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Common Chord Progressions

Common Chord Progressions

A progression is basically the chord series or the chords you choose to use and their order. If you’re just starting out, using some common chord progressions as your starting point can help get you past the blank page.

Here’s a trick to keep up your sleeve for when you start getting into theory a bit more.  All major scales follow the same pattern:  W-W-H-W-W-W-H where “W” is “Whole note” and “H” is a “Half note” – or “W2HW3H” as I like to remember it!

 

 

EZ Chord Sounds:

 

  • Major = upbeat, happy, solid
  • Minor = sad, mysterious or contemplative
  • Major Seventh = romantic, airy, jazzy – good to use as lifts to other parts of your song
  • Minor Seventh = sad, contemplative, mellow

 

The following are in one of the most common keys – C, and include:

Standard progression notation | the Nashville number system | chords written as letters.

Note: I’ve had to use “m” for minor, and “seventh” for the 7th chord in the Nashville number sequence. They would normally be written as “-” and “7” respectively in small type shifted up and right similar to a footnote notation.

And remember, to change the key, simply use the numbers to find the appropriate chord in the new key.

 

Common Chord Progressions

 

Playlist of Song Examples

 

I – IV  |  1 – 4  |  C – F

Just the I chord (tonic) and IV chord (subdominant) cycled over and over.

Lou Reed’s perspective on chords: “One chord is fine. Two chords is pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.”

Song Examples

 

I – V  |  1 – 5  |  C – G

Common folk/americana and popular music progression.

Song Examples

 

I – II – IV  |  1 – 2 – 4  |  C – D – G

Common folk/americana progressions.

Songwriter Harlan Howard once said “All you need to write a country song is three chords and the truth.”

 

I – IV – V  |  1 – 4 – 5  |  C – F – G

Most common chord progression in popular music, rock and roll and country.  Substituting a V7 for the last chord in the progression will increase the tension of the song.

Song Examples

 

I – IV – V – I  |  1 – 4 – 5 – 1  |  C – F – G – C

Building a progression is primarily about substitution.  Adding chords, changing to a seventh or diminished, etc.  But – more on that later.  This is an example of a substitution on the C-F-G progression.  Simply add the I to the end.

Song Examples

 

VI – IV – V  |  6m – 4 – 5  |  Am – F – G

Start on the 6!  Substitution of the I in a C-F-G progression with the VI adds variety and sets the tone for the verse or chorus you’re playing.

Song Examples

 

I – IV – I – V  |  1 – 4 – 1 – 5  |  C – F – C – G

Variation to the I-IV-V by adding an extra I chord.  Substitute a V7 for the V to add tension.

 

I – IV – V – IV  |  1 – 4 – 5 – 4  |  C – F – G – F

Ending on the IV chord creates a rolling effect when you start the progression over again with the I. Good for longer verses because the “stop” sound is reduced due to the repeating IV.

 

I – V – VIm – IV  |  1 – 5 – 6m – 4  |  C – G – Am – F

Another that ends the progression on the IV, giving you a soft stop before repeating. Good for longer verses.

 

I – IIm – IV – V  |  1 – 2m – 4 – 5  |  C – Dm – F – G

Has an upward movement sound as it grows to the V chord. Can also be played with a V7 substitution for the final V chord.

 

I – IIm – IV  |  1 – 2m – 4  |  C – Dm – F

This is a variation of the previous progression. With no V the stop is less pronounced, resulting in a rolling feel that sounds like it can go on forever.

 

I – IVm – IIm – V  |  1 – 4m – 2m – 5  |   C – Am – Dm – G

Predominant in the ’50s, it formed the basis for a large number of doo-wop and jazz songs.

 

I – VIm – IV – V  |  1 – 6m – 4 – 5  |  C – Am – F – G

Descending bass line in this progression made it extremely popular in early rock-and-roll songs. Can substitute a major VI for the minor, and a V7 for the V.

 

I – VIm – IIm – IV – V7  |  1 – 6m – 2m – 4 – 5 seventh  |  C – Am – Dm – F – G7

Rolling feeling in the middle of the progression due to the VI-II-IV chord structure.

 

I – VIm – IIm – V7 – IIM  |  1 – 6m – 2m – 5 seventh – 2m  |  C – Am – Dm – G7 – Dm

Adding a II chord between the V7 and the start of the cycle again with the I makes the progression sound a little smoother.

 

IV – I – IV – V  |  5 – 1 – 4 – 5  |  F – C – F – G

Another progression not starting on the I! Starting with the IV and ending on the V makes it feel a bit rolling and unresolved. To get out of the progression and end the song sounding more resolved (if used for the chorus), you can go back to the I.

 

BLUES:

 

I – IV – I – V7 – IV – I  |  1 – 4 – 5 seventh – 4 – 1  |   C – F – C – G7 – F – C

When talking about the blues you’ll hear “1-4-5” quick a bit.  But how does that work in a song?  This is a 12-bar blues progression which can be used with a number of variations.

 

CIRCLE OF FIFTHS:

 

I – VI – V – IV – III – II – I  |  1 – 6 – 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1  |  C – B – E – A – D – G – C

This one utilizes music theory and the wheel you always see with chords around a circle.  Avoiding all the theory for now, just know that these chords progress in a logical order.  The handy thing is, a circle of fifths progression can be created by simply choosing a chord on the wheel, then moving in either direction.  Then you simply use substitutions to add variety.

The descending fifths progression C-B-E-A-D-G-C above has two primary types: C-B7-E7-A7-D7-G7-C (dominant seventh) and C-Bm-E7-Am-Dm-G7-C.

Song Examples
  • Yesterday verse [Beatles – 1965]  (C-Bm-E7-Am-F-G7-C)
  • Through The Years verse [Kenny Rogers – 1982]  (C-Bm7-E7-Am7-Gm7-C7)

 





2 Comments

  1. Great info, but check the substitution of ii for I….

    Shouldn’t that be vi for I? May be a typo?

    • Hey Joyce – good catch! Thanks for dropping me a note. Also fixed the end of the sentence so it was a finished sentence!

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