There are certain sequences of chords that just happen to sound very pleasing to human ears. Most popular music across many genres use specific chord progressions, depending upon which mood they are aiming for in their songs.
Chord progressions are like drum beats and even many bass lines, they cannot be copyrighted and are used by everyone. It is the melody, the note and style order, that can’t be copied by another musician. The better you get to know all the popular progressions the easier you will be able to recognize them in each song you listen too.
There are some progressions that are used so many times that by simply learning one pattern you can play hundreds of songs . At the end, we will list quite a few, and you should memorize each one.
Many people playing guitar focus on learning scales, which is fine, but you shouldn’t neglect your chord progressions. First, we need to learn how to read chord progression charts . You will see regular numbers or Roman numerals to denote the chord and the order they go in.
A major chord progression is shown as;
The lower case represents a minor chord and the upper case a major. Each note of the scale forms a triad or chord. If we apply those Roman numerals to the key of C we get;
Now a minor chord progression is denoted as;
There are many charts out there for a quick reference on each major and minor key. Some of the charts do not use Roman numerals, instead of the Nashville Numbering System .
This system was invented in the late 50’s and often used by Elvis Presley’s backup singers The Jordanaires.
You are basically just replacing the Roman numerals with stand Arabic . The symbols also change to denote major , minor , or diminished . The Nashville number system is used often in real life scenarios.
When a musician tells the band it is a 1-4-5 song in the key of C, we know the chords are C-F-G .
If the band leader says it is a 1-5-6-4 in the key of G then we know to play the chords G-D-Em-C .
Now some of these chords happen to sound good when played in certain orders. Just as the note C and its fifth G sound good when played in succession so do the chords C major and G major.
Many folk and simple pop tunes are simply the first and fifth chords of the key . And just as the root, fourth, and fifth are common intervals we get the very popular chord progression of I-IV-V .
In the key of C that gives us C-F-G . Playing those simple three chords gives you thousands of songs in pop, rock, punk, gospel , lots of music is covered with the 1-4-5! And then the blues comes along and extends the 1-4-5 to 1-4-1-5-1 or something similar (also adding sevenths). Pick your guitar up and play;
Repeat the C and F7 a few times back and forth and then end on one G7-C. If we play the 1-4-5 as 5-4-1 we get many popular classic rock tunes. Often the chord progression will finish on the tonic, unless you are modulating or moving to another key.
Just as three chord progressions follow the rules of scales and intervals so do four chord progressions. After the I-IV-V progression which chord would also sound pleasant to add? Of course the vi, the natural minor.
In the key of C that would be the Am. Now once we add this Am into the other three chords, we get a v ariety of very popular chord progressions . With I-V-vi-IV we get the chord progression that covers many songs, just watch.
Change it to I-vi-IV-V and you can play nearly every 50’s doo wop tune . Or start with the minor with vi-IV-I-V and you will have nearly every sensitive or deep pop tune ever written. (Pick a key, any you want and try each of these four chord progressions. You may perhaps already recognize some songs as you play each one).
Now we're going to show you a list of the most used chord progressions out there. Of course there are more, but in reality, humans are often stuck on the same frequency changes over and over .One of the best bands ever to study chord progressions with are The Beatles . They were masters of the basic progressions and then they used their talent to modulate, borrow, and substitute to make incredible songs.
They are a great example of how you take the basics that everyone loves, tweak them based on solid music theory and then you can make some great songs .
While there, of course, is experimental music out there that tries to break all the rules , in general, you want to stick with what is popular. The 1-5-6-4 may be the best sounding progression in modern western music , so you can’t go wrong using it as a backbone to your song.
Below is a list of the most popular chord progressions, give each one a try in various keys! (Use this chart to make sure you have the chords right).
Remember these are only the standard foundation , don’t forget that often notes are tweaked or changed to sevenths, extended chords, or suspended chords to make a song a little more unique. You will have to experiment and build on the basics.
Basic Rock n Roll or Pop
The most common progression of all, knowing this simple chord stream will allow you to jam with any band as long as you know the key. Even though this chord progression seems simple there is a variety of ways to tweak it.
Many rock and blues songs use a seventh on the fifth chord, giving the common rock n roll progression of E-A-B7. If you like you can add sevenths all around even. Prince in the song “" Kiss" uses this 1-4-5 in the key of A, A-D- E.
He makes it funky by playing A7-D7-Esus4. The sus4 uses the A note with the E fitting in the chord progression for the key of A and sounding funky.
There are a ton of substitutions to make these three chord progression sound unique to each genre.
Just as 1-4-5 is very common in rock, the reverse was especially common in many classic pop songs.
This is another progression with simply too many examples to list. Surf songs , sock hops , rockabilly , 60’s rock , anything you want to play with a rocking groove. You can use variations like E-D or D-A-E, and even E-A-D-A fits well.
Axis of Awesome
This progression is named after a band that performs all the songs written in this progression. Every artist uses this chord sequence , in fact just a quick search and you will be amazed at how many songs follow this pattern!
Really just about every single 50’s doo wop tune uses this exact sequence. Once you can play one song of that era you can play them all. From “ Monster mash ” to “ Earth Angel ” and of course “ Beauty School Dropout ” from Grease.
Folk tunes are very simple, often nothing more than the root and fifth repeated over and over . These songs are sometimes a lot more fun to listen to then play, it can tedious. Often a seventh is used on the V chord.
So in the key of E you would have a blues tune go E-A-E-B-E . Of course, most blues songs use sevenths so you will want to mix in some. The blues progressions can vary, but will always focus on the first, fourth, and fifth chord.
