When it comes to writing popular music, people generally stick to tried and true formulas. You’ll seldom see high-charting songs using modes such as mixolydian or locrian, and there’s good reason for that. Popular songs need to resonate with the largest possible audience, and our typical major and minor keys are just so effective at conveying emotion and creating that accessible package that appeals to everyone.
So today we’re focusing on Minor and have gathered together a list of 30 fantastic songs that perfectly demonstrate why we rely on these keys so much. We’ve also provided both video lessons and tablature so you can go ahead and learn them for yourself.
- Hurt by Johnny Cash
- Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin
- Californication by RHCP
- The Unforgiven by Metallica
- Losing My Religion by R.E.M.
- Bark At The Moon by Ozzy Osbourne
- Bad Romance by Lady Gaga
- New Rules by Dua Lipa
- Bailamos by Enrique Iglesias
- I Kissed A Girl by Katy Perry
- Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You) by Kelly Clarkson
- Adventure Of A Lifetime by Coldplay
- The Pretender by Foo Fighters
- All the Right Moves by OneRepublic
- You’re So Vain by Carly Simon
- Senorita by Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello
- When I’m Gone by 3 Doors Down
- One by U2
- Coma White by Marilyn Manson
- Hotel California by The Eagles
- I See Fire by Ed Sheeran
- All Along The Watchtower by Jimi Hendrix
- Turning Tables by Adele
- Counting Stars by OneRepublic
- Umbrella by Rihanna
- Just Dance by Lady Gaga
- Wrecking Ball by Miley Cyrus
- Wonderwall by Oasis
- Heart of Gold by Neil Young
- Horse With No Name by America
- Final thoughts on Popular Songs In Minor Keys On Guitar
Hurt by Johnny Cash
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This was originally performed by the industrial rock legends Nine Inch Nails, which had already become a popular classic by itself. But in 2002, Johnny Cash wrote his own rendition of the song which was met with massive amounts of praise from fans and critics alike. Nine Inch Nails singer/songwriter Trent Reznor himself has mentioned how incredible Johnny’s version is, going so far as to say he doesn’t consider it his own song anymore.
Written in the key of Am, with the main motif of the song using the chords Am, C and Dsus2. It uses an interesting picking pattern where you will pick the first few notes of the chord individually before finishing off the rest of the chord with a quick strum.
Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin
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Not only is Stairway to Heaven considered one of the best songs of all time, but it’s also hugely popular amongst guitarists for that iconic opening sequence. At this stage, it’s almost a requirement to learn the song. Guitarist Jimmy Page’s incredible guitar solo was also ranked at the number 1 spot on Guitar World’s ‘Best guitar solos of all time’ list.
Stairway to Heaven was written in the key of Am, with that iconic finger picked opening section using some fairly slow arpeggios and interesting chordal shapes. The song has a number of unique parts throughout all of which require different techniques to play, so it’s a really good song to learn if you need to brush up on your various guitar techniques as a whole.
Californication by RHCP
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The Red Hot Chili Pepper’s have no shortage of fantastic songs under their belt, but Californication specifically has remained one of their most popular. It’s much loved by fans and has been kept as a staple of their live performances since its release. With the songs catchy guitar parts and memorable, groovy riffs that combine with a perfect sing-along style chorus all culminating in one of their best hits ever.
Another song in the key of Am. The signature 2 chord opening riff simply jumps between Am and F, while the chorus uses the more complete progression of C, G, Dm, and Am. You’ll also be using a couple of different guitar tones here, with the intro and verse needing a nice, sparkling clean tone while the chorus uses a gritty and overdriven tone.
The Unforgiven by Metallica
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While certainly at a slower tempo than we traditionally associate with Metallica, the unforgiven has a particular weight, heaviness, and impact to it that makes it distinctly dark and powerful for a ballad styled song. This is from their self-titled album (also commonly known as The Black Album) and has since received two ‘sequel’ songs called The Unforgiven II and III.
Once again we’re in Am, the main riff of the song is driven by that A string which you play as an open note while harmonizing it using notes from the above string. This gives it a very unique tonality and makes a nice change from the traditional power chord. In addition, there is also a descending arpeggiated section on the intro which is played using a nylon string guitar.
Losing My Religion by R.E.M.
