I picked up the guitar half a year ago. Much of my playing is me playing a song's chord progression and a friend singing over it. Some ways that I've been experimenting with to "decorate" my playing on the spur of the moment are:

  • different strumming patterns
  • damping the strings
  • switching in sus2/sus4 chords
  • hammering on or pulling off one of the strings in the chord
  • playing the chord at different places
  • even sneaking in some melody notes if I've planned ahead

All of these ideas or patterns I've just been lucky to come across. How can I find more ways to decorate "simple" chord progressions? I've been trying to google such lists, but maybe I'm not using the right words, or maybe as a newbie I'm not thinking from the right perspective.

  • You can make some chord substitutions; you might take a look at this question and answers.
    – user39614
    Commented May 25, 2018 at 12:07
  • @DavidBowling Thank you, great resource! Do you think these kinds of substitutions sound good even if I'm the only one playing, or could e.g. substituting V for ii make it sound like something else and throw the singer off?
    – Anna
    Commented May 25, 2018 at 12:10
  • 1
    Chord substitutions can sound great when you are playing by yourself. With other players you need to be careful; sometimes they change the quality of the harmony enough that it can throw other players off a bit. For the most part you probably want to avoid making substitutions that conflict with the melody, so it shouldn't cause problems for singers, except that unexpected chords might surprise them ;) This is the kind of thing that you just have to experiment with by yourself and also when playing with others.
    – user39614
    Commented May 25, 2018 at 12:17
  • 2
    Another good trick: if you have, say a bar of one chord (e.g. C7), split the bar into two different chord shapes to introduce some variety without changing the harmony (e.g., play C7 in root position, then in 1st inversion).
    – user39614
    Commented May 25, 2018 at 12:23
  • 1
    @foreyez - check in any thesaurus, and the two words are in fact synonymous. Decorate = embellish; embellish = decorate, with or without quotation marks.
    – Tim
    Commented May 26, 2018 at 15:52

6 Answers 6


Sounds like you've already picked up quite a few effective ideas!

6ths sound good in some songs. 7ths also - maj7, m7 and if going to a chord a 4th above what you're on, dominant 7ths. 'Add 9ths' also can fit.

Instead of written dom.7ths, 9ths sound good, as do 13ths in the right place.

Tritone substitutes work well, on your own. Playing with others, you may surprise them, and two different chords together rarely sound harmonious.

For turnarounds, several options are available. Instead of a bar of V, play ii, V before the next verse. Or given a couple of bars, (in C here), play C, Eb/ D, Db. Or the ubiquitous I, vi / IV, V.

An occasional harmonic breaks things up too, especially in G - where there's 12th fret 2,3,4 strings (G), 7th fret 2,3,4 strings (D) and 12th fret 1,3 strings (C).

A few little ideas for you to add to the armoury.

  • With "9ths sound good" on dominant 7th chords, I imagine that you include altered 9ths since sometimes a 7♭9 or a 7♯9 chord works well where a natural 9th chord fails. In general, dominant 7th chords can often be replaced by altered versions (using ♯5, ♭9, ♯9, ♯11, etc.) to add some variety without causing too many problems for other players. Good ideas here, +1
    – user39614
    Commented May 26, 2018 at 12:11
  • @DavidBowling - thanks. Don't forget the humble b5 too! Or would that be encompassed in the #11...
    – Tim
    Commented May 26, 2018 at 15:47

Learn all of the basic CAGED system chords. That will give you 5 different voicings for just about any basic chord. Another trick, depending on style, is the b3 to 3 hammer on for major and 7th chords,great for folk, blues and rock.


Apart from the great answers that beat me to this thread, I'd add:

  • Varying volume
  • Pinch harmonics or artificial harmonics
  • Adding the 9ths
  • Sliding into the chord from a half-step below
  • Arpeggiate!
  • Add percussive elements
  • Any kind of chord substitutions (but make sure everyone's on the same page)
  • Find different voicings on the guitar and move up and down the fretboard stylistically
  • Pay attention to the bass notes, maybe add some stuff
  • Go wild on the dominant (now's the time for that crazy scale you learned)
  • Try using fewer notes to imply the harmony. Double stops are particularly effective, and you often can emulate the melody much more easily.
  • Drone notes (let a few notes ring through the entire progression)
  • Syncopation in general

And consider taking a more chord-melody/fingerstyle approach to playing. It's very helpful to be able to blend the melody and harmony, because then one finds that it's easy to embellish the harmony when accompanying. Of course, this is harder and takes planning, but it can be extremely rewarding. Plus, one becomes a better guitarist.


for beginners very simple but most expressive is the bass change of the root to the 5th (4th down), that's do-so do-so , re-so re-so, or the 3rd in the bass. this will fit with strumming and picking).

Country songs and blues use the change of the 5th and the 6th: then you'll hear in the chord accompaniment: so-la so-la. In the C and E this is most easy.

  • Thank you! Do you mean this as alternating the bass for fingerstyle, or as playing the inversions while strumming chords?
    – Anna
    Commented Jan 21, 2019 at 10:17

You're on the right track. 'Playing the chord at different places' particularly caught my eye - the term for this is inversions if you want to dig in. You should also look into voicings and that will open up plenty of new options, like throwing in drone notes or creating wide intervallic spacing.

You can get a lot of mileage out of a voicing by simply modifying what notes you sound with your picking hand. 'Man of Constant Sorrow' is a great example - track down the tab and study the opening riff, with the same chord shape they're able to create movement by working different sections; be selective in what notes you sound - often less is more and gives you more options.

There's also alternate tunings. You should get your fundamentals down first but know that they are out there and the options are limitless. I'm mentioning this in case you are trying to learn something by ear and can't figure out how in the world it's played.


Primarily, you listen to other performers, both live and recorded. When you hear an effect that you like, but it isn't obvious how to do it, then you ask.

Sit down with another guitarist for an hour. He'll have some tricks to show you, and you'll have some to show him.

Sorry if this is all a bit obvious :-)

  • 1
    this is kind of the way I've been doing it, asking friends I hear making call sounds but mostly looking at youtube videos. I was hoping to structure my development a little bit more :)
    – Anna
    Commented May 25, 2018 at 12:07

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