Chord progressions are like drum patterns, bass lines, or basic rhythms; there are fewer of them than you think, and they can all be reused by any musician. While the melody to each song is often unique, the basic building blocks—the underlying chord progression—occur again and again across a wide range of songs. Because of this, if you know just a few common chord progressions you will be able to play thousands of songs.
With a firm grasp of the most popular chord progressions that occur again and again in music, your approach and understanding of the guitar, bass, or any instrument you play will grow exponentially. But to get there, we need to do it right, which means reminding ourselves of the building blocks that lead to these commonly used chord progressions. Yes, I’m talking about intervals and scales. We will try to keep this portion as simple as possible., I promised. (If you’ve got a firm grasp on theory and want to get straight to the progressions, just scroll down until you start seeing Roman numerals.)
In The Karate Kid, Mr. Miyagi initially trains Daniel with menial chores. Daniel is annoyed by this, but during his frustration Mr. Miyagi shows this repetition has given him the foundation he needs to learn self-defense. Training for anything else in life is no different, even music. So let’s touch on the basics we need to master our chord progressions, and then we’ll dive into the good stuff…
Let’s start as simple as possible, with nothing more than simple notes and the relationships they have with one another in western music. The distance (in semitones) between two notes is called an interval. The first interval is only one semitone like playing the E to F note. If you play it back and forth fast it sounds like the theme to Jaws.
If you haven’t trained your ears to hear intervals, it is definitely worth taking some time to do so, it will make your musical life much easier.
Here are the names of each interval for reference:
|Interval Name||# of Semitones Apart|
And here is the Circle of Fifths that you have probably seen hanging on at least one instructor’s wall—it’s always a handy reference to see the keys and which sharps or flats are present in each.
In standard guitar tuning (EADGBE) the guitar moves up in perfect fourth intervals; E-A, A-D, and D-G until it goes to the B. There it moves in a major third interval from G-B. That is the reason it can be a little awkward to visualize musical patterns on a guitar rather than a piano.
A bass is tuned in just fourths, a mandolin and violin in perfect fifths, and the ukulele has an odd reentrant tuning that gives it that unique sound. No matter what instrument you pick up, you should always know your intervals.
I know, I know…Scales
When we put intervals together, we form scales, and yes they can be boring to just play back and forth like you do when you’re first learning your instrument, but they’re important to master. Here is a basic chart of all the common scales—it’s a little pixelated but that’s the best we can find on the internet.
You can either use the Circle of Fifths to help find the scale of each key or you can use the step formula in the chart—music theory often has multiple paths to an answer.
If you are a songwriter, randomly picking a scale is a great creative trigger. And over time, with practice, scales will become second nature if they aren’t already.
After mastering scales, the next step is typically to learn the modes. Modes are simply different scales that depend on the scale degree you start on. The C major scale or Ionian mode is simply C D E F G A B. And the Dorian mode is D E F G A B C as it starts on the second degree or note of the scale.
If this is all new to you, remember, don’t get too annoyed with music theory. It is a lot to master, and it can sometimes be contradictory. Start small and build from there.
Assuming we’re all refreshed on our scales, it’s time to put them together to form chords.
Knowing your intervals and scales is important, as they will help you build better chords. Here is another handy chart that shows you most chord formulas.
To read the chart you simply use your scales and flatten (b) or raise (#) the note that it says. Again refer to your Circle of Fifths with these formulas and you can find any chord. Make sure to check your progress in a chord dictionary.
When you play a major chord made up of 1-3-5 you have an uplifting and strong sound. Change that 3 to a b3 and you get a minor chord that is sad or thoughtful. Now flatten or raise the 5 and notice how much tension it has.
Augmented and diminished chords are usually played sparingly and quickly as they long to resolve back to their tonic chord. The most important chords to learn are your major, minor, augmented, and diminished. From that point other chords are mostly just building on those.
After you have those basic triads memorized you can move on to extended chords.