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Next up we have a wonderfully sad and haunting song from the American alt-rock group R.E.M. The song originally was written after guitarist Peter Buck wrote a piece on the mandolin (not on a Ukulele as many had assumed), he commented that while the chords themselves are nothing impressive, they are extremely effective and the act of passing from minor to minor chord is what makes that typical R.E.M sound. Interestingly, singer Michael Stipe has mentioned the song has nothing to do with religion (you can check our list of Christian worship songs for that), and the expression ‘losing my religion’ actually is a southern term people use to describe losing one’s temper.
Heavily rooted in natural minor, the song uses the chords E minor, A minor, D, and G. When it comes to the strumming pattern there are also a few ‘muted’ hits which adds a little extra groove to the song.
Bark At The Moon by Ozzy Osbourne
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After Ozzy had finished his stint with the legendary metal band Black Sabbath, he went on to have an extremely successful solo career. This is in large part due to the stellar musicians he recruited to write his songs with. Although there has been some drama surrounding this as guitarist Jake E. Lee was not credited (officially) and claimed Ozzy’s wife, Sharon, tried to ensure all the money earned from the record went directly to him.
Drama aside, Bark At The Moon has some absolutely classic heavy metal guitar riffs and really shows just how ahead of his time Jake E. Lee was. It’ll have you playing a ton of different chords while your picking hand is absolutely grinding on that A string. Once again the song is in the key of A minor.
Bad Romance by Lady Gaga
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Lady Gaga has always had a good way of marrying bizarre and unusual aesthetics with catchy, pop music to create this unique package that certainly grabs people’s attention. Bad Romance is from her debut album ‘The Fame’ and was massively successful, selling over 12 million copies worldwide making it one of the best-selling singles of all time. In addition to that, the accompanying music video is sitting at 1.5 billion views on YouTube.
You might have already guessed, but it’s in A minor and follows the chord progression of F, G, Am, C, F, G, E for the chorus. As the original is heavily electronically driven we can choose how we want to outline these chords. Either by strumming them as open chords on an acoustic or even as straight power chords on an electric guitar works wonderfully.
New Rules by Dua Lipa
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New Rules from Dua Lipa’s debut self-titled album was met with massive critical acclaim, receiving a nomination for British Single of the Year and hitting the number 1 spot on the UK charts where it also went quadruple platinum. The official youtube video for the song is sitting at over 2.6 billion views on YouTube.
Another song in the key of Am. It follows through the chord progression Am, G, F, and back to G. Because this progression is outlined in the original through synthesizers. Although the song is primarily driven by electronics, when we come to play this on guitar we can just use the respective open chord positions to strum along to the song.
Bailamos by Enrique Iglesias
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If anyone remembers the old 1999 Will Smith and Kevin Kline movie ‘Wild Wild West’, well this was part of the soundtrack to it. It was released a few times, firstly as part of the soundtrack of the aforementioned movie, but then again as part of his own discography with the album ‘Enrique’. It was an overall successful single (aided by the success of the movie) charting fairly highly across the board!
Here we’ll be using the chord progression Am, Dm, G, F, and then to cap it off we play Am again at the very end of the first time. But then during the second time, we run through the chord progression we cap it off with an E instead, which provides more of a ‘finished’ feel to it. There are plenty of cool single-note lead lines using harmonic minor you can jam to if you wish, otherwise you can just stick to those simple open chords.
I Kissed A Girl by Katy Perry
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After achieving a very good amount of success with her first album, she came out pretty strong with her second. I Kissed A Girl led the charge as its lead single and contains a bunch of interesting musical elements that underpin a tremendously catchy pop tune. Katy wrote this song with her main producer, Dr. Luke, in the final 2 days of recording the album as they felt it was too catchy not to include.
This song actually uses twin electric guitars which are playing single note patterns in Am. But, they are harmonized with each other, so you can choose to play either the higher or lower harmony as you see fit. Then for the chorus, there are just some very simple power chords. Exceptionally easy to play, and exceptionally catchy!
Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You) by Kelly Clarkson
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A fierce and empowering dance anthem that explores the idea of overcoming a hurtful relationship. This song really showcases Kelly’s powerful voice and her overall performance was greatly praised for its empowering feel and delivery. The song is from her fifth album ‘Stronger’ and upon release immediately topped the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks.
