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Let me start off by saying that I have no folk background, and I am not aware of the rich tradition of folk or folk-rock. That being said, I understand that, similar to the blues tradition, there are some standard progressions (and standard melodies as well--see the wikipedia page for "Don't Think Twice It's Alright") that artists use a backdrop for their story-telling. My primary question is this: Does Bob pull his progressions (which i've heard called 'changes') from the Folk repertoire? Or, alternatively, are these highly original progressions that he has developed on his own?

I love his album, "Blood On The Tracks", in part because the harmonies float effortlessly from his acoustic guitar, yet they are complex and mysterious and rich. This could be a result of his use of alternate tunings or the creative bass inversions.

I would love to create a harmonic backdrop the way Dylan does--his harmonies are just interesting enough to keep the listener engaged for 5, 10, 15 minutes at a time while not being so flashy that they compete with his lyrics.

Any tips for writing Bob Dylan-esque chord progressions?

Favorites: Tangled Up In Blue, Your A Big Girl Now, Up To Me (Take 1), Shelter From The Storm, Shooting Star, Trying To Get To Heaven, It's Not Dark Yet, Don't Think Twice It's Alright

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    The best way is to immerse yourself in the folk culture, listen to Bob. – user50691 Feb 10 at 20:03
  • I appreciate the input, but I am looking for specific tools and techniques. – 286642 Feb 11 at 2:22
  • Look at the answers, they confirm my comment. I've been a musician for 45 years. The "way" is to listen, and imitate. Any formula is secondary. The tools and techniques are listen, imitate, integrate. – user50691 Feb 11 at 2:52
  • I refer you to the lyric of the first verse of "Hallelujah". – Paul_Pedant Feb 11 at 12:38
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The best way to start is by learning all of the Dylan songs you like. Transcribe them or if that's too hard at the beginning try to find transcriptions that other people have made. Once you have digested Dylan's harmonic language you'll probably come up with ideas to develop it in a different direction, and finally you'll develop you own personal voice.

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First thing that comes to mind is that Dylan can go off the chords you'd expect in any key.

First example is actually a song he covers but didn't write, "Baby Let Me Follow You Down".

G                      F
Baby let me follow you down
C                      Eb
Baby let me follow you down
G        D               C            D
I'll do anything in this god-almighty world
       C           D          G
If you just let me follow you down

The start looks C major or G lydian. The end looks like G major. I don't know where the Eb comes from, but when you play it, it sounds right.

The chords don't have to be as out of left field as that Eb. Consider "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright".

G       D      Em
So long honey, babe
          C              G    D
Where I'm bound, I can't tell
G         D          Em
Goodbye's too good a word, babe
A7                         D    D7
So I'll just say fare thee well
G                          G7
I ain't saying you treated me unkind
C                              A7
You could have done better but I don't mind
G              D         Em       C
You just kinda wasted my precious time
G               D               G     D7
But don't think twice, it's all right

First thing to notice that seventh chords. These would be the dominant seventh, not the major seventh. In G major, which this kinda is in, you would expect D7 but Gmaj7, with the F# not the F. The jazz/blues tradition makes everything a dominant seventh, though, so it's another chord, the A7, that's weird. In G, we'd expect Am or Am7, with the minor third, C, but Dylan wrote in the major third, C#. And it sounds right.

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    The blues tradition would make everything dominant sevenths, whereas the jazz tradition would use maj7, min7, and any of the others, probably in preference to dom7. In key G, that A7 is V of V - used ubiquitously, particuarly to lead to the V itself. – Tim Feb 11 at 8:26
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    “I don't know where the Eb comes from” – well, the E♭ note is part of the diminished seventh chord that would make a strong dominant to G. Many folky songs, in particular in Dylan's style, like to invoke this effect – whilst however, as usual in Folk, avoiding to use any chords that aren't major or minor triads. Normally this is done with a ⅳ chord, which would be Cm in this case, but but this blues/rock song a minor chord would also feel a bit out of place – that's probably the reason he just slammed in an E♭ major here. – leftaroundabout Feb 11 at 12:59
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yet they are complex and mysterious and rich

Um, no, not the first two. They're entirely appropriate to the song, which is the key part. That's not about chord progressions though - it's much more about fingerpicking and strumming patterns. This may lead to some effect of inversions if you look at the theory, but that only derives from standard picking patterns.