Now you may notice a chord in the chart above called m(M7) or it can be notated as minMaj7, what?!? If you see a CminMaj7 it must be crazy hard right? No it is simply saying the 3rd note is flattened and the 7th stays the same. If you come across a chord that seems crazy like this, no matter how complicated it looks, just break it down note by note.
As you can see on the chord formulas there are many different 7th chords. These are essential in jazz, rock, blues, and most popular music. 9th and 13th chords are seen in funk and 6th chords were used by The Beatles and boogie woogie. Jimi Hendrix was such a huge fan of the E7#9 chord, they now call it the Hendrix chord (but The Beatles used it before him!).
And suspended chords are like major and minor chords, but they take the 3rd out and replace it with the 2nd or 4th. These sus chords are common in folk and rock music as they provide a rocking back and forth sound.
Chords can also come in different inversions, depending on the bass note. A C major can be C-E-G or E-G-C (first inversion) or G-C-E (second inversion). These provide alternate voicings with each different bass note and sometimes are used for easier guitar fingerings. They each sound slightly different.
And if you have ever seen a slash chord like C/B that means we have a B as a bass note instead of C. So the chord is made up of B-C-E-G. These slash chords are common in songs with descending basslines.
In a lot of guitar-oriented genres such as grunge, punk, or metal you will often see power chords. These aren’t technically chords as they are made up of just the 1 and 5 and another 1 at a higher octave. They lack the 3rd note that a normal major chord has, but because of this they will work regardless of whether a note should major or minor, since the fifth is almost always the same.
If you’re still building your chord vocabulary, the best way to learn your chords is to play a lot of songs you know. When you find a new chord, don’t look it up right away. Try to use these formulas and figure it out, then double-check yourself. You might come up with some interesting chord variations this way.
Now—finally—it’s time to talk chord progressions.
If you listened to any ear training videos on intervals you may have noticed a lot of songs share the same intervals. Obviously there are only so many possible intervals when using semitones, so musicians are bound to repeat one another often. The same goes with our chord sequences, there are only so many. And human ears have a tendency to like the same ones (as evidenced in the video below).
Before we start going over some of our major chord progressions we have another handy chart. The chart is set up in order like the Circle of Fifths allowing us easy transposing.
And here is a handy chart for transposing minor keys as well.
We should also talk briefly about the “Nashville Number System.” Back in the early Nashville studio days, a group of musicians decided to use numbers to quickly communicate chord progressions. This made it easier when they had to change a key on the fly to better suit a singer’s voice. So you may see chords labeled with Arabic or Roman numerals, the latter being easier to write for extended chords (as you will see). If you bring your guitar into the studio and your bandmates say we have a song in 1-4-5 in the key of E, you will know from the charts above the chords are E-A-B. Or a I-vi-IV-V in the key of C, that will be C-Am-F-G.
Practice different keys of the main chord progressions below, use the chart above for transposing. Pay attention to flattened or raised chords and majors vs minors. For example in the key of G a I-bVII-IV progression is G-F-C. While a vi-IV-V-I in the key of C would be Am-F-G-C.
For all the chord progressions below, we’ve included some song examples for each progression—sometimes tunes follow the same progression through the whole song, other times they use them briefly in one spot. Just like your intervals as you get used to hearing and playing them they will become easier to spot.
I-IV or 1-4
Why not start off with one of the most basic chord progressions of modern rock and pop, the simple 1-4. You have heard this in songs like these.
· Traffic – “Feelin Alright”
· Sly and the Family Stone – “Everyday People”
· Bruce Springsteen – “Born in the U.S.A”
· Wilson Pickett – “Midnight Hour”
In many cases songwriters will play this with 7th chords like Traffic above used C7-F7 (I7-IV7) throughout the entire tune of “Feelin’ Alright.” Sometimes songs with only two chords are hard to play as you need to keep an entertaining strum so the song isn’t monotonous.
Sometimes you will see a 1-4-4m (like C-F-Fm) used sparingly in songs, especially by The Beatles.