Here the guitar chords are outlined by a mixture of guitar and electronics, but the fundamental progression (in Am, of course) we are playing is Am, F, C, and G. If you are playing this as a solo guitar piece you can just play them as open chords. Otherwise, you can pick a ‘voice’ from the chord and pick it as single notes while the other parts harmonize with you.
Adventure Of A Lifetime by Coldplay
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Opening with a pretty cool arpeggiated guitar section which feels fun and playful, it really does feel like going on an adventure. The song is from Coldplay’s seventh studio album and this was the lead single from it. While not their biggest song, it received overall favorable reviews and charted highly across Europe and New Zealand. It also has a very interesting accompanying music video that involved the band members being rendered as CGI chimpanzees.
The chorus of this song is in the key of Dm, and we’ll be using the progression Dm, G, and Am. There’s also a really funky and groovy strumming pattern being used with some well-placed 16th note rests to really give it that attitude and rhythmic intrigue.
The Pretender by Foo Fighters
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Over the years, Foo Fighters have been able to consistently release stellar music, regardless of stylistic experimentation they always resonate with their audience. So to have one of their biggest singles be released by their eighth album goes to show how much of a songwriting force they really are. This has some unique note choices and is one of their most up-tempo and high-energy tracks.
Played in the key of A minor, you get a nice variety of styles to play along to in this song. From the clean arpeggios played during the intro, the lead section which toys with pedaling off of the open strings, and the chordal bursts played during the verse. It’s a fun and eclectic minor song!
All the Right Moves by OneRepublic
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While this song was released as the lead single from their second album ‘Waking Up, they had previously performed the song numerous times live. But singer Ryan Tedder also commented that they did change it up and make it ‘better’ for the full studio version. The song has a big and bombastic sound with roomy drums and layered fuzzy guitars. The official music video for the song is at a whopping 166 million views on YouTube.
Guitar wise we’ll be outlining the Am chord progression Am, G, C, and F (played as a barred chord on the first fret). Each chord is held and let ring for 2 beats each until the chorus where you can use a more consistent strumming pattern.
You’re So Vain by Carly Simon
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A wonderfully self-aware track from Carly Simon, which is also one of her most well-known tracks. The song levis critique at a self-absorbed ex-lover and uses some great lyrics such as ‘you’re so vain you probably think this song is about you’. The song did very well the world over, hitting the number 1 spot on the US, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand charts making it one of her most commercially successful tracks to date.
Guitar wise it might seem like there are a lot of chords going on, but in fact, you can consider all these as playful alternate voicings that are just giving flavor to the underlying progression. The chords used are Am, Am7, C, C/B, Dm, Em, F, and G.
Senorita by Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello
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This is Shawn and Camila’s second collaboration together following on from the single ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’. But this one was able to achieve a whole new level of success, amassing a staggering 16 million in online song streams which makes it the number 9th most streamed song on the platform. It was also nominated for a grammy award and actually won the Billboard award for ‘best collaboration’.
The main chord progression for this song is Am, C, F, Em, and G. The original song is heavily percussion and synth-driven, so when it comes to interpreting this song on guitar we are quite free to use any strumming pattern we deem appropriate for the feel and tonality of the song.
When I’m Gone by 3 Doors Down
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3 Doors Down have a special way of marrying hard rock with a catchy accessibility which garners them a lot of commercial appeal. This is the lead single from their second album ‘Away from the Sun’. It also received some additional exposure thanks to being featured on the popular Crime drama series ‘Third Watch’. The song was an ode to the unconditional love people show to each other even when they are separated by distance and obstacles.
Guitar wise we’ll be outlining the chords Am, C, and G. There are a lot of small inflections put in the chords with some hammer ons and pull offs just adding that little bit of spice into what is otherwise a fairly regular chord progression. This is a great one for new players to learn as it shows you how to get a little more value out of these typical chords.
One by U2
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This was a very important track for U2 as a band. During the recording of their 3rd album, ‘Achtung Baby’ there was a lot of conflict and inner turmoil within the band. This almost reached a boiling point where they decided to separate. Thankfully, guitarist The ‘Edge’ was jamming some music in the studio which would later on become this track ‘One’ and the other members found it heavily inspiring, reinvigorating the group and acting as something of a breakthrough for them.
