14 Common Guitar Chord Progressions

A chord progression is a series of chords with a specific tonality, or sound, relative to the tonic chord. When all of the chords belong to the same major or minor key, the progression is considered to be diatonic. If one or more chords fall outside the key, then the progression is considered to be non-diatonic.

Diatonic progressions are prevalent in popular music, and pop songs that do employ non-diatonic progressions usually feature only one or two chords that fall outside the key. The best genre for hearing non-diatonic progressions in action is jazz, which typically involves highly sophisticated non-diatonic chord changes. In this article, we’ll focus on both diatonic and non-diatonic chord progressions, with an emphasis on the former.

If we take the C major scale and build diatonic triads on top of each scale degree, we end up with the following chords:

The same concept applies to diatonic triads in minor keys. Here are the seven triads that are built from the A minor scale:

The same concept applies to seventh (and extended) chords. Here are the seven diatonic seventh chords that can be built from the notes of the C major scale:

And, just so we’re thorough, here are the seven diatonic seventh chords in the key of A minor:

The same concept applies to seventh (and extended) chords. Here are the seven diatonic seventh chords that can be built from the notes of the C major scale:

Again, the chords in both keys are exactly the same, only the sequence is different. By stacking one more 3rd on top of the triads of the two scales, we get two major seventh chords (Cmaj7 and Fmaj7), three minor seventh chords (Dm7, Em7, and Am7), one dominant seventh chord (G7), and one minor seventh flat-five chord (Bm7♭5). The sequences and chord qualities remain constant in any major or minor key.

Major Progressions

01. I – IV Progression

Our first progression, I – IV, is heard in popular music perhaps more than any other, whether it’s a simple two-chord sequence like the one we’ll study here, or as part of a larger three- or four-chord progression (which we’ll cover in a bit). The strong appeal of moving from the I (tonic) chord to the IV (sub-dominant) chord, or vice versa, is only surpassed by one other two-chord change, I to V (dominant). Moving from I to IV is the common change in the first few bars of a standard 12-bar blues progression, but it’s also found in practically every genre of music (see list below).

Examples in popular songs:

  • “Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen (Key of B)
  • “Boys ’Round Here” by Blake Shelton (Key of A)
  • “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash (Key of G)
  • “What I Got” by Sublime (Key of D)

02. I – V – IV Progression

Today, we’re going to introduce the V chord, the “other” major chord created by harmonizing the major scale, to the chord changes from yesterday, I – IV. Instead of just tacking the V chord onto the end of the progression (which is perfectly acceptable!), we’re going to split the I and IV chords to create a I – V – IV progression. Of course, this is just one of several ways these three chords can be arranged, but it’s a good starting point. Be sure to check out some of the songs listed below to hear how the progression can be used as the foundation for sections – or even entire songs.

Examples in popular songs:

  • “All the Small Things” by Blink-182 (Key of C)
  • “Baba O’Riley” by The Who (Key of F)
  • “Bad Moon Rising” by Creedence Clearwater Revival (Key of D)
  • “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” by Guns N’ Roses (Key of G)

03. I – vi – ii – V Progression

Today, we’re going to explore our first four-chord progression, I – vi – ii – V. As you’ve probably figured out by now, progressions come in varying lengths, but perhaps none more popular than the four-chord variety – there’s just something special about the symmetry and sound of playing four different chords over the course of two, four, or even eight bars.

This progression also includes another “first” for us: the inclusion of not only one, but two minor chords, vi and ii. The vi chord, or relative minor, is by far the most prevalent minor chord in major-key progressions, with the ii chord coming in second, albeit a distant second. The ii – V sequence is found all over jazz music, but is less common in pop and rock. Nevertheless, the I – vi – ii – V progression was frequently heard on the radio in the ’50s and ’60s, and, with a resurgence in retro sounds in pop music lately, we’ll no doubt hear more of it again soon.

