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Create R&B With Minimal Theory

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Hezekiah is a performing musician and music producer who has done various event around Japan over the last decade or so.


R&B Theory does not have to be complex

Unlike pop and rock, R&B and neo-soul tends not to follow the simple seven chords in the key theory. An explanation is below:

Each scale has seven chords. The scale of C major is the easiest to visualize on the piano because it is uses only the white keys.

  1. C major
  2. D minor
  3. E minor
  4. F major
  5. G major (Dominant)
  6. A minor
  7. B diminished

Your typical progression would be a 2-5-1. so looking at the above it would be D minor, G major and then C major.

Adding 7ths

Playing these chords you will notice that it is not very R&B sounding, so the next simple step would be to add the sevenths. With the sevenths, the chord progression would be Dmin7, Gdom and Dmin7. This gives more of a jazzy sound, but still not your typical R&B progression.

Adding 9ths

Lets try adding some 9ths

Dmin9, G7(dom), Cmaj9 - this gives a bit more depth.

Inverting Chords

The next thing we can try is to invert chords. Even though the same keys are being played, inverting chords can give a very deeper sound especially when two notes are next to another.

Check out the below image

A chord inversion

A chord inversion

You can see above that F is now next to the G and has quite a different feel to the root position due to slight frequency clash effect.

Going back to the 7ths the chords would now be - Dmin7, G7/D, Cmaj7. Also note that inversions on the piano or keyboard actually minimize hand movement therefore very useful for jazzy type playing.

This is a little more deeper sounding than previously and it could be part of an R&B chord progression depending on how the singer sings over it, or how the rest of the music sounds.

Main Ingredient for R&B

The main characteristic for R&B and neo-soul is the use of non-diatonic chords.

Diatonic basically means the correct chords for a particular scale, such as the 2-5-1 progression as above.

Another typical diatonic progression for pop is the 1-5-6-4

Cmaj, Gmaj, Amin, Fmaj – Play it and you will recognize that common sound.

Since non-diatonic chords are outside the standard theory box, people often wonder how and when to use them. There is no magic formula however there are tricks that will work.

Swapping Minor and Major

As briefly mentioned in a previous post, there are many times when the minor and major chords can be swapped.

A good example is again the simple 2-5-1, this time we will use the key of F major.

Gmin7, C7, Fmaj7

on the 2nd time around we simply replace the Fmaj7 to Fmin7 which gives us the following:

Gmin7, C7, Fmin7

This has more of an R&B feel to it. Note that Fmin7 is non-diatonic (not in the key of F major) therefore you may want the melody line or vocals to follow the F minor key just for that final chord.

Another example is below using the key of Db major

Bbmin7, Ebmin7, Gbmaj7, Fmin7

This time lets change the 1st chord to a major giving us the following:

Bbmaj7, Ebmin7, Gbmaj7, Fmin7

This gives more of a Neo Soul feeling.

Using F7#5

A simple chord but adds so much emotion to a progression. A 7#5 is basically the 7 (dominant chord) with a sharpened 5th.


Watch the final F7#5

Try a simpler version below

Gmin7, C7, Fmaj7

Now play the following chord progression

Gmin7, C7#5, Fmaj7 – listen to the difference.

A good idea for some variation would be to use the regular C7 for the first four chords and then repeat using C7#5. This gives the feeling of an eight chord progression rather than four.

Gmin7, C7, Fmaj7, Gmin7, C7#5, Fmaj7

Use chord No.3 as a Dominant

Just as a recap we can see that chord No.3 is a minor chord. however a good trick is to swap this for a dominant chord (7 or 7#5 for more depth)

1. C major

2. D minor

3. E minor (use as Dominant)

4. F major

5. G major (Dominant)

6. A minor

7. B diminished

Try playing the below

Dmin7, E7, Cmaj7 – We get a new jazzy sound here. E7 is non-diatonic but it works nicely.

The below example is an even deeper smoother sound. It may look complex but it is a very simple movement. The E7 has become E7#5 and played on an inversion.

To do this, from the Dmin7, we just shift the 3rd and 5th key a step to the left to get the below chord.

Dmin7, E7#5/D, Cmaj7 – Play this and it's instant R&B.


Inverted Bass note

Normally the bass note is the root of the chord you are playing. E.g. If you play a Cmaj then the bass note would be C. If you play an Fmin then the bass note would be F. However it doesn't have to be the root, and there is a nice trick to make your chords sound deeper.

When playing a minor chord use the 11th key as the bass note.

Amin7 – Use D as the bass in the lower octave

Gmin7 – Use C as the bass in the lower octave


Try playing the above two chords and listen to how soulful they sound.

Note that for major chords, the 11th key of the bass may not sound right. Instead use the 9th key in the lower octave. For example, for Cmaj7 use D as the bass note.

Using chord MIDI packs

While you are still getting familiar with these techniques, you can still progress with your R&B productions by using MIDI chord packs.

These are pre-programmed MIDI chords normally organized in keys which can simply be dragged and dropped into the DAW of your choice.

Not only do you get instant chords, but you can also use them as a learning aid to see how chords are constructed. You can also easily change key by shifting the position either up or down.

Remember that chord progressions themselves cannot be copyrighted or claimed, therefore chord progressions will always be royalty free.

© 2022 Hezekiah