Use and memorise these five most commonly used chord progressions to instantly make you’re playing sound more professional – here’s everything you need to know…
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When people think of chord progressions, especially if you’re not au fait with music theory, there’s always a slight yet palpable deflation somewhere in your soul.
Buzz Osbourne doesn’t care about chord progressions, or Kurt Cobain, and neither knows or knew music theory, so why the hell should you bother?
The main reasons?
- It makes song writing A LOT easier. And if you’re just getting started writing your own material, knowing what goes together – chord-wise – will save you a lot of potential headaches.
- Side bonus: it’ll also help you compose any additional music or backing tracks you want to go with your guitar parts.
- Mostly, though, the main reason you want to commit these common chord progressions into your mind is because they’re established, familiar.
- They’re things that peoples’ ears have been conditioned to listen out for for the best part of the past six decades or more.
It’s a formula, of course, but unlike a maths formula, it doesn’t have to be boring.
In fact, when I learned these, I found that it actually freed up my playing, helped me to become more experimental without descending into noodling oblivion.
So, learn these chord progressions, commit them to memory, and start writing EPIC songs…
The Most Commonly Used Chord Progressions In Rock Music
- I-IV-V: This is one of the most popular chord progressions in rock and is often used in 12 bar, blues-based rock songs. In the key of A, the chords would be A-D-E.
- I-V-vi-IV: This chord progression is also known as the “pop-punk” chord progression and has been used in many popular rock songs. In the key of C, the chords would be C-G-Am-F.
- ii-IV-V: This chord progression is commonly used in rock ballads and slow songs. In the key of G, the chords would be Am-C-D.
- vi-IV-I-V: This chord progression is commonly used in classic rock songs and has been used in many hit songs. In the key of E, the chords would be C-G-D-A.
- I-vi-IV-V: This chord progression is often used in power ballads and anthems. In the key of G, the chords would be G-Em-C-D.
Understanding Roman Numerals In Music Theory
And if you don’t understand roman numerals, don’t be intimated by their fusty-looking exterior; they’re actually pretty simple to get your head around once you spend a bit of time with them.
Here’s a quick breakdown of all the roman numerals you’ll need to know and their corresponding western numeral values:
- I – 1
- II – 2
- III – 3
- IV – 4
- V – 5
- VI – 6
- VII – 7
Popular Songs That Use These Chord Progressions
- “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry
- “Wild Thing” by The Troggs
- “La Bamba” by Ritchie Valens
- “Don’t Stop Believin'” by Journey
- “All the Small Things” by Blink-182
- “The Middle” by Jimmy Eat World
- “With or Without You” by U2
- “Iris” by Goo Goo Dolls
- “Chasing Cars” by Snow Patrol
- “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses
- “Living on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi
- “Don’t Stop” by Fleetwood Mac
- “Wonderwall” by Oasis
- “Every Breath You Take” by The Police
- “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King
Why Does Music Theory Use Roman Numerals?
In music, we use Roman numerals to talk about the different chords that we can use in a song.
- The I chord – also referred to as “The One Chord” – is the “home” chord; it’s the chord that makes us feel like we’ve come back to the beginning of the song. The One Chord is usually the “Tonic”.
- The IV chord is like a “happy” chord
- And the V chord is used to build intensity before something big – like a chorus – happens.
By using Roman numerals to talk about chords, we can understand how different songs are put together and why they sound the way they do, no matter what key they’re in.
So, once you know this, you can jam with a band and all you’ll need to know is the that you’re playing in G with a I-IV-V progression.
OK, it’s not that simple if you’re just learning but once you get your head around this concept, it completely demystifies the guitar, its positions, and song writing and jamming in general.
In fact, for a beginner player, I would say this is one of the most important things you can learn, especially if you plan on being in a band and writing your own music.
But Where Do These Roman Numerals Come From?
These numerals all represent positions that we call Intervals. We have talked about Intervals before in great length, so this is just a quick crash course.
The use of Intervals can be described as the numbered positions in a scale or chord that count their way up to the octave.
Intervals are just the tones and semi-tones from 1-7, reaching the octave. This is where octaves get their name from, they are the 8th numbered note in a scale and they are the same pitch/note as the Root/Tonic.
The “one” is the Root/Tonic, in both chord progressions and scales alike.
If we look at the C Major Scale, it is easy to see what the I-IV-V chord progression would be for a song in C Major.
All scales and chords are built by just adding or taking away interval positions/numbers. Adding “Flats” can change the Mode of the scale, or the “feel” of chords and scales from Major, to Minor.