As we showed above sometimes you can just repeat the first and fourth for a few measures before bringing tension with a V7 and then back to I.
Basically, any epic or powerful rock ballad you have ever heard follows this, David Bowie was a fan of this progression. Without even looking up the chords to Ziggy Stardust we already know how the verse goes, in the key of C it is C-Em-F-G .
This progression has two possible versions:
Don’t forget that chord progressions can also be denoted using Roman Numerals, which is helpful with progressions like this one. So La Folia can also be written as;
A reminder that the lower case is minor and the upper case major. La Folia is one of the oldest progressions existing in modern western music. Try the key of A minor to get this;
Notice after playing it that it has a medieval or middle ages fantasy type feel to it.
If you are playing music in a castle for royalty this is the chord progression to use. Even after hundreds of years of use our ears still love this progression.
Flamenco or Andalusian
If you want a Spanish type flamenco style for a classical guitar than try this one out. So in the key of A minor we would have Am-G-F-E . The song “ Walk Don’t Run ” by the Ventures follows this one.
Pop Rock Lydian 1-2-4-1
You will recognize this one from songs like “ Eight Days a Week ”. And the second here is a major not a minor . So in the key of C we get C-D-F-C . For a very long time the II major chord was always followed by the V and then the tonic.
The Beatles instead made it popular to move to the IV instead of the V, giving it a much different resolution sound.
This progression is literally known as a sensitive female progression as many pop rock and indie women artists write songs using it.
Of course, the progression doesn’t have to be for that but usually is. Jewel, Avril Lavigne, Joan Osborne , and many more use it. It also works for Boston’s “ More Than a Feeling ” and Iggy Pop’s “ The Passenger ”.
Jazz Standard Progressions
This and its variations are great for working on tunes like “ Heart and Soul ,” “ Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas ,” and Nilsson’s “ Without You ”. Of course those songs have sevenths added to each chord.
This was used for many songs in the swing era.
Jazz and Pop Rock 2-5-1 or ii-V-I
Used in “ I’d really Love to See You Tonight ” and “ It Never Rains in Southern California ”. It is also known as the 2-5-1 turnaround and is a staple of both jazz and rock. Another progression with a myriad of examples
An example of this chord progression is C-Caug-C6-C7 . Songs like “ You’ve Got to Accentuate the Positive ” and Whitney Houston’s “ Greatest Love of All ”.
If you’re looking for something really obscure, then try some ragtime chord patterns, you never know what it may inspire.
Now of course not every song follows a progression to perfection. Chords can be substituted with 7ths , 9ths , 13ths , min7 , maj , sus2 and 4 , and of course so many more (you might find useful this list of the different chords structures ).
When you are playing a common chord progression it is little changes that can make your song seem unique and stand out . Along with substituting chords we can change keys slightly or in a big way depending on what kind of sound we want.
Use Borrowed Chords
By using a borrowed chord in our progression , we are using a chord from another key , but we are not changing the tonic or original key. Often borrowed chords involve a flattened 3rd and flattened 7th (b3 and b7).
So in the key of C we often use the borrowed chords of Eb and Bb , not moving to far away from normal 3rd and 7th . This is especially used in rock songs. Or we can decide to not borrow, and just simply change the key of our song at some point completely, this is known as modulation.
Modulate to other keys
We can modulate chromatically like moving from the key of C to the key of C# .
Or there is also common tone modulation. Both the key of C and G use the note D thus we can use that note when modulating from C to G . There is also parallel modulation, as in moving from C major to C minor , still keeping the same tonal center. There is even a form of modulation called phrase or abrupt modulation.
This is where you just completely change the key after a phrase is finished. Generally, its best to keep to a somewhat similar key when doing it abruptly. If we want to, we can also put different forms of modulation together in a chain modulation. For more on modulation see the Circle of Fifths.
Add Secondary Dominants
Another way to spice up your chord progressions is by using secondary chords , one being secondary dominants.
The first chord of the key is known as the tonic, and the fifth is called the dominant . To find the secondary dominant we can count or use the Circle of Fifths again.
- G is the dominant of the key of C
- D is the dominant of the key of G .
Thus D is the secondary dominant of the key of C. These secondary dominants are often played as sevenths or higher extensions (9ths, 11ths, 13ths).
The reason they are typically sevenths is that the whole purpose of the secondary dominant is to add tension to the music . If we go from C-G we can add the secondary dominant and it will now be C-D7-G. Secondary dominants open up a lot of changes to our chord progressions.
You can even use Extended Dominants
We can also use what is known as the extended dominant. This is where you resolve down a fifth to another dominant seventh chord. It seems complicated but it is simply V/V/V. The extended dominant of C is A7 .
There even is a quaternary dominant making it V/V/V/V, and in that case, it would be C-E7. You will likely not be using borrowed chords that far out, but it is great practice to test your music theory.
Chord Progressions - Conclusions
Practice each of these examples, try and use your ears to identify what songs may fit where. When writing your own music don’t forget to substitute often and experiment . If you try modulating, altering the chords, and changing keys, it is amazing what music you can build.
Now that you know the basics for chord progressions on the guitar you have the foundation to both memorize and create many songs . There are of course more progressions besides the ones listed. However, in most cases, they are just derivations or slight changes to the examples above.
One great tool to experiment with chord progressions is the Circle of Fifths; on this site, we have an Interactive Version of The Circle of Fifths , check it out!
Here another useful tool to study chord progressions. This learning software is developed for guitar players, and allows you to:
- Create any chord progression on the fly
- Visualize the tones of the chords on the fretboard
- Develop your improvisation skills: use the tones of the chords as main notes of your solos
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