Chord progressions are familiar sequences of chords that work really well together from a harmonic point of view. They are widely used in pop, rock and jazz songs. By learning them, you will understand how different songs ‘work’ from a music point of view.
In this article, we’re going to teach you the most common chord progressions you should know. If you’re a beginner, this will do wonders for your development.
Let’s get to it 🙂
The Nashville Numbering System (aka Roman Numerals)
Before you start, you first need to understand a simple numbering concept called the Nashville numbering system which uses roman numerals to refer to chords within this scale (see below in red).
So, in the key of C:
- The capitalised letters are major chords
- The lowercase numerals are minor chords
- The seventh chord is always a diminished chord (‘dim’)
The Four Patterns to Learn First
The Classic Blues One: I – iV – V
This is arguably the most popular chord progression in modern music (the standard 12 bar blues progression is based on it).
There are countless songs that use it. As well as the blues music of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf etc., most blues inspired music of the 60’s and beyond have used it. For example, it was used in ‘Wild Thing’ by The Troggs, ‘Get Off My Cloud’ by The Rolling Stones, ‘Great Balls Of Fire’ by Jerry Lee Lewis and The Beatles’ ‘Twist and Shout’, and The Ting Tings “That’s not my Name”
It’s super easy too. Here’s how you play it:
The I is the root note of the chord, followed by the 4th and 5th scale degrees of the scale. After the 5th scale, you typically go back to the 4th.
In ‘Wild Thing’, it starts on A major, and the pattern stays as straight major chords. So you’d play A (I), D (iV), E (V) and then back to D (iV).
Grab your guitar and try it:
The Pop-Punk One: I – V – vi – iV
This one was popularized in the 90’s by musicians like Eagle Eyed Cherry (see below) but even ‘Auld Lang Syne’ by Robert Burns. uses it! Other notable examples are ‘No Woman, No Cry’ by Bob Marley and ‘Down Under’ by Men at Work.
The formula is I – V – vi – iV.
So in the key of C, you’d get C, G, Am, F.
Try it out:
The Pop-Punk One (Reversed): vi, IV, I, V
The vi, IV, I, V is a rearrangement of the last progression, and is even more commonly heard in popular music.
This pattern has featured in ‘Self Esteem’ by The Offspring, ‘Save Tonight’ by Eagle Eye Cherry, ‘Love The Way You Lie’ by Eminem and Rhianna, and many more songs.
In Save Tonight, it starts on Am, then goes to F, to C to G.
Give it a try:
In fact, so many songs do similar, that ‘Axis Of Awesome’ created a ‘four chord song’, where they mashed up a load of them together!
‘Love The Way You Lie’ has a tonic of Bb, so its pattern in this case is: Gm, Eb, Bb, F.
The Classic 50s One: I, vi, IV, V
This one was particularly popular in the 1950s when Doo-Wop was all the rage. You can hear it on “The Book of Love” by The Monotones as well as ‘Monster Mash’ by Boris Picket.
The Pachelbel One: I – V – vi – iii – IV
This one is a curious one. First popularised by Johann Pachelbel with his “Cannon in D”, it’s since been used by Red Hot Chilli Peppers on ‘Under the Bridge’ as well as Katy Perry’s ‘Fire Work’.
Fancy playing along? Play the video below and grab the song sheet from here.
Chord Progression Chart
Here’s a handy chord chart so you don’t have to keep on counting using your fingers to work stuff out:
With these three patterns, you’ll have a treasure trove of songs at your disposal. Learn them off by heart, in all keys, then come back here and drop us a line and we’ll add some more.