· Oasis – Don’t Look Back in Anger”
· The Beatles – “You Won’t See Me”
· The Beatles – “In My Life”
· Pink Floyd – “Nobody Home”
· Lil Wayne – “How to Love”
I-V or 1-5
Another common two chord progression that’s seen in folk, traditional, and even some modern pop. Again we will often see I-V7 as that has a little more tension than just the I-V.
· Chuck Berry – “You Never Can Tell”
· Lady Gaga – “A Yo”
· Bryan Adams – “Summer of 69”
· “Three Blind Mice”
And here also it is occasionally substituted as I-v.
· Santana – “Evil Ways”
· James Taylor – “Fire and Rain”
· Paramore – “The Only Exception”
I-i or 1-1m
An example of this would be the chords E-Em, in most cases it is used sparingly. And sometimes a verse is in the major, while the chorus starts on the minor or vice versa.
· Blackpink – “As If It’s Your Last”
· The Police – “Synchronicity II”
· The Beatles – “Norwegian Wood”
· Lipps Inc. – “Funkytown”
· Grassroots – “Temptation Eyes”
I-IV-V or 1-4-5
Here we have one of the most used chord progressions ever. There are so many songs using 1-4-5, you could write a few volumes worth. And often it is seen as I-IV-V7 as that V7 provides more tension which rock loves!
· Harry McClintock – “Big Rock Candy Mountain”
· Elvis Presley – “Teddy Bear”
· CCR – “Down on the Corner”
· John Lennon – “Imagine”
· Miley Cyrus – “7 Things”
Sometimes you will find the order a little shaken up like 1-4-1-5-1 which is usual for 12 bar blues songs.
· Howlin Wolf – “Sittin’ on Top of the World”
· Led Zeppelin – “Rock n Roll”
· BB King – “The Thrill is Gone”
· Jimi Hendrix – “Red House”
· Chuck Berry – “Maybellenne
And since this progression is so common you will see many extensions like the 7th added and the usual substitutions from major to minor. Songs like this using 1m-4m-5m or i-iv-v.
· Drake – “Get It Together”
· Alicia Keys – “Fallin”
· Justin Timberlake – “My Love”
· Dirty Vegas – “Days Go By”
· Santana – “Black Magic Woman”
I-V-vi-IV or 1-5-6m-4
Now this is a big one, it is the chord progression seen in the Axis of Awesome video above. There are a few variations of these four chords that encompass most modern pop, EDM, hip hop, rock, and nearly any genre you can think of. With I-V-vi-IV some main song examples are.
· Train – “Hey Soul Sister”
· The Beatles – “Let It Be”
· Bob Marley – “No Woman No Cry”
· Red Hot Chili Peppers – “Under the Bridge”
· Journey – “Don’t Stop Believin’”
If we change the order of these four chords to I-vi-IV-V, that is known as the doo wop progression as it was a staple of 50’s music.
· Boris Pickett – “Monster Mash”
· Sam Cooke – “Wonderful World”
· Justin Bieber – “Baby”
· The Penguins – “Earth Angel”
· ELO – “Telephone Line”
When played as IV-I-V-vi it really changes up the tension and resolution but with the same familiar chords. Songs using this order are these.
· Rhianna – “Umbrella”
· Jay Sean – “Down”
· Blackpink – “As If It’s Your Last”
· Taylor Swift – “Bad Blood”
· Imagine Dragons – “Whatever It Takes”
If we use the order I-IV-vi-V we also get many more famous tunes.
· Boston – “More Than a Feeling”
· Fine Young Cannibals – “She Drives Me Crazy”
· One Direction – “Kiss You”
· Pitbull – “Give Me Everything”
· The Lumineers – “Ho Hey”
And when we start with the minor or vi-IV-V-I we get a much more sensitive and introspective vibe.
