Basic Chord Progressions for Guitarists

Article Written By Jeff Moore

A chord progression is a series of chords, usually in a particular key, that move out, from, or back to the root chord.   And for the lawyers out there, you can have songs with single chords that use rhythmic variations to distinguish song sections rather than chord changes/progressions, so the simplest chord progression is a single chord.  There is no ‘maximum’ number of chords, though there is a limited number of possible chords numerically.   You generally don’t have more than a dozen different chords in a single song, but there are exceptions.  A chord progression is listed as a series of numbers - usually Roman numerals that indicate how far the chord is away from the tonic or root of the key.  Chord 1 or I is the root/home chord.  Chord V or 5 is the fifth tone.

in the example below, the 1 chord or home chord is major and there are 3 major chords, 3 minor chords, one diminished chord—one of the major chords is also dominant and can be played with the usual chord tones of the root, the third, and the fifth…add a flat 7th and you’ve got a dominant chord.   This is illustrated below.

I - Major

ii - Minor

iii - Minor

IV - Major

​V - Major this may also be V7​

vi - Minor

​vii - Diminished

Example : C Major progression I to vii:  C Dm Em F G Am Bdim

Some chord progressions from popular songs are listed below:

Awaken by DethKlok:   Verse i III VII

Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites by Skrillex : Pre-Chorus: VI VII i VII VI VII i VII

Living on a Prayer by Bon Jovi : Verse : i VI VII i

 

Chord progressions are used in popular music to define different musical sections.  Generally, the chord progression changes between verse and chorus, pre-chorus, or bridge.  You can use progressions that move away from the root to create non-resolving momentum or you can move back toward the root and resolve or rest.   For a popular song, a chord progression generally moves in multiples of 2 measures - 2-4-8-12 or 16 bars or measures.  A bar is a unit of time in a song.  It contains a number of beats that are played in a BPM or beat per minute.  A fast song might be 180 beats per minute.  A slow song might be 80.  The BPM can be misleading if the songwriter uses notes that subdivide the measure.  For example, a 50 BPM song can be very fast if the writer uses 64th or 128th notes….  We will not be using exceptions here and will stay with the conventions above for song speed.  Rather than make it complicated, think of a song as slow, medium, or fast. 

You can use this ‘expected’ length to surprise users on occasion by removing a bar or adding one.   For example if you have a chorus that is 16 bars/measures long, on one chorus you add an extra measure. This unexpected length surprises the listener and keeps them engaged in the song—the last thing you want is someone getting bored while listening to the song.  You can use the same effect by substituting a chord in a chord progression.    You can research which chords may be effective by experimenting or learning more about chord substitutions.  The Circle of 5ths is a great tool to find chords that are effective and substitutes for chords in your progressions.  A word of warning though….don’t try and surprise the listener too often.  You can turn people off quickly by over-using ‘surprise’ elements in a song. 

To continue, a chord progression is taken from the key of a song.  If a song is in a particular key (major), you use chords from that key to construct your chord progression.  Although there are only 7 tones in a key root to 7, then the octave, there are hundreds of chords and variations that can be used by guitarists to vary the type of chords in the progression from 2nd, 4th, sus, 13th, 9th, or other types of chords that ‘sound’ different.  You can get as complicated or keep it as simple as you’d like.  There are thousands of examples of both in popular music.  The tones comprising the chord are only one aspect of the equation.  Next you need to consider rhythmic variations that make your song distinctive.  Rhythmic variations, voicings, chord substitutions, inversions and other tools are why there are thousands of songs with the same chord progression that sound the same. 

When writing a song, pick a chord progression that fits the mood and theme of the song you are writing.  From that point, make the song distinctive using other variations discussed above.  The key to any great song is to make it yours.  A chord progression is one tool that you use to make a great song.  Good luck and keep writing!

 

Jeff Moore is a guitar instructor for Peak Music Lessons in the Capital District of New York.  He teaches guitar lessons in Latham, NY   and the lead composer of the band Dark Ballet.   Jeff is passionate about the fusion of guitar and voice in rock, metal and other forms of musical expression.