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Improvise R&B by borrowing chords

Updated on November 21, 2014

In order to get that deep soulful R&B sound, the trick is to use chords that are outside the scale every now and then to create that mood and tension. Just because you begin in one particular key doesn't mean that all the chords need to be in that key. Some good chords sequences come from trial and error even ignoring the main key. In the case of R&B / Soul / Neo Soul the end of a bar may a a borrowed chord i.e. a chord which belongs to another key but can complement the scale which you are in. This can also make a nice refreshing change to the mood than sticking to one particular key. Gospel music often uses many key changes to create that deep tension, also similar to Jazz but there is no real need to learn the theory in so much depth.

What scales should I use?

Let's do an example using the most basic scale on the keyboard (or even guitar), the scale of C Major. You will hit all the chord triads (three keys in a chord), by simply shifting you fingers around the white keys. This is very simple on the piano or keyboard, the chords go as follows:

C - C Maj (C, E, G)

D - D Min (D, F, A)

E - E Min (E, G, B)

F - F Maj (F, A, C)

G - G Dominant (or seventh) (G, B, D)

A - Maj (A, C, E)

B - Diminished (B, D, F)

There you go, very simple. Try starting with the typical chords sequences e.g. 2-5-1 so that it will be Dmin, G7, CMaj. you can randomly play melodies in the C Scale with the right hand at the same time for improvisation. Since its only the white keys for the C Scale, anything with go, give it a try.

What chord should I borrow?

The easiest way to know which chord to borrow is to simply choose a scale which is the closest e.g. in this case, the closest scale to C Major if F Major.

C Major - C, D, E, F, G, A, B

F Major - F, G, A, Bb, C, D, E

As you can clearly see, the only difference is B and Bb, simple. So what we do here is simply borrow the chord Bb Major and use it is the key of C Major. This is give a nice soulful mood to your music. Try the below and remember to use 7th's for a deeper soulful sound.

Cmaj7th, Dmin7th, BbMaj 7th, Amin

Only the Bb Maj7th is borrowed from the F scale and playing it instantly gives a soulful feel. The singer will need to make sure they emphasize this change by hitting that exact Bb note at the time of the chord. Some amateur singers may have difficulty hitting this key especially as the majority of the song is in a different key, it will take practice however most professional singers shouldn't have a problem.

This goes the same for other musical instruments to such as guitar melodies, horns etc. They may need to play the Bb key at the right time to emphasize that change.

The key of F is not only easy for keyboardist but also popular with many Neo soul Artists such as D'Angelo who seems to use the key of F in many of his productions.

Also as I previously mentioned before, trial and error is a big help. A good thing to actually try is to record yourself playing. Many of the errors you think you made at the time actually turn out to sound even better once you play back the video. I have come up with new chords countless times by doing this. Especially with studio jams. At the time I feel bad for making a mistake then I think wow, that actually sounds even better once I hear it again.


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    • Hezekiah profile image

      Hezekiah 2 years ago from Japan

      Sure, I will try uploading more, soon.

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      Collector X 2 years ago

      Very nice explanation there, thanks for the tutorial. Would be also nice to have some video tutorials too.

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      Xris 3 years ago

      Nice article, I had never thought of playing chords like this. Still difficult to know exactly which chords to borrow.