Few chords, no matter how pretty they sound in isolation, are played that way in actual songs. It’s much more common for songs to group several chords together into guitar chord progressions to develop an interesting sound. They’re part of the language of music, the proverbial sentences to the words that we know as individual chords.
These progressions are standardized and use chords you’re likely familiar with, so learning said basic progressions will grant you the ability to play along to songs you don’t yet know, jam with strangers, and take on some challenging gigs.
That is, if you’re able to pick up on the chord progressions themselves. We’ll start by teaching you a few of the most recognizable ones so you can begin training your fingers and your ears. With time, you’ll be able to recognize these progressions as soon as someone plays the first couple of chords.
The first thing you’ll need to remember is that for every chord progression, there is a “root note,” also known as the “tonic.” For the purposes of our lesson today, we’re going to use “C” as our root, exploring several chord progressions in this key.
You can apply the progressions themselves, however, to different keys by starting on the appropriate root note and using the correct relative chords.
Interestingly enough, this is part of the reasoning behind the Nashville Numbering System, which stresses recalling the relationships between chords rather than the chords themselves.
To make a long story short, many a Nashville session musician couldn’t read music in the traditional sense, so they developed a chord shorthand descended from the European chord notation of the 18th Century.
The system, now known as the Nashville Number System, uses seven harmonic chord degrees, represented by Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.).
While talking about our chord progressions today, we’ll stick to the traditional Roman Numerals, but keep in mind there are other ways of conveying this information, and you should be alarmed if you see chord progressions that look different than what you’re used to (like the Nashville System).
A simple way to think of your Roman Numerals is as follows. In any key, there are seven scale degrees, which are represented by the Roman Numerals. The chords associated with those scale degrees can be major or minor, so to depict major chords, we’ll use an uppercase Roman Numeral (I, II, III, IV, etc.), and to depict minor chords, we’ll use lowercase Roman Numerals (i, ii, iii, iv, etc.).
In some situations, some special symbols or notation may come into play, but we’ll deal with that on a case-by-case basis if necessary. The point is, your Roman Numerals tell you which chords you are playing (relative to the scale tones of a particular key). Let’s see how this all works with easy chord progressions in the key of C.
We’ll start things easy with the “one,” “four,” “five,” progression. This, and several of its variants, are sprinkled all throughout pop, funk, rock, and blues-style music.
The progression begins with the “one,” which, as you’ll recall, is going to be “C” for today:
After playing the “one,” you’ll move to the “four,” which, in this case, is an F Major Chord. The bar on your first fret will do:
And you’ll wrap this progression up with your “five,” a G Major Chord in this case:
You’ll find three-chord changes like this some of the most common in popular western music. You’ll also note that subtle variations on this formula are present in many a rock and blues tune, where alterations to some of the chords give rise to the blues harmonies that propelled the likes of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, The Beatles, and many other notables of the 50s and 60s to fame.
This is another cross-genre chord progression you’ll find when listening to artists throughout the ages. You might find those chords flipped in their order, or using a different starting position, but the sound of the “one,” “five,” “six,” “four” is unmistakable.
Here’s how you’ll do it in “C,” starting with your root:
Next comes the “five,” which you’ll recall is a G Major Chord:
Now we’ll switch things up with the “six,” an A Minor Chord:
Last is the “four,” your trusty F Major Chord:
You’ll hear this progression in pop-punk, in 50s rock songs, in numerous country tunes, and, in an altered form, you’ll be able to pick this progression out of pop songs like Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” and Rihanna’s “Umbrella.”
The “two,” “five,” “one,” is a staple of nearly every form of popular music, but you’ll often heard it mentioned when talking about jazz harmonies.
Instead of starting with the root, you’ll begin here with the “two,” a D Minor Chord:
Next comes the “five,” which will be a G Major Chord:
And finally, our “one,” the root, our C Major Chord:
If you are playing a jazz tune, you might notice that the “two” is a minor 7th chord and your “one” is a major 7th chord. It’s a subtle change, but makes a world of difference to the sound of this chord progression (and serves as a lesson in why the details matter when you’re playing music).
Now that we’ve introduced you to a few common chord progressions, you might also want to learn a few tips that will come in handy while you’re practicing these chord groupings. First off, remember to start slowly, memorize your transitions, then slowly speed up while you’re committing these to memory.
One thing that might help with both your memorization efforts and your practice in trying to switch from one chord in a progression to the next smoothly is learning how these chord progressions sound. If you can commit the sounds to heart, you’ll be more likely to recall them correctly during your practice sessions and when you’re on stage.
For example, if we wanted to play the I-IV-V progression in “G,” our “one” would become G Major which means our “four” would be C Major, and our “five” would be D Major. Alternatively, moving the ii-V-I progression to “G” would make the “two” A Minor, the “five” D Major, and the “one” G Major.
Keep those relationships between scale tones in mind, and you should be able to move your chord progressions to any key with success.
Lastly, since we’re on the guitar, you’ll want to consider all the options you have for playing chords. In some cases, an open chord will suit you best, in others a bar chord will work better. Practice thoroughly, and you’ll come to understand which situations call for which kind of chord.
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