There are no “Flats” in the C Major Scale, which is why it is such a great example. Let’s check out the Interval positions in the C Major Scale.
Using Intervals, you can always find these commonly used chord progressions that we have talked about today. ALL great songwriters know how this works, either by ear, or actually knowing the numbers by heart.
The interval numbers never change, no matter which note you choose as the Root/Tonic. The steps to get to the octave are always the same, no matter what the Root note may be!
Roman Numeral Interval Numbers Explained
- I (Root Note, or Tonic)
- Flat II
- Flat III
- IV (Perfect Fourth)
- Flat V
- Flat VI
- Octave (Root)
You can try it right now with your guitar! Pick a note for your Root/Tonic, and then find one of these common chord progressions that we have already discussed above.
The easiest one to start with is the I-IV-V progression that is used in all kinds of music. If we stick to C Major, you can see the progression would be C, F, and G.
- C Major: I (One)
- F Major: IV (Four)
- G Major: V (Five)
Intervals are some of the building blocks of music theory, and once you can identify them, building chord progressions on your own is very easy.
Knowing interval positions on the fretboard gives you the “recipe” for any type of song you wish to create. Those common progressions we mentioned above, are popular songs for a reason.
So it is easy to see how the fretboard Intervals are where the Roman numerals originate, when talking about these commonly used chord progressions.
Certain combinations sound familiar to your ear, which is why they are still used today, in every music genre.
Using Intervals to come up with chord progressions is exactly how you write a familiar, yet impactful song. Intervals are just the “language” of songwriting. If Intervals are “words” then a chord progression is a “sentence”.
Isn’t This All A Bit Formulaic?
Part of the attraction of playing the guitar is creating something, a riff, a lick, a breakdown that really cooks.
But when you start thinking about chord progressions and, god forbid, roman numerals, a lot of people start to get turned off.
But they REALLY shouldn’t.
As noted earlier, by learning these foundational chord progressions, you’re setting yourself up for life as a musician. Think of them as like a secret code for creating catchy, memorable songs.
All the greatest musicians and song writers worth their salt know them by heart. They also know when to use them to great effect.
And even if you’re into heavy music, these progressions are what will give your sound an iconic, authoritative sound.
Ghost is a great example of this: Tobias Forge LOVES a classic chord progression, and this is part of why the band has been so successful.
Tobias knows the notes and the order in which people like to hear things – even metal heads. This allows Tobias to write heavy riffs that also have a catchy “hook”.
So, next time you listen to your favorite band or artist and start getting depressed about how prolific they are, STOP and remember that, nine times outta ten, the secret sauce of their craft will be based around knowing these basic chord progressions.
And when you learn them, you’ll be able to do the same.
More importantly, you will be able to communicate with other PRO musicians. If someone tells you to play a I-IV-V chord progression in the Key of B, you will know exactly what they are talking about.
Not only that, but you will be able to use the roman numerals and Intervals as a weapon. You will be able to build any scale or chord that you want. That means total freedom when it comes to the fretboard!
You’ll be able to jam and create, almost in freeform, and you’ll have a renewed appreciation for composition and structure because, for the first time, you’ll have vacated noodlesville and progressed to actual song writing.
And There’s So Many Possible Combinations Too…
It’s also worth nothing that, while on the surface, these chord progressions might seem a little basic, the actual potential of what you can do with them is enormous. You can do A LOT with six strings…
For instance, let’s take the ii-IV-V chord progression as an example.
To calculate all the possible combinations of the ii-IV-V chord progression, we need to consider the different options for each chord.
- The ii chord can be any minor chord in the key, so there are 6 options in a major key and 7 options in a minor key.
- The IV chord can be any major chord in the key, so there are 7 options.
- The V chord can be any major or dominant chord in the key, so there are also 7 options.
Therefore, the total number of possible combinations of the ii-IV-V chord progression in a major key 294, and in a minor key it’s 343.
Not all of these combinations will sound good, of course, but I added this bit in at the end to show you that there are almost endless possibilities for chord selection and composition once you understand the basic of these chord progressions.
Learning a bit of music theory will not hurt your creativity, it will only enhance it over time.
And if you need more chord progression inspiration, check out these beautiful chord progressions for adding an extra bit of loveliness to your musical compositions.
RichardRichard has been playing guitar for over a decade and is a huge fan of metal, doom, sludge, and rock music in general – though mostly metal. Having played in bands and worked in studios since the early 2000s, Richard is a massive music production geek, a fan of minimalist recording techniques, and he really likes old-school guitars.
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