In this blog post, we'll cover some of the fundamental concepts that will get you started with playing neo-soul guitar. We teach you the most popular chords, two must-know chord progressions, and give you tips on how to get the feel right. 

Neo-soul guitar originated from Black American gospel guitarists. Many of the defining neo-soul guitarists started out playing in church and working alongside gospel artists before venturing into the secular pop and R&B world.

Common guitar chords in neo soul

Neo-soul harmony is influenced by jazz. This means you’ll find more colorful chord progressions than in pop or rock music. Neo-soul chords are extended chords that contain extra sonic flavor compared to basic major and minor chord shapes.

For example, check out these two variations of a basic C chord below.

Simple C major chord shape

The basic C major chord shape on the left has a 

  • root note (1)
  • 3rd 
  • 5th

Add neo-soul flavors to a chord

When you add other intervals to the root note, your chords start to sound more complex.

  • The second chord shape is a Cmaj7, which means the voicing incorporates the three basic notes plus the 7th.
  • The last chord, a Cmaj9, is even more complex and features a 9th.

Since it’s hard sometimes to find voicings that cover the root, third, fifth and an added color note (or two), it’s ok to replace notes. No need to turn your hand into a pretzel.

Most of the time, guitarists will opt to leave out the fifth - like you see in the Cmaj9 shape. 

Chords without a root note

When you play with a bassist, it’s also common practice to play a color tone on the bottom of your chord instead of the root note. Here’s an example of a rootless F#m chord voicing:

Scroll further for more neo-soul chords for beginners!

Want to take the next step as a guitarist?

Neo-soul chord shapes for beginners

The most popular extensions are 7th, 9th, 11th, and 13th tones. If you know how to build chords, you can modify the shapes you know.

We like to make your life easier though, so below are the most common neo-soul chord shapes, all built from the root note C.

Next, we’ll teach you two neo-soul chord progressions. Enjoy the ear candy!

Two must-know chord progressions

In neo soul, you'll often encounter chord progressions that are more complex than in other genres. 

  • Most pop and rock songs don’t venture beyond diatonic chords (chords that are derived from the major scale), but neo-soul guitarists will frequently make use of borrowed chords. 

Borrowed chords are chords that come from a different scale than the home key of a song. 

  • Let’s say you have a song in C major but instead of sticking to the chords within C major, you could borrow chords from C minor (the so-called parallel minor because it shares the same root note). 
  • This is just one common example. There are many other routes you could take to spice up a chord progression.

We’ll show you two examples below. If you’re not familiar with the voicings for the chords, we’ve got you covered: Simply refer to the TAB and listen to the recordings.

Pretty, isn’t it?

If you have some understanding of the numbers system, feel free to read on for the harmonic analysis. If you’re not yet familiar with music theory, feel free to skip ahead to the next chord progression.

  • This neo-soul chord progression starts on the minor IV [Am9] of the minor key. 
  • It’s mostly diatonic, except for the secondary dominant V chord (B7 altered) which offers a stronger resolution tendency towards the tonal center, the minor I chord (Em).
  • The B7 altered chord and its available tensions are derived from the C melodic minor scale, starting from the 7th degree of the scale: B altered.

Neo-soul chord progression in a major key

The second progression is in the key of C major. Fmaj7 | E7b13 | Am7 | Gm7  C13

Here’s what this one sounds like:

Just like in the first progression, we’re starting on the IV chord. 

  • The E7b13 (III7b13) chord is acting as a secondary dominant! It means that we pretend the next chord is a new I chord. 
  • We temporarily reframe the target chord as a tonic I chord in a V→I relationship. 
  • In this case, our progression moves from E7b13 → Am7, or V → I in A minor. 
  • A minor is the relative minor of C major, which means we’re still using diatonic chords – just from a different perspective.

The final two chords indicate a II-V harmonic progression that returns to the I chord in F major.

How to play neo-soul guitar with “feel”

When people talk about neo-soul, they usually think Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, or D’Angelo. These artists mix the feel of R&B with the harmony of jazz and the rhythmic components of 90's hip hop. 

Neo-soul guitar, on the other hand, can be thought of as instrumental R&B music without a singer. This means your guitar is starring in the role of lead singer.

Here are a few tips to help your emulate vocal qualities:

  • Instead of strumming chords, arpeggiate them.
  • Instead of playing every note of the chord at once, incorporate hammer-ons. (There are some great examples in the second chord progression we showed you earlier.)

Assemble your chord shape a half-step above or below the chord you want to play and then slide into it.

Icons of neo-soul guitar

Rhythmic feel is a key component of neo-soul guitar. We recommend listening to other guitarists to absorb their unique rhythmic neo-soul vibes.

You might already have some favorites but in case you need listening recommendations, we put together a list of six guitarists who pioneered the neo-soul sound:

  • Spanky Alford (D’Angelo)
  • Isaiah Sharkey (John Mayer and Donald Lawrence)
  • Kevin Wilson (Stevie Wonder and Shirley Caeser)
  • John ‘Jubu’ Smith (Mary J. Blige and The Maze)
  • Erick Walls (Kirk Franklin and Michael Jackson)
  • Jairus Mozee (Prince and Jill Scott)

Since it's a relatively young style of playing, many of these iconic artists are active in the music industry today. 

What’s next?

Here are a few ideas for what to focus on next:

  • Learn more neo-soul progressions
  • Work on your ability to establish a groove with great time feel
  • Explore chord embellishments
  • Study how to enhance your melodies with double stops, grace notes or slides
  • Add movement to your chord progressions with quick and easy theory

If you're looking to dive deeper and learn neo-soul guitar step by step, check out our Neo-Soul Learning Pathway with a free 14-day trial to Pickup Music.  In this 3-month program, we’ll guide you step-by-step through the world of neo-soul guitar and show you exactly what to work on at each step of the way.