In this article we are going to take a look at one of the most common chord progressions in modern popular rock and contemporary music . It is such a common bunch of chords! The are a lot of songs with the same chord progression. I cannot even possibly list all the songs that use it in this article, bands like The Beatles, Journey, Elton John, Green Day, U2, Maroon 5 , and many Taylor Swift songs. In the key of C this progression is:
go ahead and give it a play in open position. Depending on the tempo and rhythm you are playing, you will find you can play hundreds of songs with just those four chords! Most people who listen to music do not have a clue that so many songs are based around the same 4 chords. The more songs you study and learn to play, you will see this progression over and over. In fact you can impress your friends by playing as many different songs as possible with it. Of course some songs only use this for a verse or chorus, and some use substitutions and other variations, but C-G-Am-F is a great place to start to understand how powerful chords can be when played in a particular order.
4 chords many songs
In the video above you can see the australian band The Axis of Awesome playing plenty of different songs with the same chords progression. And here is a page with a variety of songs using the above popular progression. Turn your metronome on and see how many of these songs you can play with just C-G-Am-F. Granted this chord progression will not give you every aspect of the song, but you will get better at realizing this fun and common thread between many popular songs and from there we can start building on this concept and advancing beyond such a common progression. Ironically many musicians make a fortune off these 4 chords in that exact order, but as musicians and guitarists, we strive to continually advance our musical knowledge.
When I first started playing guitar like most people I tried to learn specific songs, whether through a tutor or on my own, yet it didn't work all that great. After a break I picked up the guitar once again and this time I tried a new approach; I focused on learning as many chords as possible. I would search the web for any song that was in my head and try and give it a play through, I did this for thousands of songs. After a while I started noticing certain patterns, keys, progressions, and I became adept at playing many chords. I essentially took a long road on the music theory of songwriting, by immersing myself in a variety of styles and genres. So now when I sit down alone or with a band, I cannot just play one particular pop rock song, I can play the progression that is most commonly used in this style (as we've seen above).
Now this method that I used to learn so many chords, it wasn't easy. Buying a variety of sheet music books is expensive and relying on web searches often left me with songs that had been chorded wrong (this is a common risk when you search for lessons on youtube; personally I prefer to rely on established guitar lesson sites). However even this wrong information taught me how to better rely on my ears, to trust what sounds right and to watch for patterns. My method was simple; I would take a song that I heard and liked on the radio (I'm a fan of Oldies myself), look up the chords, and then sit down with a metronome while I learned to play it. The metronome was essential, as it would help me get the tempo down which then allowed me to better find the rhythm. As you play more and more songs you will see how common certain chord progressions are, what makes these musically common songs unique is their melody and rhythm that exist within these common chord progressions. Once you can hear the song in your head you can find the correct tempo and then start working on playing each chord. When you come across a chord you do not know, well be prepared to look it up! It is truly a learning experience and the more songs you attempt to play the more chords and progressions you will discover.
Sometimes you find a chord that is just impossible to play on its own, or downright difficult to fit in amongst the rest of the progressions. This is an important lesson to learn and it leads to understanding the necessity of minimal movement between each chord. To put it simply if we have to change from a G to a C, we want to do it with the least amount of finger movement as possible. This can be accomplished with inversions, chord substitutions, and of course different positions. There are a variety of ways to play C and G on your fretboard and most chord dictionaries provide multiple examples. To try this out play the open G chord followed by the open C chord, notice how many fingers you must move between each chord. Now go to the 3rd fret and play the G barre chord, followed by the 3rd fret C barre chord... amazingly it requires a lot less movement and is a much smoother change. We can jump up to the 5th fret using that same “C chord position” and we have a D barre chord. So right there you have played one of the most basic chord progressions ever (G-C-D) with a minimal amount of movement.
To learn the correct fingerings of open chords, barre shapes, and other chords shapes, be sure to download this free Guitar Chords Ebook that contains more than 200 chord diagrams.
Now of course barre chords require a little bit of finger strength, but are absolutely essential to playing a variety of chords and progressions on your guitar. Now there are no hard and fast rules for which chords are the best and the easiest to switch from, frankly it depends upon the song you are playing. That is why it helps to study as many songs as possible, force yourself to learn good chord economics and as many inversions as possible for each chord. An inverted chord is simply a chord where the root is not in the bass. A normal C chord has a C note as the bass; an inversion will have a different order of notes rather than C-G-E (the three notes that make up a C chord). Practice this method every day; look up a song you like, turn your metronome on, and play each chord while you figure out the rhythm and “feel” of the piece. With each new song it gets easier and before you know it you will make the step from playing other songs to writing your own. Knowing your chords and chord progressions will advance your guitar playing and general music theory knowledge far more than you can even imagine!
To help students learning their chords, I developed a software tool that shows you plenty of different chords shapes on the fretboard, it's a powerful aid to learn chords fingerings and sounds across the whole fretboard. Here's the link of the tool.