· Scott McKenzie – “San Francisco”
· Iggy Pop – “The Passenger”
· Joan Osborne – “One of Us”
· Offspring – “Self Esteem”
· Avril Lavigne – “Complicated”
ii-V-I or 2m-5-1
Now just as the 1-4-5 is a staple of rock and the 1-5-6m-4 is big in pop music, the 2m-5-1 is the backbone of jazz music. It can be found in most iconic jazz tunes but often uses extended chords like Dmin7-Gmaj7-Cmaj7.
· Kosma and Prévert – “Autumn Leaves”
· Dan and Coley – “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight”
· Maroon 5 – “Sunday Morning”
· Duke Ellington – “Satin Doll”
· John Lewis – “Afternoon in Paris”
And just like the other chord progressions there are variations and common substitutions. We may see I-v-ii in songs like these.
· Coldplay – “Clocks”
· Future – “Mask Off”
· Maroon 5 – “One More Night”
· Man Overboard – “Again”
· Criolo – “Bogotá”
Or there may be a completely different substitution like replacing the V with a IV, so instead a I-ii-IV.
· Lou Reed – “Walk on the Wild Side”
· Bobby McFerrin – “Don’t Worry Be Happy”
· 4 Non Blondes – “What’s Up”
· Bee Gees – “To Love Somebody”
· Ben Folds Five – “Kate”
I-vi-ii-V or 1-6m-2m-5
When we add the vi to our jazz progression it only gets better. You will hear this progression often in jazz standards and in a lot of softer rock hits.
· Bruce Springsteen – “Hungry Heart”
· Harry Nillson – “Without You”
· Judy Garland – “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”
· Four Seasons – “Sherry”
· Arctic Monkeys – “Fluorescent Adolescent”
If you would rather use the minor iii instead of the ii you will find the I-vi-iii-V progression also is very useful.
· Elvis – “Can’t Help Falling in Love”
· Modest Mouse – “Float On”
· Bob Dylan – “All the Tired Horses”
· Taylor Swift – “Breathe”
· The Clash – “Train In Vain”
And we even see it as iii-vi-ii-V where we use all the minors to get a similar but slightly different song.
· Lorenz Hart – “My Funny Valentine”
· The Supremes – “Can’t Hurry Love”
· Queen – “Don’t Stop Me Now”
· Frank Sinatra – “Fly Me to the Moon”
· Kern & Hammerstein – “All the Things You Are”
A normal substitution of replacing the V with a IV gives us a progression like I-ii-iii-IV.
· The Beatles – “Here There Everywhere”
· Billy Joel – “Uptown Girl”
· Lana Del Rey – “Young and Beautiful”
· The Monkees – “Daydream Believer”
· Bill Withers – “Lean On Me”
I-IV-II-V or 1-4-2-5
This is often seen all with 7th chords as I7-IV7-II7-V7 and is known as the ragtime progression. But besides ragtime it is still seen in some modern hits.
· Arlo Guthrie – “Alice’s Restaurant”
· Roof Top Singers – “Walk Right In”
· Bruce Channel – “Hey Baby!”
· Howard & Emerson – “Hello! My Baby”
· Robert Johnson – “They’re Red Hot”
I-II-IV-I or 1-2-4-1
This is known as a Lydian progression because the notes in the chords come from the Lydian mode. Now that should make a little more sense, even if you don’t fully grasp modes yet. Here a major II is used instead of our normal minor ii.
· The Beatles – “Eight Days a Week”
· “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”
· Oasis – “All Around the World”
· Thin Lizzy – “Boys Are Back in Town”
· Blues Image – “Ride Captain Ride”
I-iii-IV-V or 1-3m-4-5
Instead of the normal vi we replace it with the iii and we get a nice classic rock progression. David Bowie used this in a few different songs.
· Elton John – “Crocodile Rock”
· David Bowie – “Ziggy Stardust”
· The Beach Boys – “Fun, Fun, Fun”
· Chad and Jeremy – “Summer Song”
· Berlin – “Take My Breath Away”
If you want to use the ii instead of the iii we can try the progression I-IV-ii-V with songs like this.
