Four Tips To Make Simple Chord Progressions Sound Advanced

 In today’s tutorial, I’ll discuss how you can ‘beautify’ your chord progressions and make them sound advanced. I’ll be showing how you can take simple songs and progressions and transform them to make them indeed come alive.

 The first two things you need to ensure are (1) that you can play the original, simple progression you want to beautify and (2) you are comfortable playing in whichever key your progression is in. This will make it much easier when experimenting with the concepts and techniques covered in this tutorial, such as adding runs and other elements to make your chords come to life. It’s essential to be past the stage of thinking about the key you’re in and what notes are in the key – you should always be comfortable with the chords and key you’re playing before modifying a chord progression.

 1. Arpeggios & Rhythmic Experiments

Our first technique experiments with rhythms and arpeggiated chords.

Arpeggiating Chords

Example 1

First, try playing the following progression in 4/4:

 Fmaj9 | Fmaj9 | Fadd9 | Fadd9

 The notes in these chords are:

Fmaj9  –  Left Hand: F C F  /  Right Hand: G C A F

Fadd9  –  Left Hand: F C F  /  Right Hand: A C F

 Play this progression as solid chords to grasp the sound and feeling it produces.

 Next, try playing this progression as an arpeggio or as broken chords. You don’t have to arpeggiate the notes in any particular order or rhythm; it’s all about what sounds good to you and what fits best with the style of the song. You should automatically hear the difference breaking up the notes makes to the progression, opening the potential for more melodic interest to be built on top.

 Example 2

Let’s say you have a simple 1-4-5 progression that you want to modify, such as F | Bb | C | F, and you want to make it a little more interesting. Try arpeggiating these chords rather than playing them outright, and see what difference it makes to the progression.

 This broken chord technique usually depends upon the type of song you’re playing, so you’ll want to experiment with different ways of arpeggiating each chord to make it sound natural to the piece.

 Combining Broken Chord Patterns with Solid Chords

The second way to make chord progressions sound more advanced is by interspersing solid chords with broken/arpeggiated chords.

 We’ll demonstrate this by using our 1-4-5 example above in a 4/4 time signature.

 First, play the 1-4-5 chord progression (F | Bb | C | F) as solid chords for one phrase. Play each chord as crotchet beats, with each chord, played for one bar.

 For the second round, instead of playing a solid chord on every crotchet beat, play a solid chord on the first beat only, and follow this with an arpeggio throughout the rest of the bar.

 You can add some solid chords on bars two and three before filling in the gaps with arpeggios to add additional interest to the progression.

Extending the Range of Your Arpeggios

Another flair you can add to make simple chords sound full is extending the range of notes you play. Notice how in some of my chord voicings above, like Fmaj9 and Fadd9, I’m utilizing all the notes, doubling them across different octaves to give them an excellent, full sound. This will also help you use arpeggios and broken chords, giving your harmony more range and creative potential.

 Experimenting with Arpeggio Rhythms

A good technique for the left hand, which I’ve always found reliable, is using the notes 1 – 5 – 1 – 1 – 3 – 5. This is easy to remember, as it’s simply 1 – 5 – 1, followed by the triad.

 In the key of F, this left-hand arpeggio would play F – C – F – F – A – C. After you’ve become comfortable with playing this arpeggio, you can use the right-hand to add harmonic details, such as playing some chords in the key of F, or improvising melodically upon the bass progression. This is an excellent example of using arpeggios to transform a simple chord progression to sound much more advanced.

 You can also use different types of rhythm. You don’t want all your notes to be straight eighth or sixteenth notes; experimenting with the arpeggio’s rhythm is where much of the interest comes from.

 The rhythm also surrounds the relationship between what the left and the right hand are playing and how they follow or contrast each other. While experimenting with some of these techniques, listen to the rhythmic momentum produced by your right-hand melodies while the left-hand keeps the steady, arpeggiated pattern.

 2. Using Basic Passing Chords and Inversions

Another technique you can try is using basic passing chords and chord inversions.

 Passing Chords

For this example, we’ll stay with the 1-4-5 or F | Bb | C | F progression in 4/4. To start, try playing the progression below. Feel free to experiment with left-hand arpeggios like the previous exercise.

