The song of the week is Steel Rails in the key of G.
Alison Krauss - key of E
~ STEEL RAILS ~ Alison Krauss, full version
~ ~ ~ Lyrics ~ ~ ~ Steel rails, chasing sunshine round the bend Winding through the trees, like a ribbon in the wind I don't mind not knowing what lies down the track Cause I'm Looking out ahead, to keep my mind from turning back It's not the first time I've found myself alone and known If I really had you once, then I'd have you when I'm gone ...
1 1 2m 2m
4 5 4 1 1
1 1 2m 2m
4 5 4 1 1
On the recording, the progression for the verses is slightly different: line 2 is played as 45111. For the past 25 years, I have failed to notice this on the recording. I have jammed this song many times over the years with many different people, and not once do I ever recall a different progression being used for the verses than for the choruses and the breaks. So, to keep it simple, when I lead the song at the jam, I will use the same progression for the verses as for the choruses and the breaks, with line 2 consistently being played as 45411.
Even if the progression were 16 or 17 measures long instead of 18 measures long, and even if it did not contain 2m chords, it would still be an unusual progression for a bluegrass song, in that a 5 chord measure is sandwiched between two 4 chord measures. Of the 6 possible chord change sequences involving the 1, 4, and 5 (14, 41, 15, 51, 45, 54) 54 (a 5 followed by a 4) is the least common, and when this order does occasionally show up, the 5 is usually preceded by a 1 rather than by a 4.
Steel Rails ends with a vocal tag that follows the final chorus. The progression for the tag is:
2m 5 5 5 5
4 1 1
and there is a stop at the beginning of the fifth measure.
The 2m Chord
When 1=G, 2m=Am; when 1=A, 2m=Bm; when 1=Bb, 2m=Cm, when 1=B, 2m=C#m, etc. Just as the root note of the 2 (major) chord is always a whole step higher than the root note of the 1 chord, so by the same token, the root note of the 2m chord is always a whole step higher than root note of the 1 chord.
Minor Chords in Major Key Songs
The 2m (two minor) chord is the second most frequently used minor chord in songs played in a major key. The most common minor chord used in major key songs is the 6m, and the third most common (which only very rarely shows up in bluegrass songs) is the 3m.
The 6m is the relative minor of the 1.
The 2m is the relative minor of the 4.
The 3m is the relative minor of the 5.
6m, 2m, and 3m are the only three minor chords that contain no notes in them other than the notes that make up the major scale that has the same letter name as the 1.
For example, the C major scale has no sharps or flats in it, but consists of the 7 natural notes: C, D, E, F, G, A, B.
Just as the 1,4, and 5, when 1=C, are the only major chords that contain no sharps or flats in them: C = CEG; F = FAC; G = GBD, so also their relative minors: 6m, 2m, and 3m respectively, when 1=C, are the only minor chords that contain no sharps or flats in them: Am = ACE; Dm = DFA; Em = EGB.
History of Minor Chords in Bluegrass
The use of minor chords in major key songs shows up less frequently on bluegrass recordings from the 40s and the 50s than on recordings from the 60s onward. In the spots in where a minor chord would have been suitable to play, the older recordings more often than not have the major chord that is either the relative major or the parallel major of that minor chord.
For instance, in the spots where it is now standard practice to play a 6m in Down The Road, the original Flatt & Scruggs recording used a 1 instead (1 is the relative major of 6m), and in the spots where it is now standard practice to play a 6m chord in Foggy Mountain Breakdown, a 6 chord was played on the guitar by Lester Flatt on the original recording, even though the 6m chord is so clearly outlined in the banjo breaks (6 is the parallel major of 6m).
2m & 6m vs. 2 & 6
In contrast to the 2 (major) chord, which is almost always immediately followed by a 5 chord, the 2m chord may often be followed just as easily and naturally by a 1, a 4, a 6m, etc., as by a 5 chord. A similar observation may also be made about the 6m chord relative to the 6 (major) chord. The 6 (major) is almost always followed by a 2 (the most notable exception to this being the obsolete practice of sandwiching 6's between 1's in playing Foggy Mountain Breakdown and certain other songs) but the 6m is often followed by a 1, a 4 or a 5.