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Must Know Chord Progressions
Guitar Noises #29: March 30, 2022
This article is part of a series and picks up where we left off. If you need a quick catch up the previous posts are here. Sometimes email isn’t the best format. If you’d like to save this to Pocket or another reader you can always find these emails on the website.
There are literally thousands of possible chord progressions. Luckily for us, most styles and moods of music can be played using only a handful of them. When you learn the most common progressions by heart you’ll start to recognize that writing songs or playing along to something is a reasonably straightforward affair.
You can easily find charts of the most common chord progressions in every key. While it might be tempting to print one of these charts for your binder, try to keep in mind that music isn’t a visual thing. Breaking your attachment to printed material helps develop your ears. With regular practice over time you’ll start to change chords more intuitively, simply knowing what comes next.
Some progressions are tried and tested because they come up again and again. The songs you know and love are the ones you’ll want to play. Take the time to work on the progressions that matter most to you. Also, as you’re listening to music, try to match songs to these common chord progressions.
The Must Know Chord Progressions
There’s a good chance that most songs you know use one of these progressions. There are exceptions, but knowing these progressions by heart will unlock millions of possibilities to play around with.
The I - IV - V Chord Progression
The I - IV - V is also called the 12 bar blues, but you can also think of it as a three chord song. It’s short and to the point. It works really well with call and response type songs (eg. “I woke up this morning…”). But it doesn’t have to be a blues song. The I - IV - V frequently shows up in songs with lots of energy, whether they are blues, country, pop, rock or punk.
Using only two chord shapes you can play the I-IV-V in any key. I explained how to do this in Movable Chord Shapes.
Some examples of the I - IV - V include
In the key of G: (G, C, D): Bad Moon Rising, Blowin in the Wind, Brown Girl, Night Moves
In the key of A: (A, D, E): Johnny B. Goode, Lay Down Sally, Gloria, Whole Lotta Love
Search for three chord songs and you’ll never run out of things to play.
I V vi IV - The Pop Song Progression
For better or worse, this is probably the most common progression used today. It has its own wikipedia entry and has gained a lot of notoriety thanks to a video by Axis of Awesome. This is a progression that can be played on an endless loop. In fact, many pop songs use this progression for the entire song.
The I V vi IV is a popular progression for songs that tell a story (eg. “Just a small town girl, livin’ in a lonely world…”)
“Don’t Stop Believin” by Journey and “Someone Like You” by Adele use this progression. Both songs consist of C, G, Am and F.
The order of chords can be moved around to create a different feel. When arranged as vi–IV–I–V you get songs as diverse as “Zombie” by the Cranberries, “Apologize” by OneRepublic, “Numb” by Linkin Park, “Africa” by Toto, “Cheap Thrills” by Sia and Joan Osborne’s “One of Us.” An oldie but goodie with this progression is "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” by Scott McKenzie. Try playing Em - C - G - D on acoustic with a folky strum pattern and you’ll recognize it right away. It sounds especially good if you have a 12 string guitar.
I vi IV V - The 50s Chord Progression
The I - vi - IV - V is often referred to as the 50s chord progression. I associate it with “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King, which I think is the greatest song of all time. The chords are A F#m D and E.
The Wikipedia entry on the 50s chord progression includes a long list of songs that use it.
ii V I - Jazz Chord Progression
Going from the ii to the V and then the I is commonly referred to as the Jazz Progression. Many jazz standards use the ii-V-I to modulate through several keys. It isn’t limited to jazz though, and shows up in other genres.
On it’s own the ii-V-I has a satisfying sound that could build an entire song. Quite often it’s used as a turnaround or to transition to a new key. Check out the Beatles song “From Me to You.” During the middle-eight the song changes key using a ii-V-I chord progression only to change back to the original key using the ii-V-I again almost right away. If you listen to a lot of Beatles you’ve probably heard the ii-V-I without even realizing it.
All these chord progressions are worth knowing by heart. You don’t have to learn them all at once. Being mindful of chord progressions as you play should be part of your practice time. Over time you’ll start to hear where a song is going by feel without needing to look at a chord chart.
There are still more progressions to learn after this. For now, try getting to know each of these progressions in the most popular keys, which are: C, G, D, A and E. Using movable chord shapes and quick patterns for finding chords will help you identify the chords in each key quickly.
I won’t dive any deeper into chord progressions for now. Explaining something too much can make it seem more complicated than it is. If you would like a more detailed lesson on chord progressions I recommend starting with Exploring Common Chord Progressions from the Musical U website.
Have a great week.