1  +  2  +  3  +  4  +  |  1  +  2  +  3  +  4  +  |

F     F     F     F     |  Bb    Bb    Bb    Bb    |

1  +  2  +  3  +  4  +  |  1  +  2  +  3  +  4  +  |

C     C     C     C     |  F     F     F     F     |

 Our first example shows how you can use passing chords to move from chords 1 – 4, or F to Bb, using the following chords:

 F  (Left Hand: F C F  /  Right Hand: A C F)

Gm7  (LH: G D F  /  RH: Bb D)

F/A  (LH: A F  /  RH: A C F)

Bb  (LH: Bb – F – Bb  /  RH: D – F)

 The chords Gm7 and F/A are our passing chords and fit into the progression as follows:

 1  +  2  +  3   +    4   +  |  1  +  2  +  3  +  4  +  |

F     F     F  Gm7  F/A     |  Bb    Bb    Bb    Bb    |

 After playing through this progression a few times, you’ll notice how the chords Gm7 and F/A lead nicely into Bb. This use of the 2-chord (Gm) and 3-chord (F/A) is a typical type of ‘walk-up’ you can do when moving from chords 1 to 4 and will translate across all keys.

 Passing Chords with Inversions

Next, you can start to add inversions into your passing chord progression. Inversions play the same chords but change the order in which the notes are stacked.

 For example, the chord F major, in its root position, is formed of the notes F – A – C. To create an F major 1st inversion chord, move the A note to become the lowest pitch, making A – C – F. To form an F major 2nd inversion chord, move the C note to become the lowest pitch, making C – F – A.

 Example 1

To show this, let’s go back to our 1-4-5 chord progression. This exercise will also allow you to see how we can use passing chords to move eloquently from the 5-chord back to 1. Passing chords are indicated in brackets.

 F  (Gm7)  (F/A)   |   Bb   |   C  (Bb, 1st inversion)  (C, 1st inversion)   |   F

 As you can see, we can use inverted passing chords, 4 (Bb 1st inversion chord) and 5 (C 1st inversion); in the same way, we used the previous passing chords, Gm7 and F/A to move from the 5 chords (C) to 1 (F).

 This progression will play as follows:

 1  +  2  +  3   +    4   +  |  1  +  2  +  3  +  4  +  |

F     F     F  Gm7  F/A     |  Bb    Bb    Bb    Bb    |

 1  +  2  +  3         +           4       +  |  1  +  2  +  3  +  4  +  |

C     C     C   Bb (1st inv.)  C (1st inv.)    |  F     F     F     F     |

 Playing these inversions is easy; alter the order you’d expect to find the notes stacked in the chord:

 Bb, 1st inversion (LH: D – Bb – C  /  RH: D – F – Bb)

C, 1st inversion (LH: E – G – C  /  RH: E – G – C)

 This technique will transfer over to any key or chord progression you like.

 Example 2

Let’s use passing chords with the 1 – 6 – 2 – 5  progression. We’ll use the chords F | Dm | Gm | C in 4/4.

 We can walk between our first chords, F and Dm, by playing the five chords (C) in its 1st inversion. The progression will look like this:

 1  +  2  +  3  +       4       +  |  1  +  2  +  3  +  4  +  |

F     F     F     C (1st inv.)     |  Dm    Dm    Dm    Dm    |

 Using a C major 1st inversion, composed of the notes E – G – C rather than the standard C -E – G, the bass carries a descent from F through E before landing on D. This is a classic walk down which will take you to the six chords.

3. Suspension Chords

Suspensions or ‘sus’ chords can enhance your chord progression correctly. The three types of suspension I’ll be covering today are the 9-8 suspension, the 9-3 suspension, and the 4-3 suspension.

 What Is A 9-8 Suspension Chord?

A 9-8 sus chord comprises the root note, played initially with the 9th on top. In our F major example, a 9-8 sus would originally be formed of the notes F and G.

 Try playing this 9-8 sus with the F chord [LH: F – C – F  /  RH: A – C – G]. By placing the 9th (G) at the top of this chord, you’ll hear that it gives us the option to resolve downwards to the 8th, which is an octave about the root. Resolving from the 9th to the 8th, with the root note on the bottom, gives us the term ‘9-8’.

 While this technique is a passing chord, you can add some of the prior passing chord techniques we covered above to extend your harmonic interest even further.