Changing the tuning can give you different inversions for chords, which perhaps gives a sound you're less familiar with. Dylan learnt the altered tunings he used from Joni Mitchell, a much better guitarist and more sophisticated melody writer, and didn't tailor his own tunings to the songs in the way that Mitchell did. If you want to hear the effect of altered tunings, definitely look into her work.

Drone notes can give you some interesting textures too, and they're often a feature of altered tunings. If you're not used to the effect of drone notes, perhaps that sounds mysterious. It's a very standard part of folk music though, to the extent that the distinctive sound of Scottish bagpipes comes from their drone pipes.

The songs may sound rich with good production too. Don't underestimate the effect of double-tracked guitars, which is a standard recording trick. If you've recorded the same guitar in the same space with the same settings, and the multiple parts aren't hard-panned to left and right, it's nearly impossible to tell which take is which - you end up with something which sounds like a single hugely complex guitar part, when actually it's just two (or more) much simpler parts. For an obvious example, Lyndsey Buckingham's fingerpicked guitar on Never going back again can only be approximated live, including by Lyndsey Buckingham (who's said he had to rethink his arrangement to actually perform it), because it's actually at least 2 guitar tracks overlaid.

Dylan's chord progressions though, they really don't venture far at all from the standard I-IV-V (G-C-D) formula and their relative minors (Em-Am-Bm). Sometimes he adds circle-of-fifths moves (G-C-F), and sometimes he uses a second which is a very standard feature of blues (G-A, and especially G-A7 where the G remains in the seventh chord), but anything outside of that is very rare. Nothing in this is anything a beginner guitarist shouldn't already have encountered in their first 6 months of learning the instrument. Perhaps you'll see them first when you play a Dylan song, but you can go back to the earliest blues recordings and hear all these, or go back 300 years and find the same moves from JS Bach and Mozart's studies for beginners. Dylan was particularly influenced by Woody Guthrie, of course, like all folk musicians of his era.

Long story short, if you want to work out how Dylan wrote his guitar arrangements, start learning guitar and you'll know as much as Dylan within 2-3 years. It really isn't much more advanced than that.

Now if you want to replicate Dylan's lyrics, that's a whole different can of worms. Dylan's guitar work might not have been radical, but his songwriting was well out there. The chords for Don't think twice, it's alright could have come from anyone, but the lyrics are genius. They look simple, and they are, but it's the kind of simplicity that comes from being exactly right.

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  • The most minor of quibbles, but Dylan was using altered tunings well before Mitchell came on the scene. Yes, she's better at guitar and brings a lot more sophisticated harmonies and tunings. Yes, listen to her albums, not because they're a class but because she's great. I just don't think he drew much from her. – Dave Jacoby Feb 11 at 23:08
  • I appreciate this thoughtful response. Can you please clarify what you mean by the use of a "second"? I don't follow when you say "G-A7 where the G remains in the seventh chord". Can you please use roman numerals to describe this move? Thanks. – 286642 Feb 11 at 23:37
  • The second (II) of G is A. An A major chord contains A, C# and E. An A7 chord is A, C#, E and G. So it contains the root G, plus other notes from the G major scale. The exception is the C# - but that is the "blue note" (flattened fifth) for the key of G, so it fits perfectly for the G major blues scale which adds that note. – Graham Feb 11 at 23:53
  • @DaveJacoby I'm not a massive Dylan geek, so I may not be right. But I thought he was only using drop-D before that. Drop-D isn't much of an altered tuning, and even double-drop-D is not a big difference. I'd heard (and it may be wrong) that it was Mitchell who introduced him to open-E. – Graham Feb 12 at 0:01
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As others suggested, the best way is to immerse in his songs, of course by listening, but I would add also "with paper and pencil", to study the chord progressions. I did that a few years ago, and it's interesting. With time you notice a few patterns "Oh this is interesting".

Since you cite Don't think twice it's alright, I think you probably know this already, but the main part of the song is a "I V vi IV" chord progression, and then just an evolution around that.

What makes it characteristic is also the guitar finger-picking style, which transforms a standard "I V vi IV" (already used in thousands of other songs) into something with a specific and personal color.

If you are interested by this part, maybe study a few guitar finger-pinging songs, and this can give ideas for your own music - even if it's not guitar but other instruments.

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