progression with Am, try A or even B7, instead

3. “Walk-ups” or “walk-downs”

C, to G/B, to Am (think Landslide by Fleetwood Mac) or G, D/F#, Em

4. Chords higher up on the neck

Think triads, or open chords beyond fret 12

5. Repeated motif over the chord progression

You’ll need recording software for this… or a 2nd person. Have the 2nd person/track just arpeggiate a complimentary triad over your chord sequence. Easiest way to add texture to a song, and give it an extra boost of cool.

6. Changing the chords more frequently

This was Elliott Smith’s go-to thing, especially if it’s “much more frequently.” Almost all of his songs have a chord change every two beats, and sometimes even every beat, or every other word. Difficult to develop, but can really add sophistication to a song.

7. Adding a well-placed “gross” chord

Such as diminished, augmented, m7b5, or something completely unrelated (or hell, even just a simple dominant 7, if you avoid them in 99% of your songs).

8. Stay on a chord longer, but keep the same progression

Say your progression is Am / F / C / G. And each chord plays for a bar. Try staying on the Am for three bars, and then change to F / C / G on each beat of the 4th bar, and staying on G for an extra bar or something). This is a great technique.

9. Play the progression as triads, instead of open chords

Simple, but could be exactly what the song needs.

10. On the third line of your chorus, make an entirely different progression

Again, say your chorus is Am / F / C / G…. maybe on the 3rd line, use this progression instead: FM7 / FM7 / Cadd9 / Em7

Go write! And something I don’t say enough (or practice enough) that was coined by my good friend Mike “Wolf” Benson– “STAY CREATIVE AS ALWAYS!”

an experimental hip-hop album Mike and I released in 2013 (I did all the music/production… Mike is the vocalist/lyricist):