· The Beach Boys – “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”
· Puddle of Mudd – “She Hates Me”
· Traditional – “Jingle Bells”
· Bare Naked Ladies – “It’s All Been Done”
· Semisonic – “Closing Time”
I-III-IV-iv or 1-3-4-4m
Here we use a major III instead of a iii for a very different vibe. This progression has led to a few lawsuits between The Hollies, Radiohead, and Lana Del Rey as they all have similar melodies.
· The Hollies – “The Air That I Breathe”
· Radiohead – “Creep”
· Lana Del Rey – “Get Free”
· David Bowie – “Space Oddity”
· Steven Universe Theme
I-III-vi-IV or 1-3-6m-4
Here we have the basic and common I-V-vi-IV, but now the V has been replaced with a major III. Again a similar variation, but with a little different overall tone and vibe.
· Shawn Mendes – “Bad Reputation”
· Selena Gomez – “Do It”
· Katy Perry – “If We Ever Meet Again”
· Runaway – “Kanye West”
· Matthew Good – “A Long Way Down”
I-bIII-bVII-IV or 1-b3-b7-4
In your scale formulas earlier you may remember that the flattened 3rd and 7th notes were used in the blues scale. So it should stand to reason that chords made up of those notes will also work great in rock.
· INXS – “Need You Tonight”
· Paula Abdul – “Opposites Attract”
· Lenny Kravitz – “Fly Away”
· Julian Lennon – “Too Late For Goodbyes”
· Sonic Youth – “Dirty Boots”
More often you will see just the I-bVII-IV, especially in classic rock.
· Warren Zevon – “Werewolves of London”
· Lady Gaga – “Born This Way”
· Devo – “Whip It”
· Led Zeppelin – “Good Times Bad Times”
· Fleetwood Mac – “Don’t Stop”
Some have just the I-bIII-IV.
· Jimi Hendrix – “Purple Haze”
· Jimmy Neutron Theme
· Rush – “Fly By Night”
· Spice Girls – “Wannabe”
· The Beatles – “Back in the USSR”
And sometimes entire songs or simple verses are made up of just the I-bVII.
· The Drifters – “On Broadway”
· Jet – “Are You Gonna Be My Girl”
· Bonnie Tyler – “Total Eclipse of the Heart”
· Led Zeppelin – “Whole Lotta Love”
· Nirvana – “Come As You Are”
i-bVI-bVII or 1m-b6-b7
So far we are used to seeing the vi, but occasionally the major VI or flattened bVI is used in rock, pop, and alternative songs.
· The Raconteurs – “Steady As She Goes”
· Survivor – “Eye of the Tiger”
· Bob Dylan – “All Along the Watchtower”
· Death Cab for Cutie – “Soul Meets Body”
· Dire Straits – “Sultans of Swing”
i-bIII-bVI-V or 1m-b3-b6-5
This is a nice mix with both the major bIII and bVI substituted for our normal minors. It makes for some nice building tension in rock songs.
· The White Stripes – “Seven Nation Army”
· Fall Out Boy – “Dance, Dance”
· Gnarls Barkley – “Crazy”
· Nada Surf – “Blankest Year”
· U2 – “Sunday Bloody Sunday”
ii-bVII-I or 2m-b7-1
Now if you look closely at this you should be able to spot what it is a variation of; we replace the ii-V-I with ii-bVII-I. By now you should be noticing how these progressions repeat again and again with just slight variations.
· Phil Collins – “In the Air Tonight”
· Jimi Hendrix – “All Along the Watchtower”
· Justin Timberlake – “Cry Me a River”
· Nicki Minaj – “Moment 4 Life”
· Michael Jackson – “Beat It”
I-V-bVII-VI or 1-5-b7-6
And just as the jazz progression can be substituted with the bVII, so can the Axis of Awesome progression. Instead of the usual vi instead we have the bVII.
· TLC – “Waterfalls”
· Talking Heads – “And She Was”
· Bob Seger – “Like a Rock”
· Prince – “Let’s Go Crazy”
· Carole King – “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”
I-#Idim-ii-V or 1-#1dim-2m-5
Usually augmented and diminished chords are added into other chord progressions for tension. And here we can see a sharp diminished chord being added into a jazz progression variation. In the key of C this progression would read C-C#dim-Dm-G, but can vary slightly in songs.