The song has a good mixture of rhythms as well as some of the Edge’s distinct delayed and reverby leads. For the chords we’ll be playing Am, D, Fm7, and G which repeats twice. It’s exceptionally simple and you can play each chord 4 times using regular old downstrokes before moving on to the next chord.
Coma White by Marilyn Manson
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Taking on a slightly different tonality next with Marilyn Manson’s darker and more gothic effort, Coma White. This is a track from his popular album ‘Mechanical Animals’. Manson was inspired to write this song about his relationship with American actress ‘Rose McGowan’ which coincided with his heavy drug use. It’s also has a stylized and striking accompanying music video which was the subject of much controversy due to its unfortunate release timing alongside John F. Kennedy Jr’s death.
Guitar wise we open with some cool little 3 string arpeggios which are played using a clean tone. Then for the chorus, we’ll just be playing very simple open 3 string power chords (using that higher octave) which outline the progression A, C, G, and F. We don’t need to worry about major or minor tonalities in this scenario as they are just power chords using perfect intervals.
Hotel California by The Eagles
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Hotel California is without a doubt one of the best known songs from the Eagles. After its release in 1977 as a single from the album of the same name it received a Grammy award for record of the year in 1978 and Guitarist magazine rated its solo as ‘the greatest guitar solo of all time’. Since its release, it’s also been covered by a huge number of artists.
The song was originally written in E minor, a fairly typical key for guitarists to write in. However, after recording the entire song they found out that it was too high of a key to sing over properly. So after exploring various options they landed on B minor as the final key. But even then, when they play this song in concert they do so in an even lower key of A minor which Don said is even easier for his voice to sing over.
I See Fire by Ed Sheeran
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This song was famously made specifically for the 2013 movie ‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’ which was played during the closing credits. The collaboration between director Peter Jackson and Ed Sheeran was facilitated by Peter’s daughter who was a big Ed Sheeran fan at the time. After watching the movie it’s said that he wrote and recorded the majority of the song on that same day.
You’ll need a capo on the 6th fret of the guitar to play this song. And although it sounds very hard with numerous percussion inflections and hammer ons and pull offs, don’t be intimidated! It’s much easier than it sounds. The intro is actually the hardest bit, and if it gives you too much trouble the provided video tab also outlines a more ‘beginner friendly’ variation you can play to instead.
All Along The Watchtower by Jimi Hendrix
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While this song was originally written by Bob Dylan, it’s since been covered by numerous artists. The most notable of which, and who was really responsible for popularising the song was the one from ‘The Jimi Hendrix Experience’, which received a Grammy Hall of Fame award and is considered one of the best songs of all time, despite only being released six months after the original from Bob Dylan.
Guitar wise this features all the typical rock and blues tricks you’d expect from Jimi, great use of various bending techniques such as the triple bend or the pre bend. There are also some cool legato lines that will have you working little triplet patterns in over the straight timing. The chords we’re outlining in this song are Am, G and F.
Turning Tables by Adele
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Adele wrote this song for her second album ‘21’ after she’d experienced a situation of conflict with her ex-lover. It’s a moving and soulful pop ballad that makes great use of sparing instrumentation with the piano and a very light string section. It received almost unanimous praise from both critics and fans alike for Adele’s stellar vocal performance and the quality of the production.
When it comes to playing this on guitar, we are essentially taking the piano arrangement of the song and then outlining those chords using the guitar. But we also have a lot of freedom in how we choose to do this, some have tried to come up with specific strumming/picking patterns that accent the same notes and match the dynamics of that piano, but simply outlining those chords with a regular strumming pattern also works great too!
Counting Stars by OneRepublic
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A tremendously catchy tune that takes influence from pop to dance to funk. Taken from their third studio album ‘Native’, it is by far one of their most commercially successful, selling over 1 million copies in the UK alone. A lot of that success was also due to the accompanying music video which is currently sitting at 3.5 billion views on YouTube.
The song has a good mixture of instruments from clean electric and acoustic guitars to pianos, synthesizers, and drums. We’ll be focussing primarily on the fundamental chord progression in the key of Am which outlines the chords, Am, C, G, and F. The strumming pattern used for the song is a very simple alternating DuDuDuDu. You’ll also need a capo on the fourth fret of the guitar.
