Hello and 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 are these great for your songwriting chops, knowing about these will also help you develop an ear for chords in general. Being familiar with these progressions will help you learn songs on guitar more quickly. And what would be more motivating than being able to play your own favorite songs?
If this is your first time learning about chord progressions, you’re likely to be surprised by the number of songs and familiar tunes that have the exact same chord progression in a different key. We seem to never grow tired of listening to and using these similar patterns and common chord progressions. But first, we need to cover a way to recognize these patterns that work in all keys. So let’s dive into some important music theory behind chords and chord progressions.
Roman numeral system and chord progressions
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 remember 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.
Don’t worry if this sounds complex or intimidating. We’ll have a look together at how it works with our first chord progression example.
The I – IV chord progression
This is by far the most common chord progression out there. It’s 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 instead of the C major chord, we would need to include an “m” right after the Roman numeral (i.e. “Im”).
Now we know what “I” is. But 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. Let’s look at the following chord progression chart:
It’s important to note that, depending on the key you’re playing in, this method can vary. This is just a rough approximation for figuring out the Roman numerals. There are instances, depending on the note you start with and the chord you are looking for, where 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, doesn’t it? It’s an I IV progression.
A couple of songs that use this progression are “Like A Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan, during the intro, and “Imagine” by John Lennon during the verses. Keep in mind that 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”. Go ahead and give it a try.
Let’s move on to a chord progression that’s a bit more complex.
The I – IV – V chord progression
This common progression builds upon what we just covered, and it’s a fantastic way to establish a key. The I-IV-V chord progression is much more widely used than the I-IV progression, because it introduces the V. The V is an important chord because it really wants to return to the I chord, so it adds a strong sense of movement. For some ear training, try listening carefully 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 from this chord progression chart, in this case, we chose to repeat the V for an extra bar. The reason for this is that most chord progressions follow a pattern that fits 2, 4 or 8 bars, or another 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. Even if they’re not familiar with the music theory behind a song, the listener will notice things like this.
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’re adding D as the V chord.
Remember that you don’t have to use this progression in the exact same order as this, 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 familiar 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 some more common chord progressions.
The I – V – VIM – IV chord progression
This is probably the most successful chord progression in the history of music. What we mean by that is 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 chord progression chart:
Notice that we added a lowercase “m” to the VIm to show how 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’s 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 chord progression
As you may have been instructed, you can tell major and minor chords and scales apart by listening to whether they sound happy or sad. It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that minor chord progressions, just like minor chords, also tend to sound sad. This one is the most common of them all. With our analysis, and in this case in Am, it looks like this chord progression chart:
In the 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’s not unusual to mix up the order of these chords or choose to repeat a different one. Here’s some notable examples you’ve probably heard before:
- “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
Chord progressions in conclusion
These four chord progressions we’ve covered here today are the building blocks of a good chord progression vocabulary. These common chord progressions are essential to learn if you plan on exploring music theory. They represent a constantly growing catalog of songs and music, for a good reason. They work!
Learn these popular chord progressions and know them by heart. Soon you’ll notice they start to pop up everywhere. So listen closely to every piece of music you come by and start exploring the power and beauty of chord progressions.
Once you’re skilled enough and know how to work with the most essential chord progressions, like the ones we discussed here, start experimenting. After all, many exciting and surprising things in music come from breaking the rules and trying out new things.