· Howard Arlen – “Stormy Weather”
· Bobby Helms – “Jingle Bell Rock”
· Smith & Wheeler – “Sheik Of Araby”
· George Harrison – “My Sweet Lord”
· Styne & Cahn – “Let It Snow”
I-Iaug-I6-I7 or 1-1aug-1(6)-1(7)
Here we have a unique progression that all stays on the tonic chord but moves from augmented to the 6th and 7th. This chord sequence has a very uplifting feel to it!
· Whitney Houston – “Greatest Love of All”
· Stevie Wonder – “For Once in My Life”
· Arlen & Mercer – “Accentuate the Positive”
· John Lennon – “Starting Over”
· Captain & Tennille – “Love Will Keep Us Together”
I-V-vi-iii-IV-I-IV-V or 1-5-6m-3m-4-1-4-5
This long one is known as Pachelbel’s Canon and comes from his famous classical composition. You can see how this very old progression has heavily influenced our modern songs.
· Johann Pachelbel – “Canon in D”
· Traditional – “Greensleeves”
· Kylie Minogue – “I Should Be So Lucky”
· Green Day – “Basket Case”
· The Farm – “All Together Now”
i-V-i-bVII-bIII-bVII-i-V or 1m-5-1m-b7-b3-b7-1m-5
This is another long and old chord progression; in fact it is known as la Folia and is one of the oldest sequences in western music. Play it (Am-E7-Am-G-C-G-Am-E7-Am) and you will get a distinct medieval vibe.
· Tangerine Dream – “Force Majeure”
· Antonio Vivaldi – “Orlando Furioso”
· “Addams Family Values” soundtrack
· “1492” Soundtrack
· Vangelis – “Conquest of Paradise”
What to do with Chord Progressions
There are more chord progressions out there, but as you find them you will mostly see they are similar to what we have shown here—so you don’t have to learn too many to become fluent in 98% of chord progressions you’re likely to ever encounter.
If you plan on busking, playing in a coffee shop or bar, or joining a band; chord progressions are your best friend. When someone from the audience yells play “so and so” you and your band will likely know how, and if you’re just jamming, you’ll always be able to find a good starting place.
Scales and chord progressions are your bible if you want to be a great songwriter. By knowing the general feelings you get from different chords you will have a head start on writing great tunes.
Unfortunately when you know all these chord progressions it can make it seem like everything has been done and there are no new ideas. In a way there aren’t, the odds aren’t great that you will suddenly discover a new progression. But that’s ok, the average listener doesn’t have a clue that all doo wop songs are nearly the same chords. As long as you don’t copy melodies most people will not realize you are using tried and true formulas.
How to Practice
The first and most important thing to do is try playing all the song examples above and more. Look up each chord progression mentioned and try finding more songs. Some will be easier than the others. Some will follow the progression to a T while others make slight changes.
As you play new songs spot the keys and look to see what order the chords are in. Take the time to analyze your music. Don’t obsess, just work with what you know and your formulas.
Another great way to practice is to download a drum machine app or backing track software. Something with a lot of genres to choose from. Turn on the rhythm and pick a progression above. You can try different keys or use the one best for your voice. For example play some backing rock drums and start jamming on a key of C 1-4-5 like C-F-G. Now go back to your scale formulas and mix in the notes of a major scale. Experiment with other scales. That’s how you write great solos; find the right scale that fits and let loose.
As you get better at this, find more complicated chord progressions and also try some different inversions or slash chords. Get crazy and try maj7, min7, sus2, sus4, and other chords. Even if you still aren’t sure about a chord try it! (Tom Petty loved to mix sus chords in with 1-4-5 tunes!)
Finally, remember we’re talking about music here, so the rules can be followed or broken, but in the end all you have to worry about is what sounds good.