 This technique can likewise take your progression from the root chord to the 6th, similar to the 1-6-2-5 progression we looked at earlier. Here’s a short progression that shows how you can achieve this:

 LEFT HAND (chords, try playing these arpeggiated)

1  +  2  +  3  +  4  +  |  1  +  2  +  3  +  4  +  |

F                       |  Dm                      |

 RIGHT HAND (melody)

1  +  2  +  3  +  4  +  |  1  +  2  +  3  +  4  +  |

G        F     E     E  |           F              |

 What Are 9-3 and 4-3 sus Chords?

The next sus chord is the 9-3. The 3rd, in this case, is the 10th, being played above the 9th rather than below it, but I’ll be referring to it as a 9-3, as the 9th is resolving to the 3rd.

 The 9-3 sus is very similar to the 9-8 sus chord, except in this example, the G (9) resolves to A (3) rather than the octave (as in 9-8). Like the 9-8 chord, the 9-3 can take your progression from the root chord to the 6th, helping to make that transition sound even more enjoyable.

 Practice using 9-8 and 9-3 as passing chords to take you from your root chord to the 6. You’ll soon notice how the 9-8 chord resolves downwards, but the 9-3 resolves upwards. This way, your resolution can go in either direction, allowing you to vary your sound throughout the piece.

 Once you’ve grasped the 9-8 and 9-3 suspension chords, you’ll see similar applications of a 4-3 chord. The 4-3 sus chord uses the same concept but with the 4th scale degree resolving to the 3rd.

 Experimenting With Suspension Chords

You can use these techniques in countless ways in combination with one other, and I recommend you experiment with them.


You don’t have to be thinking in terms of advanced chords, complex extensions, or melodies. When filling in melodic gaps within a piece, you can use simple techniques such as notes from the major scale, different rhythms, different inversions, 9-8’s, 9-3’s, etc., as well as a contrast of single melodic notes and octaves. Layering and transitioning between simple techniques in this way will not only texture your harmony and add interest but will encourage your piece to sound mighty and inspired.

 I’d personally suggest practicing your 9-8, 9-3, and 4-3 suspension chords while playing the arpeggio rhythm we looked at earlier: 1 -5 – 1 – 1 – 3 – 5 or  F – C – F – F – A – C. Playing this arpeggio on the left-hand bass notes alongside the suspension chords on the right hand will get to grips with both techniques and how they can be used together to uplift a simple chord progression.

 4. Using Counter-Melodies

Lastly, counter-melodies are something that can be used alongside any one of the techniques above. Counter-melodies are short melodies that sit between the main components of a song or play during the transition from one chord or progression to another.

 Knowing where to use counter melodies is essential if you’re accompanying a vocalist or congregation. We generally use counter melodies on longer tunes in the spots without singing. 

When singers hold more extended notes at the end of a vocal phrase, this gives us a perfect chance to start noodling and add further melodic and harmonic texture behind their performance. As I mentioned before, you don’t need to use complex chords or scales to make counter melodies, or any technique, come to life – improvising with major scales, inversions, and simple passing chords will give you all the tools you need.

 Practicing with These Techniques

That’s the end of my introductory tutorial on advancing your chord progressions. Practicing these techniques will hopefully spark that creativity in your mind to start experimenting, as so many possibilities will arise from using these techniques, even in their simplest form.

Many of these techniques aren’t based on rigid structure; they’re built on soulful musical intuition, what sounds good and what feels right. It’s all about trial and error: experimenting, discovering, remembering what you’ve found, and putting it in your bag of tricks.

 It’s like freestyle public speaking. You probably know somebody good at just standing up and giving a speech better than you could write, and you’ll ask them, “How can you speak so comfortably and fluently?” Like everything, it all comes down to years of practice.

 It’s the same thing on the piano. You’re building melodic and harmonic vocabulary, and the more you’ll do it, the better you’ll get at it, and the sooner you’ll be fluent in the techniques. Experimenting is the biggest takeaway I can leave you with.

 Make this your challenge: Take a simple progression like the 1-4-5 or 1-6-2-5 progression and experiment with the various techniques we’ve covered. Start using 7ths in your chords if you’re not already. Being able to arpeggiate chords fluently was a big one for me, and the sooner you practice this, the better. In experimenting with rhythms, there’s much room for potential regarding the left and the right hand and how they rhythmically interplay.

Download The 7 Steps To Naming ANY Chord PDF For FREE

With this PDF, you NEVER HAVE TO GUESS what chord you’re playing.

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