Learn Thousands of Songs by Knowing These Top 4 Chord Progressions

author: beginnerguitarn date: 06/18/2013 category: for beginners
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Learn Thousands of Songs by Knowing These Top 4 Chord Progressions
This lesson is for beginning guitarists looking for an easy way to learn a lot of songs quickly. There are loads of exceptions to these guidelines, but we're not trying for a comprehensive collection of chord progressions here. Instead, we'll be using the 80/20 rule (the Pareto Principle - 20% of your work yields 80% of your results) and looking at the 4 most common chord progressions used in thousands of songs.

Once you have these basic progressions under your fingers, you'll find it simple to adapt them to one of the exceptions. Maybe a couple of the chords are flipped, or it starts in the middle.

Here's what we'll discuss:
  • The 4 chord progressions that will get you through thousands of songs;
  • I'll address common questions about this subject;
  • What to do with this information now that you have it;
  • The most common keys you should practice these progressions in;
  • Tips and ideas for songwriters.
I'll give you these progressions in Roman Numeral (or Nashville) format so they can be transposed to any key. The example chords will be for the key of C major.

The General Purpose Progression

In any key, the I, IV, and V chords (e.g. C, F, and G) are called the primary chords and they'll form the bulk of many progressions. So your first progression is any combination of those chords:

I IV - "Imagine" by John Lennon or "Everybody Talks" by Neon Trees.

I V - "The Gambler" by Kenny Rodgers or "Where Everybody Knows Your Name" from "Cheers."

I IV V I - "Basket Case" by Green Day or "You're Beautiful" by James Blunt.

I V IV I - "All the Small Things" by Blink-182 or "Born This Way" by Lady Gaga.

I IV I V I - A basic 12-bar blues.

The Pop Progression

This next chord progression is the most overused in all of pop music as evidenced by Axis of Awesome's video "4 Chords."

I V Vi IV (C G Am F) - "Time After Time" by Cyndi Lauper, "Someone Like You" by Adele, and countless other songs.

There is a common variation of this one that goes vi IV I V. It's exactly the same progression, but starting from the vi (Am) and going around the progression - "Complicated" by Avril Lavigne, "Grenade" by Bruno Mars or "What If God Was One of Us?" by Joan Osbourne.

The Jazz Progression

A zillion jazz standards are built around this progression:

ii V I (Dm G C) - "Satin Doll" by Duke Ellington or "Autumn Leaves" by everybody.

It's also seen in the pop world in songs like "Boyfriend" by Justin Bieber and parts of "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen. Never again will you see those two artists mentioned in the same sentence.

The 1950's Progression

This chord progression and its variant were well used in the 1940s and 1950s for both ballad and uptempo songs.

I vi ii V (C Am Dm G) - "Sherry" by the Four Seasons or "Fool on the Hill" by the Beatles.

I vi IV V (C Am F G) - "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen or "Poor Little Fool" by Ricky Nelson.

The only difference between these two progressions is the Dm (in the first) and the F (in the second). Dm and F share two of the same notes (F and A) making them common substitutions for one another.

Common Questions

Now that we've very brazenly narrowed down the last 100 years of popular music to four chord progressions, let me answer a few of your questions to put this in perspective:

Why do these progressions get used so often over other possibilities?

Because they work. That's not to say that every song written with these chord progressions is going to be a hit. But popular songwriting is a delicate balance of doing something that can be considered new and fresh, but still retaining a comfortable sound that gives the passive listener something comfortable and familiar to grab on to to pull them into the song.

How can two songs using the same common chord progression sound so different?

The chords are only one part of what makes a song. We have lots of other tools at our disposal to create different sounds with the same old ingredients, such as:
  • Playing in different keys - i.e. F major instead of C major.
  • Arrangement - Which instruments are being used playing which notes of the chord on which parts and how are they mixed in the recording?
  • Chord extensions - Adding 7ths, 9ths, 11ths, 13ths, and other alterations to a chord can give it a drastically different sound even if the root relationships are the same.
  • Rhythm - Listeners latch onto rhythms before anything else. So by changing up the groove, you can make old stuff sound new again.
  • Melody - There are countless melodies that can be played over a given chord progression, all making the song into something new. Though you'll often find periods in musical history where even melodies and rhythms get recycled a lot. (Like now.)
  • Lyrics - Above all, what really makes a listener connect with and love a song is the lyrics.

What To Do With This Information Now

Now that you know these basic chord progressions, you've got a shortcut to learning hundreds of songs. Go find any three songs right now here on UG and see which of these progressions they use.

As I mentioned, you will find loads of songs outside of these three progressions. However, it's usually just one more basic chord thrown in or changing the order of the chords. By getting your basic progressions down cold, you'll already have the moves under your fingers.

Here are three I grabbed at random:
  • "Cemetery Gates" by Pantera - vi I V IV - a flip on the second "'50s Progression."
  • "...Like Clockwork" by Queens of the Stone Age - vi I V ii - a variation on the "Pop Progression."
  • "Radioactive" by Imagine Dragons - ii IV I V - a flip and variation on the "Jazz Progression."

Which Keys Should You Practice These In?

The beauty of the Roman Numeral (or Nashville) system is that it's easy to transpose to whatever key you need. But again, in the interest of the 80/20 rule, focus on just the most common keys when practicing these progressions. Once you've got them down, the other keys (especially on guitar) will come very easily.

Practice in these 5 common and important keys: C, D, E, G, and A.

Tips And Ideas for Songwriters

As a songwriter, you have the choice of using these progressions or not. In my opinion, it comes down to where you want to challenge the listener. That often comes down to a balance between the lyrics and the music.

If you're writing lyrics that are going to be difficult for the listener to keep up with, but you need them to for the song to work, then maybe you want to use a simpler progression so they're not subconsciously trying to figure out what's going on musically at same time.

In a lot of my work, I write a ton of jokes and wordplay into the lyrics. Or maybe there's a really defined plot to the story you want them to follow along on. Or maybe you just have a really important message you want to get across. In those cases, I'll use a simpler chord progression that's easy to latch onto so the listener can focus on the lyrics instead.

If, however, you're writing a song where you want to music to take center stage, whether that be an instrumental piece or something with a lyric that's easy to comprehend, then you can go with a more challenging chord progression and musical arrangement.

Can you create a song with complex lyrics and complex music? Of course you can! You can do anything you want. See how your audience responds to it and go from there.

Now you've got the 4 most common chord progression, some sample song ideas, and the most common keys you should practice them in. When you have them down to the point where you're bored with them and desperately seeking out songs with more interesting progressions, congratulations! You're a better guitarist than when you started!

Also, there is one other concept that is really the best way to learn guitar and put me out of business.
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