Adapted 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.

Born in the Blues

The bIII, bVI, and bVII chords are based in blues harmony, which plays with the tension between major and minor tonality. As discussed in this lesson, each key has a set of naturally occurring diatonic chords. In the key of E major, for instance, the diatonic chords are as follows:

I       ii         iii        IV       V       vi        vii°
E      F#m  G#m   A        B      C#m   D#dim

And here are the diatonic chords in the parallel minor key, E minor:

i       ii°          bIII      vi        v       bVI     bVII
Em  F#dim  G         Am     Bm   C        D

Notice that the bIII, bVI, and bVII are diatonic chords in a minor key—not in a major key. So when we use these chords in a major-key song, we are borrowing chords from the parallel minor key. In essence, the bIII, bVI, and bVII add a minor-key quality to a major-key song.

Let’s look at how these chords work in common progressions.

The bvii

The bVII chord is widely used not just in blues and rock but folk, bluegrass, country, and more. Here are some examples using the I, bVII, and IV.

“Gloria,” Them (Van Morrison):

I   bVII   IV

“What I Like About You,” the Romantics:

I   IV   bVII   IV

“Franklin’s Tower,” the Grateful Dead
“Night Moves,” Bob Seger (verse):

I   bVII   IV   bVII

“Fire on the Mountain,” the Grateful Dead:

I   bVII

If you’re working on a song that uses the I, IV, and V, try substituting the bVII for the V to give the progression a different feel. In general, you can use the bVII to add zing to a progression otherwise made up of diatonic chords. For instance, the Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man” uses a I–bVII–I in the beginning of the chorus (“Lord, I was born a ramblin’ man”) to make that line stand out in an otherwise standard country/folk progression with the diatonic I, IV, V, and vi chords.

“Ramblin’ Man,” the Allman Brothers:

chorus   I   bVII   I   IV   V
IV   I   vi   IV   I   V   I

Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” has the same set of chords and accentuates the bVII to add to the song’s mysterious mood.

“After the Gold Rush,” Neil Young:

I   IV   I   IV
I   V   IV   V
vi   bVII   IV   bVII
I   V   bVII   IV

The bIII

Add the bIII to a progression, and you can really start to rock out.

“After Midnight,” J. J. Cale:

I   bIII   IV   2x
I   bIII   IV   V
I   bIII   IV   I

“50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” Paul Simon:

chorus   I   bIII   IV   I

“Back in the USSR,” the Beatles:

verse   I   IV   bIII   IV
chorus   I   bIII   IV

The bIII also works well with the bVII in a progression. One example in a country vein is “Amie,” which uses the bIII en route to the IV and V.

“Amie,” Pure Prairie League:

verse   I   bVII   IV   4x
IV   blll   IV   bIII   V

The bVI

The bVI chord is most often heard in edgy rock tunes. One function of the bVI is to lead to the V, before resolving to the I. You can hear this in J. J. Cale’s “Cocaine,” which in the refrain (“She don’t lie . . .”) uses the descending line I–bVII–bVI–V. On guitar, this sequence is easy to visualize with barre chords: from the I chord (say, an E barre chord at the seventh fret), slide down two frets to the bVII, down two more frets to the bVI, and, finally, down one more fret to the V.

“Cocaine,” J. J. Cale:

verse   I   bVII
refrain   I   bVII   bVI   V

You’ll also find the bVI in a common chord sequence moving up the neck: from a bVI barre chord, go up two frets to the bVII, and up two more frets to the I. John Fogerty uses this bVI–bVII–I sequence in “The Old Man Down the Road” on the title phrase.

“The Old Man Down the Road,” John Fogerty:

chorus   I7   bVI   bVII   I7

All Together

One classic song that gives these blues/rock chords a complete workout is the Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night.” The signature riff uses speedy barre-chord slides to and from the bVII (two frets below the I) and the bIII (three frets above the I).

“All Day and All of the Night,” Kinks:

bVII   I   bVII   bIII   I

From there, the song transitions via the bVI and bVII to the same sliding-barre-chord riff starting from the II chord (down two frets to I, up three frets to IV) and then the V chord (down two frets to IV, up three frets to bVII). It’s a very inventive—and totally rocking—way to use these chords.

As you work on your own songs, try substituting the bIII, bVI, or bVII into a diatonic progression that sounds a little ho-hum—they may be just what you need to shake things up. You can use these chords for just a touch of bluesiness, as in “Ramblin’ Man,” or for full-tilt rock ’n’ roll, as in “All Day and All of the Night.” These chords will change not only the accompaniment but also your melodic options—your voice can play in the zone between major and minor just as your instrument does.

Dig Deeper

For more on understanding chord progressions, see The Complete Singer-Songwriter.