What Is Behind the 1-4-5 Rule?

Using the 1-4-5 rule to learn new songs by ear.

Ultimate Guitar
I've had several students ask me "What is behind the 1-4-5 rule?" For this, you have to understand how basic music theory works. "Ugh… what is with everyone trying to ram music theory down my throat? Just teach me how to play guitar!" Well, in this lesson, if you can't listen to a song on the radio, pick up your guitar, and start playing along, maybe guitar isn't for you. 

Everyone thinks learning to play guitar means to learn how to play chords first. While that's a good approach, how do you know where and when to use them? I teach scales first… especially the C scale seeing as it has no sharp or flats.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1

In the C scale, you have 7 notes: C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. If you consider these numbers from 1 - 7, C would be 1, D would be 2, and so on. Knowing the names of the notes in the scale, we can now develop chords by using the 1-3-5 method. To make a C major chord, you take C, E, and G (1-3-5 notes of the scale). If you take the 2-4-6 notes of the scale (D-F-A), you would get the D minor. Again, if you take the 3-5-7 notes (E-G-B), you would get the E minor chord. Continuing on, you would eventually end up with what is called the "C major chord progression."

How does this help with the 1-4-5 rule? Well, now that we have chords to play, we can actually play a song. How many songs do you know of that are purely solos or melodies? Not many, I'm sure. The 1-4-5 rule allows you to take the first, fourth, and fifth chord from a chord progression and make a song out of it. Don't believe me? Play the C chord, followed by the F chord, then the G chord. Almost sounds like "Twist and Shout," or "Labamba." Or, try playing G-F-C-G

While no songwriter really sits down and says "Okay… I need to use the 1-4-5 rule to write all my songs, and I'm in the key of C, so I need to use C, F, and G," it does form the basic building blocks of many songs you hear. 

What about minor progressions? It's the same thing. If you know the relative minor of C is A minor, you can figure out almost any song in the key of A minor. Your 1-4-5 would be A minor, D minor, and E minor. All the same chords as in the key of C. No, you do not need to stick with 1-4-5, but it will help you learn to play almost any song you can think of, or create your own.

I hope this helps. And remember: a little music theory goes a long way.

12 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Totally agree with this article. Basic theory is fundamental.
    Not a bad article. I have studied a bit of theory over the past few years and understand it well enough that I can execute it when I play. This actually gives me just a bit more information that will come in handy down the road!
    Whats behind the 1 4 5 rule is that all the notes in the scale are/can be harmonised with 1 4 5 chords. Scale: C D E F G A B C Chords: 1 5 1 4 1 4 5 1 Provides preposition of classical harmony until you want to mix it up dependent on the candences employed. Sing the scale up and down while playing the chords.
    An excellent suggestion. You don't have to sing well to sing along with the guitar while playing. The more you do this, the better you'll be able to tune into what you are playing.
    Half the songs I know how to play and solo on are all 1-4-5 setup it is quintessential that you understand this to play the blues
    This is true. In 12 bar blues, 1-4-5 is used widely. Consider the following: |A---|A---|A---|A---| |D---|D---|A---|A---| |E---|D---|A---|D---| The above example is one of MANY ways to play blues. Here, 1-4-5 is A-D-E.
    Ohhhhh. This is really helpful. Now I understand why not all chords can go with anything you just like. Most chords would be compatible when played if they are in 1-4-5 rule. Thanks
    Hey thanks. This helped me understand what I had read in an incomplete explanation.
    Some people believe music theory is too complex for beginner guitarists to understand. While that may be true, if done in small amounts, it could actually help them learn. This lesson did that. It takes a scale, breaks it down into chords, then teaches how the first, fourth, and fifth chords in any scale can be a basic foundation for many songs. Leaving out the music theory leaves you with an incomplete feeling. Glad I could help you better understand how music works so you can get more enjoyment out of playing the guitar.
    That kind of explains why the 4th and 5th notes are called "perfect 4th" and "perfect 5th" thanks!
    "if you can't listen to a song on the radio, pick up your guitar, and start playing along, maybe guitar isn't for you. " OR maybe you need to just practice more? Don't be discouraging.
    This doesn't explain 1-4-5 as far as I can tell! It says chords are formed from intervals of thirds (1-3-5) and shows how can then form a chord starting on any note of scale. All well and good. But what makes a progression of chords 1-4-5 so special? Why not any other combination of chords in that scale? Well actually you can do lots of other combinations of course but what makes 1-4-5 so common is it uses the 3 MAJOR chords of that scale. If you can be bothered to sit down and write out each chord for a scale you will see that there are only 3 major chords in a major scale (the 1 4 and 5). And you start on the 1 because it is the root of the scale and our ears kind of want to start (and end) there cos that's what we've heard so often