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Composing the Progessions

Sometime during mid-summer of 2016 I decided that I would write a music textbook titled Acoustic Guitar Chords. It was a rather different decision than the decisions I had made to write my first two music textbooks (Melody Guitar and Rhythm Guitar). In the case of this third textbook, rather than writing about a subject with which I was already very familiar, it would be more of a learn as you go project (in truth, more like a teach yourself as you go project). I realized that in the process of writing the manuscript for Acoustic Guitar Chords, I would be learning (in truth, more like figuring out) a great many new chords, and I anticipated that I would be greatly expanding my chord vocabulary. Now that the manuscript is finished, I can say with certainty that the resultant expansion of my guitar chord vocabulary did not fall short of my expectations. But as it turned out, there was an even greater benefit that derived from my decision to write a textbook on guitar chords, as I discovered soon after beginning work on the project.

Between late July and early September of 2016, before I had even begun writing the manuscript, I reviewed and analyzed all the guitar chords used to play all the music contained in the two catalogs of popular music for which I had previously written up charts and chord docs (the Popular Music Catalog and the Compatibility Catalog). A close study of all the chords used to play this collection of 264 songs, which encompasses a wide variety of musical styles and genres, enabled me to develop an outline and a plan for writing the manuscript. While I was developing the list of chord types that would determine the format of the all-important chord fingerings chapters of my manuscript, the progressions started coming. At the time I was reviewing and playing a great many chords, many of which (especially for the jazz and old standards songs in the Compatibility Catalog) I was unfamiliar with when I wrote the songs up, and remained unfamiliar with. On numerous occasions during this time, all it took was my being taken with the beauty, balance, or efficiency of new chord (or at least new to me), and I would go from there, and in a very short while come up with a chord progression.

I made a very fortuitous decision when I decided at the outset that I would preserve these chord progressions by recording them on a tiny hand-held tape recorder (with terrible fidelity, but fidelity was not a consideration), and by writing down in table format the fingerings for any chords used with which I was not closely familiar. I also decided at the outset that I would not allow the fact that I would be composing progressions simultaneously divert my attention from the task at hand, which was to finish the manuscript. Because I was making crude but functional recordings of the progressions, and because I was writing down the fingerings for unfamiliar chords, I was fairly certain that I could go back to them after the manuscript was finished, and pick up where I left off. I also decided that I wouldn’t even listen to the recordings of the progressions, or review the charts of the chord fingerings for them, until after the manuscript was finished. By the time I realized there were going to be a great many progressions, I had become a little superstitious about not listening to them, and I promised myself I would not do so until the time came. I kept that promise.

As soon as I started composing the progressions, I probably should have realized that there would likely be a good many more to come. Over the years, more often than not, in the process of writing more than 150 songs, learning a new chord had been the impetus behind a new song. I developed a preference for alternate tunings because experimenting with new and different chords in different tunings somehow seemed to enhance my ability to compose chord progressions. When I say chord progression, I really mean the accompaniment for a song, because of the manner in which I had always written songs. I always composed the chord progression and the instrumental accompaniment first, then the vocal melody, then the lyrics. So to me, composing a chord progression, and arranging it into song format, is the first step, and in some ways the most elusive step, in the process of writing a song.

The progressions were composed partly by ear, partly by experimentation, and partly by applying my knowledge of music theory. I had already composed a couple of dozen or so by the time I began writing the manuscript. Toward the end of September, once I started writing the six chord fingerings chapters (the last six chapters of the manuscript), the output of progressions increased considerably. I also began incorporating my work on the manuscript into my work with the progressions, for example by basing a progression on several different voicings for the same chord, or by basing a progression exclusively, or at least to a large extent, on a single type of chord. The great majority of the progressions were written while I was writing the six chord fingerings chapters. I developed a routine of reviewing all the new chords at the end of each work day on the manuscript, which often resulted in one or more new progressions. On occasion my work day would be interrupted by my fascination with some new chord, and before long I would compose one or more new progressions, then return to work on the manuscript.

All but a few of the 168 chord progressions were written very quickly, typically in a matter of minutes. In another related writing, I referred to being tapped on the shoulder and guided by unseen forces a great many times during the time I was composing the progressions. By tapped on the shoulder I meant having the distinct impression that I was being given something very special, something that would normally be far beyond my capabilities, by a force that I knew I would never fully understand. I could think of no better way to describe the experience of composing three or four viable chord progressions in the space of no more than a half hour, which occurred at least a handful of times. Although I did not keep a record of the date on which each progression was written, it seemed to me that there were at least a handful of days that resulted in 5 or more new progressions, and at least a couple of weeks that resulted in 10 or more new progressions.

