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The Complete Singer-Songwriter Second EditionAvailable now: the expanded second edition of The Complete Singer-Songwriter

JPR featured in the Boston Globe

New Folk Alley Session

Googling: the song you’ve been searching for

JPR Band performs in the Emerging Artist Showcase at the 2015 Falcon Ridge Folk Festival (see photos)

Almost There wins the 2015 Sammy Award for Best Americana

Interviews with Don HenleyEmmylou Harris, Norman Blake, the Milk Carton Kids, Brandi Carlile, and Elvis Costello


Heather Aubrey Lloyd A Message in the Mess

Behind the Song: “Even Now,” by Heather Aubrey Lloyd

Heather Aubrey Lloyd, of the band ilyAIMY, shares the story behind her song “Even Now,” from A Message in the Mess (Vol. 1).

The Story

At a master class for guitar/songwriting high school students a couple weeks ago, I told them how eventually you run out of interesting things to write about yourself and your broken heart. Eventually, you have to look outside yourself, or let things from the outside in, or… break open something so deep inside yourself that you can honestly say you’ve never seen it before.

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Blues/rock chord changes lesson Back in the U.S.S.R.

Blues/rock chord changes

CSS 2nd edition cover 150Adapted from The Complete Singer-Songwriter

Go ahead: grab an open-position E chord on your guitar and give it a few good, hard strums. Do the same on a D chord and then an A. Get a steady rhythm going and keep circling around, E–D–A. Stand and sling your guitar down at your hips (or, better, knees); shades are optional but recommended.

The E, D, and A are what Patti Smith, in her memoir Just Kids, calls the classic rock chords—played by Lenny Kaye in Smith’s seminal version of Van Morrison’s “Gloria.” Guitarists particularly love these chords since they can all be played in easy shapes with open bass strings. Many a garage band has been formed with not much more.

Part of what gives this chord progression its character is the D chord—which, viewed from the perspective of E major, is a bVII chord. Using the bVII gives a distinct blues/rock edge to a song in a major key, and there are two other related chords that have a similar effect: the bIII and the bVI (in the key of E, these are G and C, respectively). Let’s check out how these chords work, and how you can use them in your own songwriting.

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Kingsmen Louie Louie cover

How to unlock I-IV-V progressions

The chord trinity known as I–IV–V is one of the most useful theoretical concepts for any musician. The I–IV–V is a skeleton key for countless songs in folk, country, rock, blues, and beyond, revealing the basic similarities of, say, “Louie Louie,” “Ring of Fire,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Helpless,” “Three Little Birds,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “This Land Is Your Land,” “Man of Constant Sorrow,” and “I Fought the Law.” Understanding I–IV–V progressions can help you jam along with songs you’ve never played before or change a song’s key without using a capo, and it can get you started writing your own songs, too.

Learn what I–IV–V means and how these chords lay out in various keys, and play through some examples as used in classic songs, in this lesson for Acoustic Guitar (with tab and video).

Here’s a companion playlist of songs mentioned in the lesson.


Simple chord substitutions

CSS 2nd edition cover 150Adapted from The Complete Singer-Songwriter

Let’s say you’re working on a song idea and playing some chords—you start on G, switch to C and back to G, go to D, and resolve to G. That chord progression sounds perfectly good but seems a little too familiar. You feel like you could be playing a thousand other songs, when your goal is to create something new. So how do you shake things up a bit to find a chord progression—and eventually a complete song—that feels and sounds like your own?

One great way is to use chord substitutions. Swapping out a chord or two can really liven up a progression and also help you discover new melodic ideas to sing on top. Particularly when you’re working within the family of diatonic chords, which have many notes in common, you can make substitutions that subtly change the sound and mood of a progression while leaving intact its basic movement. Here are some simple substitutions you can try in your songwriting.

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Chord progressions in minor keys

CSS 2nd edition cover 150Adapted from The Complete Singer-Songwriter

Minor keys are often said to be brooding and sad, but not all minor key songs are as bleak as, say, “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.” They can also be soothing (George Gershwin’s “Summertime”), funky (the Commodores’ “Brick House”), or upbeat and rocking (Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing”). Chord progressions in minor keys provide a rich set of musical possibilities and should be part of every songwriter’s palette.

So let’s look at the diatonic chords in minor keys, and at common progressions and classic songs using those chords. For an intro to diatonic chords, see this lesson on major keys (in the book you’ll find a more in-depth discussion plus charts of diatonic chords in all major and minor keys). As with major keys, we find the diatonic chords in minor keys by stacking notes in a scale—in this case, the natural minor scale. Continue reading →

Low tunings guitar lesson Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers

Low tunings guitar lesson

Guitarists: I’m a big fan of alternate tunings where you drop the bass strings and leave the rest in standard. Acoustic Guitar just posted my lesson, with accompanying video and tab, on two of these tunings: G6 (D G D G B E) and dropped C (C G D G B E). Read and watch here.

Want to hear these tunings in action? Check out these playlists, which feature such masters as Richard Thompson, Chet Atkins, Tommy Emmanuel, and Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham.

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Manzer guitar closeup

Share the story behind your song

Songwriters: I’m seeking submissions for Behind the Song, a new feature on the Complete Singer-Songwriter website where artists talk about the creation of one of their songs. And I’d love to hear from you.

I’m especially interested in featuring songs/stories that illuminate an important aspect of the creative process and offer lessons other songwriters can apply to their own work. The song must be original and streamable/embeddable online (via YouTube, Bandcamp, Soundcloud, ReverbNation, etc.). Songs posted will include links for purchasing and finding more info on your music.

To be considered for Behind the Song, please complete this short submission form. Thank you for sharing your music.


Understanding song form

The Complete Singer-Songwriter Second EditionBeneath all the nuances of melodies and lyrics, most songs are built from the same basic parts—some kind of sequence of verse, chorus, bridge, and so on. For writing a song, learning to play someone else’s song, or communicating with other musicians, being able to identify these parts and patterns is an essential skill.

Let’s take a look at common song forms used in rock, country, folk, and pop, and consider how their components function and fit together. Check out the Spotify playlists, which are an audio companion to the book The Complete Singer-Songwriter, for some classic examples. Continue reading →


Chord progressions in major keys

CSS 2nd edition cover 150Adapted from The Complete Singer-Songwriter

Chord progressions are the engine of songwriting. The melodic or lyrical hook may be what lodges in people’s heads, and an insistent beat may dominate the mix, but the chord progression is what makes everything move. By itself, a chord is just a static thing—a few notes stacked together—but a group of chords arranged artfully in a progression creates a little harmonic journey. There’s a kind of magic in a great chord progression, a mix of soothing familiarity and thrilling surprise that has emotional power even without the melody and lyrics.

So every songwriter needs to be fluent with chord progressions, but the process of figuring out which chords to use and how to sequence them can be mystifying. You can create progressions by randomly trying chords, but with a basic theoretical understanding of chords and keys, you can zero in much more quickly on good options to try in a progression—and become a more productive and versatile songwriter overall.

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