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“Always and Forever” – Applying Theory to Songwriting

Chances are, you don’t have Luther Vandross ’ rendition of “ Always and Forever ” on your iPod or in your music library. Neither did I until a student recently requested that we learn the tune. As I wasn’t familiar with the song, originally released in 1977 by the R&B/funk band, Heatwave , I was pleased to find that it’s a great example of applying theory to songwriting . So, the focus of this lesson is analyzing Luther’s 1994 cover of “ Always and Forever ”, thereby helping you to overcome some creative hurdles – the dreaded writer’s block.

Always and Forever ” is by no means a rocker. In fact, it’s just the opposite – a really slow, soulful, love ballad. Although some may find the song a bit boring, there are so many great things about it from both a teaching and learning standpoint. Not only does it reinforce the need for understanding scale harmonization when applying theory to songwriting , it’s also a great exercise for playing barre chords (if you need one) and crafting passionate guitar solos. Plus, soul music typically displays lavish production with rich, choir-like, backing vocals and well-arranged horn or string sections. Listening to the harmonies should give you a few ideas, too.

Analyzing “Always and Forever” must start with a basic review of harmonizing the key of E major . Remember that harmonizing a scale simply means that a triad or seventh chord (or extended up to 13) is built on every scale degree and, regardless of the key, the resultant chords always function the same way – they’re major, minor, augmented, diminished, or dominant. If you don’t know much music theory, or if you’ve forgotten a few things, that’s fine! But, I suggest reviewing a couple of my previous lessons regarding Harmonized Scales for Guitar and Chord Construction . That will really help, I think.

But, in the meantime, let’s condense those lessons a bit. Always think in terms of chord families and Roman numerals! The chords that “officially” belong to the key of E major are:

Imaj7 = Emaj7
ii7 = F#m7
iii7 = G#m7
IVmaj7 = Amaj7
V7 = B7
vi7 = C#m7
vii7b5 = D#m7b5 (it’s really a half diminished chord)

Now, play the “Always and Forever” chord progression , below. Notice that the song uses every chord (or a variation) in the E major harmonized scale except the half diminished chord built on the seventh degree. That would sound great in there somewhere, too. And, there are a couple of chords, which do not belong to the key, that demonstrate effective, chromatic voice leading. It’s a perfect example of applying theory to songwriting and embellishing a standard I-vi-ii-V chord progression .

Remember that chord inversions are commonly notated by a “slash” – the B/C# is really a Badd9 chord with the ninth (C#) on the bottom. The same notation applies to the G/A and A/B chords, as well. I just threw in the latter, the one in parentheses in the chord chart, since I love the sound of add 9 chords – I call it the “Ronnie Montrose chord”. Check out “Voyager” by Ronnie’s old band, Gamma. Great stuff!

The structure for “Always and Forever” is: intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus and ending. It’s a slow song, so set the quarter note value on a metronome or drum machine at 48 and use a subtle swing rhythm for strumming (1 ta2 ta3 ta4). But, be sure to play the two beats on the B/C# chord as eighth note triplets – it almost makes the song!


In case you’re not sure how to play all of the chords, I’ve included chord diagrams for the forms that I recommend using – the roots are light blue. The fret numbers next to the grid indicate in which fret your first finger must be placed. Many other forms and inversions work well also, so play whatever sounds best to you.

Now that you’ve played the tune by just reading the chord symbols, play it again, think about the Roman numerals, and pay attention to the sound of how each chord leads to another. What sounds good to you? What would you change? When applying theory to your own compositions, would you use similar chord changes?

Keep in mind that using the Roman numeral approach allows you to clearly define any chord and how it relates (or not) to the key. For example, the vi7 chord in the key of E major is C#m7. What is the Cmaj7 chord in the final measure of the intro? It doesn’t belong to the key, so what Roman numeral would you use? First, flat the sixth and then change it to upper case – the answer is bVImaj7. The G/A chord in the ending is a bIIIadd9. It’s that simple. Both of these chords add chromatic voice leading interest to “Always and Forever”.

The great thing about this numbering system is that you can quickly and easily transpose a song to another key to accommodate your vocal range. If you can’t hit some of the low or high melody notes, just move the key up or down until you find the one that’s most comfortable. You’ll find, though, that you’ll probably have to change some of the chord forms to achieve desirable voice leading. It’s great practice to play songs in several different keys, so give it a try.

Ask yourself another question. “With a little knowledge about applying theory to songwriting, could I have written ‘Always and Forever’?” Of course! Can you use the same chords to compose an entirely different song with a faster tempo? Can you rock it up a bit by playing only power chords? Of course you can!

All that remains is soloing over the changes, and you have a few choices. Using an E major pentatonic scale is the easiest way, yet it’s very effective and works well. But, since the song contains so many major and minor seventh chords, a full E major scale may be a better choice if you concentrate on hitting chord tones. The extra two notes will come in handy. For a jazzier feel, using scale modes is a great idea, and I suggest reviewing my lesson, “How to Solo with Modes”. You can ‘mix and match’, too. The more scale patterns you know, the better off you’ll be.

I hope that analyzing “Always and Forever” will assist you in applying theory to songwriting. When you hit a roadblock and can’t think of what to do next because you’re not sure of which chords go together, think of this song. These chord changes and soloing scales ALWAYS work!

One final thought. When Luther Vandross passed away from an apparent heart attack in 2005, at the young age of 54, the music industry lost a tremendous artist. Music lovers around the world lost a beautiful voice . . . he will be missed always and forever . . .

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@austinhubert   3 years ago
This is an awesome lesson! I used to dance (or ask girls to dance) to this song when I was a wee lad, back in Atlanta. Now I can learn it on guitar and watch others get their groove on! Thank you!