One of your first steps on the guitar, after you’ve learned to tune it and hold a plectrum of course, is to begin learning some chords. Chords are the foundation of what we write music on top of and really dictates how the mood, feel, and flow of a song will go. So needless to say they are important!
You’ll find an abundance of resources out there to get you started with your first chords, whether that be open chords, barred chords, the CAGED system. If you’ve already got a few chords memorized and are wondering what to do next, this is where you need to be.
In this article, we’ll cover some basic theory principles about why we use progressions, how they’re made, and give you a bunch of extremely powerful and effective progressions you can use to either play along to other songs or take as inspiration for your own music.
- What do we mean by ‘progression’
- Two common ways we come up with progressions
- Down to the progressions
- C – G – Am – F (I – V – vi – IV)
- C – C – C – C – F – F – C – C – G – G – C – C (I – I – I – I – IV – IV – I – I – V – V – I – I) – 12 bar blues (slow)
- C – C – C – C – F – F – C – C – G – F – C – G (I – I – I – I – IV – IV – I – I – V – IV – I – V)
- C – F – G (I – IV – V)
- C – Am – Dm – G (I – vi – ii – V)
- C – Em – F – Am (i – III – iv – VI)
- C – F – G – F (I – IV – V – IV)
- Dm – G – C – C (Ii – V – I – I)
- Some useful tips on playing these progressions
What do we mean by ‘progression’
When we think of a particular chord change or moment of a song that hits us emotionally, it sounds incredible and sometimes makes us pull a funny-looking face because it’s so good. That’s not just because of a single chord, that emotion comes from the chord before it, and the chord you’ve just moved to.
This act of using multiple chords in a sequence or ‘progression’ is where the personality and of a song comes from.
But there are a lot of chords we can play on the guitar! How do we know which ones to use and in what order?
Well rather than just taking shots in the dark endlessly hoping you can come up with a bunch of chords that sound great together, we have quite developed music theory systems to assist us with this. That is not to say creativity and uniqueness are not supposed to be there and you just mechanically execute them based on the theory. Think of it more as a guideline to get you going and sounding awesome, and you can choose to deviate from that point as you wish.
Two common ways we come up with progressions
While we are of course going to provide you with plenty of examples to give you a running start to this whole chord progressions thing, it’s worth taking a little bit about how you write progressions yourself. Because just as important as memorizing progressions is gaining the ability to come up with new ones yourself.
All our most common scales/modes, whether it is major, minor, Dorian, Lydian, etc are what we call diatonic scales. Diatonic scales are any scale that has 7 notes in it, we primarily deal with diatonic (7) and pentatonic (5) scales on the guitar.
Each one of those notes, which can simply number from 1 to 7 has a chord associated with it. Here’s a quick rundown of C major so you can get more of an idea of how this works
Chords within C major
- 1: C major
- 2: D minor
- 3: E minor
- 4: F major
- 5: G major
- 6: A minor
- 7: B diminished
You will commonly see these referred to by their Roman numeral equivalents, so instead of 1 2 3 4 5 6 7, you will have I ii iii IV V VI vii.
So if you were to read ‘this song is an I iii V progression in the key of C major, you know the progression is C major, E minor, and G major.
With just these 7 chords there is a lot of scope for experimentation and creativity too! You don’t just have to stick to triads. Try playing with 7th chords, suspended chords, add9 chords.
Hopefully, you’re starting to see that this rabbit hole is a little deeper than it might appear at first glance, so just experiment and have fun with it. Remember, it’s music and there are no rules you need to follow. But you will definitely find that some progressions simply sound ‘better’ or more pleasant than others.
Now, sooner or later you’ll be looking for something more interesting. Within the confines of scales, you’re not going to be implementing things like modulations and substitutions into your playing. So another method we can use to get inspired (not instructed) with new and interesting progressions is by utilizing the ‘circle of fifths’ which is a wonderful and creative tool musicians can use to come up with cool progressions.
The complexity of the circle of fifths is a little too in-depth to cover in today’s article. But please do check out this more thorough and comprehensive guide.
Down to the progressions
We’ll show the progressions both in their roman numeral format and also in the key of C as it’s so common. But of course, the progression can be (and often is) put in different keys, generally to cater to the most comfortable key for the singer so the song fits within their vocal range.
C – G – Am – F (I – V – vi – IV)
If there was a single chord progression to rule them all, this would be second (after the 12 bar blues, of course). This is one of the most popular and heavily used chord progressions in western music and can be found on hundreds if not thousands of chart topping songs.
You’ll see this original incarnation appears on songs such as “Beast of Burden” by the Rolling Stones, “Clean” by Taylor Swift, “Poker Face” by Lady Gaga, and even “Tuesday’s Gone” by Lynyrd Skynyrd.
But there’s more than can be done with this particular sequence of chords. You can also ‘rotate’ the chords, which essentially means to mess with the order they appear. So for example our original I – V – vi- IV progression is commonly referred to as the ‘optimistic’ progression. An alternate way to play these chords is as vi – IV – I – V which has a darker or sadder tonality to it which has prompted many to refer to it as the ‘pessimistic’ version.
So we encourage you to not just take these chords ‘as is’. But feel free to mess with the order, change their voicing, use inversions!