Examples in popular songs:

  • “Back to You” by John Mayer (Key of A)
  • “Hungry Heart” by Bruce Springsteen (Key of C♯)
  • “Return to Sender” by Elvis Presley (Key of E♭) “We Belong Together” by Ritchie Valens (Key of F)

04. I – iii – vi – IV Progression

Of the three minor chords created by harmonizing the major scale (ii, iii, and vi), the iii chord gets the least action. But that’s not to say you won’t hear it on the radio. On the contrary, the iii chord makes frequent appearances on pop stations (see the list below), as well as country radio. When preceded by the I (tonic) chord, the iii chord lends the progression a distinctly moody feel.

Today, we’re going to explore the I – iii – vi – IV progression so we can hear this change firsthand. In addition to the I and iii chords, this set of changes also involves the relative minor (vi) and sub-dominant (IV) chords.

Examples in popular songs:

  • “Price Tag” by Jessie J (Key of F)
  • “Secrets” by OneRepublic (Key of D)
  • “Someone Like You” by Adele (Key of A)
  • “So What” by Pink (Key of A)
  • “We Can’t Stop” by Miley Cyrus (Key of E)

05. vi – V – IV – V Progression

If you’re thinking, “Hmm, I thought we were working on major progressions, but this one starts on a minor chord,” you’re probably not alone. Sometimes progressions (and songs) are not firmly rooted in a major or minor key. In fact, it’s not uncommon for a song’s verse to be written in a minor key but switch to the relative major for the chorus, or vice versa.

Here, the vi – V – IV – I progression starts with the relative minor (vi chord) but ends with the tonic (I chord). As long as the progression/song ultimately resolves to the I chord, and the song’s melody clearly resolves to the I chord’s tonic, then the progression is probably major. If, however, the progression circles back to the vi chord for resolution (and the melody ends on the tonic of the vi chord), then it’s likely a minor progression. In short: major progressions can start on minor chords, and vice versa.

Although you won’t hear the vi – V – IV – I progression as the foundation for entire verses or choruses as often as other sets of changes (the list below contains a few, however), it is great for resolving one section of a song while simultaneously creating anticipation for another (e.g., the chorus).

Examples in popular songs:

  • “All on Me” by Devin Dawson (Key of F)
  • “Laura Palmer” by Bastille (Key of A♭)
  • “Unsteady” by X Ambassadors (Key of D)

06. I – ♭VII – IV – I Progression

Known as the “classic rock” progression due to its popularity among hard rock groups in the ’70s and ’80s, I – ♭VII – IV – I remains a go-to progression for artists of all music genres to this day, including pop diva Lady Gaga, who scored a #1 smash with the progression (in the key of F♯) on her track “Born This Way.”

The I – ♭VII – IV – I progression is the first non-diatonic progression that we’ll explore. This set of changes contains just one non-diatonic chord (♭VII), but it doesn’t really sound “outside,” which is probably why so many artists gravitate to it. If you recall from the article’s intro, the seventh chord of the harmonized major scale is a diminished triad (viidim), a chord not often heard in popular music.

In the I – ♭VII – IV – I progression, a major triad played a whole step (two frets) below the tonic (I) chord is used in lieu of the diatonic diminished chord (which is only a half step from the tonic). For example, in the key of C, instead of C – Bdim – F – C, we’d play C – B♭ – F – C, a set of changes with a much more radio-friendly sound.

Examples in popular songs:

  • “I Can’t Explain” by The Who (Key of E)
  • “Nothin’ But a Good Time” by Poison (Key of A♭)
  • “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses (Key of D♭)
  • “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd (Key of D)

07. I – V – IV – iv Progression

Today, we’re going to tackle our second non-diatonic progression, I – V – IV – iv. The popularity of this progression exploded in the ’60s, when the Beatles began incorporating the changes – and variations of them – into their music. The first three chords – I, V, and IV – are diatonic to the major scale, but the final chord, iv, is not. This major IV to minor iv change (the latter of which is borrowed from the harmonized relative minor scale) gives the progression a unique, melancholic sound, which is great for resolving one section of a song and signaling the arrival of another.

Although we’ll be playing I – V – IV – iv here, you’ll often come across variations of this progression that start with chords other than I – V or simply feature a different order of the chords (such as some of the songs listed below), but what does remain consistent is the IV to iv change because those chords, in that order, gives the progression its character..

