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Watch the Sure-Fire Roots Rock online guitar lesson by Chris Buono from 40 Day Rhythm SWAT Camp

Keith Richards once observed that rock and roll is simple music – the trick is to discover variations in the traditions. Many classic rock hits are derived from standard progressions, but closer inspection reveals subtle twists in chord voicing and inversion, details that can be the secret of a song’s success.

Ex. 1a shows your basic, garden variety boogie bass riff. Popularized by Robert Johnson in the ‘30s, it has been employed with vim and vigor by everyone from Chuck Berry to the Georgia Satellites, ZZ Top, and beyond. Run a few measures of this pattern under your fingers and then try Ex. 1b to hear how it can be harmonized into full chords for a richly hued accompaniment. Both examples can be moved to other keys since there are no open strings to trip over.

Ex. 2a is the ultimate ‘50s ballad cliché; countless prom weepers like “In The Still Of The Night” and “Sleepwalk” glide by on its I-VI-IV-V progression. Analyze these three-note chord forms to find the common tones that smooth their transition. Ex. 2b shows a variation with four-note forms containing slick voice leading as well as common tones.

Ex. 3a may spring from flamenco music, but it evokes heavy ’60s dino-rock like Led Zep’s "Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You" and Chicago's "25 Or 6 To 4." Ex. 3b is an infinitely hipper alternative that implies three of the four chords by holding an open Am shape and changing only the bass notes. Hint: Play the G note on the Am7 chord with your pinky, and the F note in the Fmaj7 chord with your thumb. Cool!

Sometimes the harmonization of a single chord can generate a stimulating progression. By adding a chromatically descending fourth-string line to the elemental Am chord in Ex. 4a, we create a chord sequence, shown in Ex. 4b, that's reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s "Ballad Of A Thin Man," Albert King’s “I’ll Play The Blues For You,” and Stevle Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing.”

Apply these examples to other similar progressions. Better yet, take a stab at penning your own hit composition with these chords. Be aware that after Keith Richards discovered the magic contained in Ex. 1a, he went on to create "Street Fighting Man," "Brown Sugar," "Gimme Shelter," "Tumbling Dice," and "Start Me Up."