Embellishing Chord Progressions with Fills

As guitarists we often need to play a single chord for a number of bars before changing to the next chord. Often we’re unsure how to create interest in these types of progressions, aside from varying our strumming pattern. One way to create interest is to use fills to embellish the basic progression.

An example of this approach can be found in the verses of the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s song, Under the Bridge. For the first verse the chords are played with little embellishment; the interest is essentially generated from the rhythmic placement of the chords.

Verse 1

In the second verse the same progression is embellished with fills and arpeggiation (not shown in the example).

Verse 2

Notice all of the fills in this example can be played while holding the chord shapes; it is the remaining fingers which create the fills. Usually guitarists will use a mixture of fills generated while the chord shape is held in one place and those which are played in a different position on the neck – even when the position moves, however, the fills generally still embellish a chord shape.

A classic example of this style of guitar playing can be heard in the opening of Jimi Hendrix’s tune Little Wing.

Starting at 0:05, we see that Jimi embellishes the G major chord using fills built around this G major shape

G major 

G LWing

This chord can be seen as the upper part of the E major CAGED chord shape but playing G major. All of the notes in this fill are taken from the key of E minor/G major.

In the following bar, this A minor chord shape is embellished

Am chord

Am LWing

This shape is the E minor CAGED chord shape but playing A minor. Since Jimi avoids the F sharp in this bar – the only difference between the keys of E minor and A minor – all of the notes he uses belong to either key.In the following bar, Jimi embellishes this E minor chord shape,

Em chord

Em LWing

which is the A minor CAGED chord shape but playing E minor. All of the notes belong to the key of E minor.

The following bar embellishes a B minor chord, which uses the A minor CAGED shape.

Bm LWing

Notice how Jimi colours this chord shape with the addition of the note C sharp, which is taken from the key of B minor; C sharp is the difference between the keys of B minor and E minor. The B flat major chord on the last beat of this bar can be heard as a passing chord between the B minor and the A minor of the following bar.

This A minor shape uses the E minor CAGED shape as before,

Am2LWing

however, this time Jimi colours this A minor with an F natural rather than avoiding all Fs as he did with the first A minor chord.

Here is the entire progression.

Little wing intro

Jimi’s playing in the intro to Little Wing exemplifies this style of embellished chordal playing. In the intro he approaches the fills in two ways: with the first approach, the fills decorate the chords with notes diatonic to the key of the overall piece (E minor). With the second approach, Jimi uses notes drawn from the key of the chord he is playing, for example he introduces C sharp in the B minor bar and F natural in the second A minor bar.

As mentioned previously, fills may also be played in another position on the neck, away from the chord position being played.

In the Dire Straits song, Sultans of Swing, Mark Knopfler often uses this approach. Beginning at 0:47, over an open-position A major chord, he moves to the tenth fret to play a fill which cleverly combines single notes and double stops while still outlining the progression to the D minor chord. A few bars later he uses the same position to outline the A major harmony.

Dire straits

Both of these fills use the following chord shape,

Amajor

which is the C major CAGED shape but playing A major. The fills use notes taken from D harmonic minor and D melodic minor, but they essentially outline the A major harmony.