Hello! Welcome to another installment of our guitar column. Today we are going to talk about some chord progressions every guitar player should be familiar with. Not only because these are great for your songwriting chops, and because knowing about these will help you develop an ear for them, but also, knowing these progressions will help you learn songs on guitar more quickly. If this is your first time learning about chord progressions, you are very likely to be surprised by the number of tunes that have the exact same chord progression in a different key, and by the similar patterns, we seem to repeat and never grow tired of listening to. But first, we need to cover a way to recognize these patterns that work in all keys.
Roman Numeral System
The Roman Numeral System is the way to describe the “pattern” of a chord progression, regardless of which musical key it’s in. The most important thing to understand is that this system analyzes the “distance” between chords, rather than the chords themselves because that is what we are actually hearing when we listen to music.
Let’s have a look at how it works with our first chord progression.
The I – IV
This is by far the most common chord progression out there. It is the basis for most of the music we hear today, from rock to jazz. But what do “I” and “IV” mean?
Let’s say we are in C. The Roman “I” will always represent the root of the key. So, if we are in C, then “I” is equal to a C major chord. Just like with regular chord notation, unless stated otherwise, Roman numerals represent a major chord. If we wanted to have Cm we would need to include an “m” right after the Roman numeral (i.e. “Im”).
Now we know what “I” is. What does “IV” stand for? It stands for the fourth note up from the “I”. So, in this case, we need to count with the musical alphabet starting on C (and including it), four notes up. This would be C, D, E, and F. The 4th chord is F, and this means that IV equals F for this case.
It is important to note that depending on the key you are playing in there is a nuance in this method and this is just a very rough approximation on how to figure out the Roman numerals. There are instances, depending on the note you start and the chord you are looking for, in which this might not work. For this article, we’ll stay in C, which works every time.
Our I-IV progression would look like this:
You might try playing four strums on C, then four strums on F, and repeating. Sounds great – it’s a I IV progression! A couple of songs that make use of this progression would be “Like A Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan, during the intro, and “Imagine” by John Lennon during the verses. Keep in mind songs tend to use more than one chord progression, so that’s why we described the section as well as the song.
An example of this progression in the key of G would be G – C, with G being the I and C being the IV.
This particular I-IV chord progression is sometimes used in a more big-picture concept, too. You’ll find a lot of songs, particularly in rock music, in which the verse and the chorus are separated by a I-IV. As an example, if the tune starts in “I”, very often the chorus will start on the “IV”. Give it a try!
Let’s move on to a bit more complex progression.
The I – IV – V
This progression builds upon what we just covered, and it is a fantastic way to establish a key. It is a much more widely used chord progression than the I-IV, because it introduces the V. The V a very important chord because it really wants to return to the I chord, so it adds a strong sense of movement – have a careful listen as you play the chords! Using our musical alphabet once again in the key of C, we would introduce the G major chord.
Our I-IV-V progression would look like this:
As you can tell, in this case, we opted for having the V repeat for an extra bar. The reason for this is that most chord progressions follow a pattern that fits 2, 4 or 8 bars, or some other even number. Since we have 3 chords, one of them is bound to be repeated if we want it to make sense for the listener.
Once again, in G this would look like: G – C – D – D, where G is the I, C is the IV (just like before) and we are adding D as the V chord.
You are in no way obligated to use this progression in the order given, though. In fact, there are a lot of notable examples of songs that switch this around and choose to repeat a different chord instead. Here are a few examples of songs that use this progression:
- “La Bamba” uses this progression during the entire song!
- “Blitzkrieg Bop” by the Ramones also uses this progression for most of the song.
- “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan (again, but this time for the chorus).
- “Under Pressure” by Queen (not in the same order, but instead uses a common variation I-V-IV-V)
- “Yellow Submarine” by The Beatles (again, different order, I-V-IV-V during the verses)
- “Buddy Holly” by Wheezer (during the first half of the chorus)
Let’s move on to the next one.
The I – V – VIm – IV
This is probably the most successful chord progression in the history of music, in the sense that there are literally hundreds of hit songs that use this one. Once you hear how many songs use it, your jaw will hit the floor…
In C, and doing our math as before, we end up with this:
Notice that, as we discussed, for the VIm we added a lowercase “m” to point out that the chord is minor instead of major. Like with the I-IV-V, it is very common to mix up the order a bit. Again, as an example, in the key of G this would look like: G – D – Em – C, with G being the I, D the V, C the IV (just like before) and adding the Em as the VIm.
Some songs that use this progression:
- “California King Bed” by Rihanna
- “Clean” by Taylor Swift
- “Time to Say Goodbye” by Andrea Bocelli
- “Cryin’” by Aerosmith
- “Feeling This” by Blink 182
- “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz
- “No Woman, No Cry” by Bob Marley
And literally hundreds more. There’s even a Wikipedia article dedicated to listing these songs. And it is incredibly flexible too – notice the genres of these tunes, from R&B to pop to rock to reggae.
Finally, let’s look at a minor chord progression.
The Im – bVII – bVI
As with minor chords, minor chord progressions tend to sound sad. This one is the most common one of them all. With our analysis, and in this case in Am, it looks like this:
In they key of G, this would look like Gm – F – Eb – Eb. Notice how the G is now minor (because we are in a minor key), making it Im. Just like with the previous chord progressions, it is common to mix up the order of these chords or choose to repeat a different one. Some notable examples:
- “Stairway to Heaven” during the final section (in this exact key!)
- “All Along the Watchtower” by Bob Dylan (made popular by Jimi Hendrix)
- “Dream On” by Aerosmith
These 4 chord progressions we’ve covered here today are the building blocks of a good chord progression vocabulary. They represent a constantly growing catalog of songs, and for good reason. They work! Learn them and know them by heart, and you will notice they start to pop up everywhere.
To your success!