Interestingly enough, in mid-September of 2017, while I was recording the Progressions, I discovered that the mini-recorder I had used to make audio recordings of the progressions had also kept a record of the dates on which they were written and recorded. As a result, more than nine months after the fact, a close review of those dates of composition allowed me to make a far more exact accounting of the time frames in which the progressions were composed. There were seven days, all in 2016, on which I composed five or more progressions, including 7 on November 27, 6 on December 17 and December 30, and 5 on September 1, October 29, November 4, December 3, and December 31. There were ten week-long periods, which in some cases were overlapping, during which I composed 10 or more progressions, including 18 once, 17 once, 15 twice, 14 once, 13 once, 12 once, 11 once, and 10 twice. The output of progressions by calendar month was as follows: 10 in July, only 4 in August, 33 in September, 28 in October, 37 in November, 51 in December, and 5 in the first four days of January 2017. The four most productive periods, which again were in some cases overlapping, were between November 27 and December 31 (61 progressions in 34 days), between December 3 and December 31 (51 progressions in 29 days), between November 27 and December 17      (39 progressions in 21 days), and between December 3 and December 11      (32 progressions in 9 days).

My initial hope was that my work on the manuscript would yield up to six, or maybe even as many eight albums of new songs, at 12 songs per album. I had already reached the upper end of that goal by mid November of 2016, and I continued adding new progressions until the manuscript was finished in early January of 2017. As it happened, my great desire to conclude my work with the progressions compelled me to change up my work regime toward the end, while I was writing the second half of the last chord fingering chapter. Up until then I had been doing the write-ups for each chord type immediately after figuring out the chords, and typing up the write-ups immediately as well. But for the second half of the last chord fingering chapter, I went ahead and figured out all the chords first, and postponed doing the write-ups. I did this so I could work through the new chords and try to come up with the half dozen or so progressions I was lacking to fill a 14th album. Actually the final count was 167, but I decided to proceed anyway, because I figured I surely would be able to come up with one more progression when the time came. I was.

When I listened to the 167 progressions for the first time since I had recorded them, I was convinced that it would be worth my while to go forward with the task of translating the progressions into song format, and creating the Progressions Catalog. This task consisted mainly of deciding on a song structure (introduction, verse, chorus, break, and so on) of about 3 minutes in length, then writing up a chart and chord doc for each newly created Progression. Then I complicated the task somewhat by deciding to compose duet guitar arrangements for half of the 168 chord progressions, especially considering that charts and chord docs needed to be written up for those as well. In spite of this, between mid-January and mid-March of 2017, I was able to work through all 168 chord progressions, and create all the charts and chord docs for the Progressions Catalog. In assembling the Catalog, I elected not to group the progressions into albums in the order in which they were written. I was aware that there were many instances in which several consecutive progressions used similar chords, or were played in a similar style, and I wanted to avoid having progressions that sounded too much alike grouped together on the same album. So I devised a system for ordering the progressions, the result of which was a Progressions Catalog in which no album contains any two Progressions that are closer than fourteen spaces removed from one another on the chronological list of the 168 chord progressions.

A majority of the progressions were fairly complete as written, which made coming up with a song format fairly easy to do. Whenever an original progression was a complete verse structure of sufficient length, or a complete verse and chorus structure of sufficient length, all that was required was deciding on other song structure components like introduction, bridge, break, and cadence (ending). The original progression usually served as the source material for these other components, sometimes with subtle changes made to add musical interest. Some of the progressions were shorter, however, and required new musical material (for example, an alternate verse structure, or a chorus structure) to fill them out to the required length of about three minutes. This too was usually fairly easy to do, because practically all of the 168 chord progressions were sufficiently interesting musically to eliminate the need for perfection or great inspiration in the matter of adding new material. The addition of new material was also the manner in which about half of the multiple-key Progressions were fashioned, but the other half were in multiple keys as originally written. One final note: as each album was finished and the Catalog listing was being constructed, I decided which Progressions would be recorded as guitar solos (24), which would have a keyboard track on the recording (60), and which would be played on 12-string guitar (30) on the recording.

It would seem that my decision not to listen to any of the 168 chord progressions again until after my work on the manuscript was finished was a good one, at least judging by the final results. My main goal was to incorporate as many new chords (at least new to me) into the progressions as possible, and I accomplished that. An important secondary goal was to include a considerable number of progressions in non-common keys played in non-common keys of play, and I accomplished that as well. Two other important secondary goals were to touch upon a wide variety of musical styles, and to improve my playing skills as a fingerstyle guitarist, and I believe I accomplished those as well. I went into this project thinking I’d just be writing a textbook on guitar chords, and then I realized early on that there was going to be a whole lot more to it than that, and then I came out of it with 14 albums of songs, in addition to the manuscript for my textbook. All things considered, I doubt that I will ever again experience a six and a half month period as productive or as creative as the interval between September 2016 and mid March 2017, during which time I composed all but about a dozen of the 168 chord progressions, began work on and completed the manuscript for Acoustic Guitar Chords, and began work on and completed the charts and chord docs for the Progressions Catalog. And to be honest, I am not in the least bit disappointed by that, because I have had the privilege and the good fortune to experience it once, and once is plenty enough for me.


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