C – C – C – C – F – F – C – C – G – G – C – C (I – I – I – I – IV – IV – I – I – V – V – I – I) – 12 bar blues (slow)
Now at first glance, this one can appear a little intimidating. But it’s really very easy once you get used to it and is going to open up so many avenues for you as a musician. It’s really an absolutely essential beginner chord progression.
Why is it so good?
Much like things such as the minor pentatonic scale, or the power chord, the 12 bar blues progression is something that pretty much everyone will learn, even if they don’t go deep into music theory. So even when you’re with a non-theory educated musician, there’s still a good chance you can find a backing track and jam together. If there’s ever a social gathering and no one is quite sure on the degree of musical fluency of the other musicians, out comes the 12 bar blues.
It’s one of the great enablers in music and is worth your time learning!
Now one thing to note, is there are a few variations of this progression that we should talk about. The one mentioned above is fantastic because it’s simpler and easier to remember. But it lacks what we call the ‘turnaround’ which is a final V chord on the 12th bar which makes ‘turning back around’ to the 1st bar extra awesome.
So next we’ll cover the more traditional version of the 12 bar blues progression.
C – C – C – C – F – F – C – C – G – F – C – G (I – I – I – I – IV – IV – I – I – V – IV – I – V)
So while this one is a little bit more involved, if you’ve already learned the ‘slow version’ we highly recommend you move on to this next as it has a lot of life and personality. Its main draw is the fact it has the V chord leading back into the I chord, which we might also refer to as its ‘turnaround’. So while it’s certainly a little more to remember, once you get comfortable with this it will become second nature and you’ll feel that V chord coming a mile away!
C – F – G (I – IV – V)
This is a quintessential ‘classic’ rock kind of progression, simple and no nonsense that you’ll hear from guys like BB King and Jimi Hendrix. And although it uses those same chords and the blues, when used in this shorter capacity and at a different BPM it definitely has its own tonality and personality which is well worth exploring. Feel free to mess slightly with the order too, for example, you can use I – IV – V- IV – V as a nice variation.
C – Am – Dm – G (I – vi – ii – V)
Although you will find this progression across a broad range of styles, old and new, it’s particularly popular in jazz and r&b and is a great progression to add to your repertoire. A good example of this being used is in Bruce Springsteen’s Hungry Heart or Long Ago by Oscar Peterson.
One of the things that people like about this so much is that it progresses in fourths so when it turns around from the V to the I chord it feels extremely nice.
C – Em – F – Am (i – III – iv – VI)
Another very simple chord progression where that III chord gives it its own flavor and slightly darker tonality. Very commonly known for songs such as Creep by Radiohead, Space Oddity by David Bowie, and Sam Smith’s Midnight Train. It’s ideal to use when you want something a little bit more quirky and not quite so ‘in the box’.
C – F – G – F (I – IV – V – IV)
You’re probably starting to notice a bit of a trend here, it sounds really good when the IV chord can resolve back to the I, and regardless of what chords come in between it’s something that people gravitate towards heavily. And for good reason! This chord progression can be found in songs such as Wild Thing by Lou Reed and La Bamba by Ritchie Valens.
Dm – G – C – C (Ii – V – I – I)
For our final chord progression we’re spicing things up just a little by starting on that minor chord, this will sound perhaps a little more unusual than what you might be used to having played mainly typical rock and blues progressions. But give it a try, and if your chordal vocabulary is developed enough to where you can find the 7th of these chords it’s going to sound extremely colorful.
You can see this chord progression used in songs such as Honeysuckle Rose by Fats Waller and Satin Doll by Duke Ellington.
Some useful tips on playing these progressions
So we’ve got a bunch of chord progressions at our disposal and perhaps you already know how to play most of the chords already. But it’s worth taking a moment to point out that there are often no hard and fast rules about how you have to voice these chords.
What do I mean by voicing?
Because notes appear multiple times all over the guitar fretboard, it means we can play chords in many different ways. You might already be familiar, for example, with how to play a C chord in its open position. But you can easily substitute that I chord for its barre variant for a different kind of tonality. Sure it might contain the exact same notes but there is a lot to be said for the position and area of the fretboard you play a chord on. A barred chord played on the 12th fret will have a different tonality when compared to its open position equivalent.
Likewise, a good thing to explore can be inversions, this is the act of playing the same notes of a chord, but in a different order. For example, let’s take a C major chord which contains the notes C, E, and G. Usually when we play this chord we will try to keep C as our lowest note and G as our highest note.
But a wonderful way to explore this further is to take that G note and move it to the bottom. Now our chord looks like G, C, E, and is still the C major chord but now it’s using the ‘first inversion’ of it. We can do this one more time on a three note chord and take the E and move it to the bottom giving us E G C, which is the C major chord in its ‘second inversion’.
You can play and experiment with this until your heart’s content and really get lost in the depth of just how much variation you can achieve even with basic beginner progressions like this.
While we have covered many beginner progressions that you will no doubt see crop up time and time again on your musical journey. We’ve also tried to provide you with a good amount of tips and tricks to get playful and creative with them so you’re not always completely bound to how they are presented.
They’ll still work over the same songs, just have a little bit more flair and also allow you to think more outside of the box, allowing you to immediately kick in that creativity when you’re presented with progressions in the future.
With that being said, you’re now equipped to play thousands of world famous popular songs, have fun with them!