You’d imagine that when it comes to a complex topic such as chord progressions in music, there’d literally be millions of possible combinations. Well, there are, but when it comes to pop music, most pop songs rehash the same common chord progressions with maybe a different rhythm pattern, instrumental arrangement, or song structure.
So let’s take a look at five common chord progressions that will allow you to play hundreds (even thousands) of the most popular songs today. Practice these progressions in the five most common guitar keys, C, A, G, E, and D major.
The following chord progressions will be presented in roman numerals so it’d be easier use them in different keys. The chart at the end of this article shows the chords in each key.
THE CHORD PROGRESSIONS
1. I – V -VI – IV
This might be the most popular chord progression in western pop music. There is an actual mathematical explanation as to why it’s such a pleasant chord progression; the quick summary is that these four chords are opposites of each other: the V chord is the opposite of I, the vi is the opposite of V, and the IV is the opposite of vi. The contrast between them is what makes the progression sound so good.
Songs that use this chord progression include the verse of Let it Be by The Beatles, the entirety of No Woman No Cry by Bob Marley, the chorus of Love Someone by Justin Bieber, the verse and chorus of Love Story by Taylor Swift, the verse of Don’t Stop Believing by Journey, the verse of Hey Soul Sister by Train, the chorus of Someone Like You by Adele, the verse and chorus of Collide by Howie Day, and the list goes on and on.
2. I – IV – V
This chord progression may be considered the foundation of classic rock ‘n’ roll, modern rock, and pop music. It is extremely common in songs from the 60s to 70s and traces its roots all the way back to the blues. Playing these three chords in different variations will also give you some other common progressions. A good example is the 12 bar blues which goes I – I – I – I – IV – IV – I – I – V – IV – I – V. Another example is I – IV – V – IV which allows us to play songs like Louie Louie by Richard Berry, and Wild Thing by The Troggs.
An example of a song that uses the simple I – IV – V progression is the verse of Good Riddance by Green Day, and the entirety of Stir it Up by Bob Marley. Take some time to play around with these three chords and you’d be surprised by how many songs you can play by simply rearranging the order of the progression.
3. I – VI – IV – V
This chord progression is also known as the 50s progression because, as its name implies, it was very popular in the 50s. Its rise is associated with the mainstream popularity of the doo-wop genre at the time.
Popular songs that use this progression include the entirety of Stand By Me by Ben E. King, the verse of (All day long they work so hard…) Chain Gang by Sam Cooke, and the verse of (Oh, my love, my darling…) Unchained Melody made popular by The Righteous Brothers. Many modern pop songs also use the 50s progression; examples include the entirety of Beautiful Girls by Sean Kingston, the chorus of What About Now by Daughtry, and funnily enough, the entirety of Friday by Rebecca Black.
4. VI – IV – I – V
Beginning with a minor chord, this progression tends to sound darker or sadder than the other four progressions.
Examples of songs that use this progression include the entirety of Cheap Thrills by Sia, the chorus of Africa by Toto, the entirety of Apologize by OneRepublic, the verse and chorus of Zombie by The Cranberries, and the chorus of Numb by Linkin Park.
5. I – IV – VI – V
Notice how this example is very similar to progression number 4; the only difference is the I and vi chords are switched around. What you’ll end up with is a similar sounding chord progression, just not as sad as progression number 4 as this last progression begins with a major chord.
Examples include the verse and chorus of Say by John Mayer, the entirety of Magic by B.O.B, the entirety of Escape by Enrique Iglesias, the verse and chorus of Good Life by OneRepublic, and the intro riff of Hit Me With Your Best Shot by Pat Benatar.
Many of these songs don’t just use the same four or five chords over the entire song. Most of the time, they’d use a combination of different chord progressions for the different sections of the song (verse, prechorus, chorus, etc.), but there’s a good chance that each of the sections uses one of the five common chord progressions.
HOW MANY CHORDS DO I HAVE TO PRACTICE?
You may have noticed by now that all of these chord progressions really only use a different combination of four chords – the I, IV, V, and vi chord.
This means that if you learn these four chords in the five most common guitar keys (C, A, G, E, D), you’d be ready to play a huge number of songs. You really only have to learn 12 chords, as every key shares some chords with the others.
My suggestion is to start with the key of G, as that’s the easiest key to play in, and then work your way through the keys of A, C, D, and finally, E.
USING THE CAPO TO CHANGE KEYS
Now, what if a song isn’t in one of the common guitar keys?
Well, that’s where your trusty capo will help you out.
All you’ll need to do is pick the nearest common guitar key in relation to the key of the song, and then use the capo to move those chords up to get to your target key.
Take note that the capo can only move the key up, and not down. So for example, if the song you’re trying to play is in the key of B major, you’d use your chords from the key of A instead of C.
The next question is, which fret should you place your capo on?
Using the example from above, if we’re going to move our A major chords into a B major song, we need to see how many steps B is away from A. In this case, it is a whole step away, which is two frets on the guitar.
So you’d put the capo on the second fret, and, by using the same chords, you’ll be playing in the key of B.
Use the following diagram to calculate how many steps each note is away from each other:
A – B ^ C – D – E ^ F – G – A
– is a whole step, meaning 2 frets away
^ is a half step, meaning 1 fret away
It really isn’t that difficult to learn how to play pop music on the guitar. As I’ve pointed out, pop songwriters these days don’t really use that many different chord progressions.
With these five chord progressions, you’ll be able to play enough songs to last you a lifetime. These progressions also show up occasionally in other genres of music, so keep an ear out for them in your journey as an aspiring musician.
Remember, start off with the key of G, then A, C, D, and E. For those of you having trouble with playing the chord changes, check the video above. I will demonstrate some tips you can use to make them a lot easier.
More About the Teacher
Ze first began his journey playing original music and top 40s pop tunes around the country's popular venues. Eventually, through the music of John Mayer, he found a strong attraction to blues music. Ze has years of experience teaching beginners and intermediate guitarists. Currently with Liberty Park Music he is teaching Introduction to Guitar Playing for Complete Beginners, Rhythm Guitar to learn about strumming, chords and more, Guitar Essentials as a fast-track review course, and lots of Song Lessons on pop and rock hits.