Umbrella by Rihanna
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One of those classic songs that really sticks in everyone’s minds from the 2000s which was a collaboration between Rihanna and popular rap artist Jay-Z, Who wrote the song along with his producers. Oddly enough they had originally written this song for Britanny Spears, but the label didn’t like it so it ended up getting picked up by Rihanna to massive commercial success, it’s even been covered by big bands such as OneRepublic and Taylor Swift.
Played in the key of Bm, in terms of guitar parts we’ll just be playing some fairly straightforward power chords. One thing to note is that during the chorus we’ll be playing an inversion of the power chord where the fifth is placed as the lowest note giving it a different kind of tonality.
Just Dance by Lady Gaga
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Lady Gaga’s debut album ‘The Fame’ is absolutely chocked full of catchy electropop tunes that have her signature unique quirkiness blended in. This was the lead single from that album and for her first single performed unbelievably well, selling over 10 million copies worldwide and really making her mark on the pop music scene right from the very beginning.
You can approach this song in one of two ways, the first is to outline the lead synth melody which requires just picking single notes on your top string, probably the easiest from a technical perspective but doesn’t really capture the feel of the song fully (especially if you are playing alone). So alternatively the video tab details a way to extend that guitar melody out into full chords which really helps fill out the missing voices of the chords and present a more complete picture.
Wrecking Ball by Miley Cyrus
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This is a song that shocked many people, Miley Cyrus has previously been associated with innocent, pop-esque songs thanks to her connection with Disney and her previous musical efforts. But this song showcased a mature and more adult side of her, which was obviously a good direction to follow as the song became her first number 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 and received numerous awards for its music at the MTV Music Awards.
It’s a primarily electronically driven track, but has a distinct minor chord progression we can outline using the guitar. The chord progression we’ll be following (in the key of D minor) is Dm, F, C, and A sharp sus2. We don’t need to do anything fancy with the strumming pattern, you can just play whatever feels comfortable and appropriate for you.
Wonderwall by Oasis
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Oasis left us with some of the most well-written, unapologetically catchy, and mature Britpop songs of the ’90s. Songwriter Noel Gallagher along with singer (and brother) Liam Gallagher had a very special knack for coming up with songs that resonated with their audience, which garnered them massive commercial success. Wonderwall in particular was one of their biggest singles which has been certified as quintuple platinum and was one of the first songs to reach 1 billion streams on the popular music platform Spotify.
Fundamentally we’re playing quite a simple chord progression that outlines Em, G, D, and A. But one thing that Oasis do very well is voice them in interesting ways to add a little bit more flair and personality while not going so far as to lose its catchiness. If you want to play it exactly like the original you can use the chord voicings Em7, G, Dsus4, and A7sus4.
Heart of Gold by Neil Young
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Aside from being one of Neil’s best-known tracks, this was written alongside a number of other acoustic songs which was the result of a back injury he suffered. Because he was unable to stand with the heavy electric guitar strapped to him he found himself leaning more towards the acoustic guitar which could be played while sitting. Released in 1971 from his album titled ‘Harvest’, it was ranked by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the greatest songs of all time.
Heavily rooted in the key of Em, we’ll be using the chords Em7, Em, C, D, and G. We’re playing large 5-6 string open chords for the majority of the song. But one thing Neil likes to do is add these small minor pentatonic inflections of mini riffs near the end of the bar to welcome the next one. So you’re jumping between strumming and single-note playing quite a lot in this song.
Horse With No Name by America
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America came out very strongly with their first-ever single. Which incidentally ended up being one of their most successful. Taken from their debut album simply titled ‘America’, it ended up being certified gold and topping the charts in multiple countries, including the United States. The band has said they were trying to capture the feel of a hot, dry desert that the famous painter Salvador Dali had portrayed in one of his paintings.
Written in the key of E minor, we’ll be outlining the progression just using our good old regular open chord shapes, no capo required. The chord progression is Em, D6/9, Em9, and Dmaj9. These might sound like quite complicated chord voicings but if you check the provided video lesson you’ll see quickly that it’s more like they were written through ‘exploration’ using the fingers rather than an intrinsic targeting of chords using high-level music theory.
Final thoughts on Popular Songs In Minor Keys On Guitar
Playing songs in minor keys on guitar can be a great way to add depth and emotion to your music.
With the right techniques and practice, you can master the art of playing in minor keys and bring out the full potential of your guitar.
Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced guitarist, these 30 popular songs in minor keys are sure to inspire you and take your playing to the next level.