Examples in popular songs:

  • “Blackbird” by the Beatles (Key of F)
  • “Don’t Look Back in Anger” by Oasis (Key of C)
  • “In My Life” by The Beatles (Key of A)
  • “Nobody Home” by Pink Floyd (Key of C)
  • “Speechless” by Dan + Shay (key of C♯)
  • “Wake Me When September Ends” by Green Day (Key of G)

Minor Progressions

08. i – iv Progression

The i – iv progression is the minor-key version of the I – IV progression that we learned on Day 1. The distance between the roots of the two chords (a perfect 4th) is exactly the same, but now both voicings are minor (rather than major).

The minor i – iv is found in all styles of music, from pop and rock to jazz and reggae, either as a “standalone” progression or as part of a broader set of changes. For example, the chorus to Bob Marley’s classic “I Shot the Sheriff” is a straight i – iv in the key of G minor: Gm – Cm. Alternately, Justin Bieber’s pop hit “Boyfriend” is based on a four-chord progression that commences with the i-iv change: B♭m – E♭m – A♭ – D♭ (i – iv – VII – III in B♭ minor). And we can’t discuss the minor i – iv without specifically mentioning the blues because nearly every minor-key blues tune features the i – iv progression prominently.

Examples in popular songs:

  • “Bring Me to Life” by Evanescence (Key of E Minor)
  • “Since I’ve Been Loving You” by Led Zeppelin (Key of C Minor)
  • “The Thrill Is Gone” by B.B. King (Key of B Minor)
  • “Tin Pan Alley” by Stevie Ray Vaughan (Key of B Minor)

09. i – v – iv – i Progression

This progression, i – v – iv – i, is the minor version of the I – V – IV progression that we learned on Day 2. All of the root movement is the same, but now the chords are minor instead of major. Although you’ll hear these changes in all kinds of minor-key blues tunes, the i – v – iv – I progression doesn’t get nearly the airtime of its major counterpart. Nevertheless, these minor changes are important to get acclimated to in order to further develop your ear because, for most people, hearing major changes comes pretty naturally, whereas minor progression feel a bit more foreign.

Examples in popular songs:

  • “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers (Key of A Minor)
  • “Cake by the Ocean” by DNCE (Key of E Minor)

Most Minor-Key Blues Turnarounds (last four bars of the 12-bar song form)

10. i – VII – VI – VII Progression

After two days of playing nothing but minor chords, in this lesson, we’re going to work on a minor progression that incorporates two major chords, i – VII – VI – VII. What you may have noticed about this set of changes is that, after moving to the VI chord, the progression cycles back to the VII chord again. Up to this point, we haven’t encountered a progression that repeats one or more of its chords, but it’s something you should explore when building your own set of changes. Recycling changes in multi-chord progressions is common practice in all styles of music.

Examples in popular songs:

  • “All Along the Watchtower” by Bob Dylan (Key of C♯ Minor)
  • “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins (Key of D Minor)
  • “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele (Key of C Minor)
  • “Somebody That I Used to Know” by Gotye (Key of D Minor)
  • “Starboy” by The Weeknd (Key of A Minor)

11. i – VI – III – VII Progression

The i – VI – III – VII progression is used in just about every music genre – and perhaps to a greater degree than any other. Why? Well, because it sounds so good and just begs for a pop or rock hook to be written over the top of it!

Although we’re going to analyze this set of chord changes as a minor progression, with the relative minor functioning as the i chord, we could also perceive the harmony as being major, so the i chord would receive its relative-minor label, vi, resulting in a vi – IV – I – V progression (notice that the III chord of the minor progression is now the relative major, or I chord). Sometimes determining whether a progression is major or minor is impossible in isolation; it really depends on the overall tonality of the music, particularly what notes the melody begins and ends on.

Examples in popular songs:

  • “Apologize” by OneRepublic (Key of C Minor)
  • “Behind These Hazel Eyes” by Kelly Clarkson (Key of F♯ Minor)
  • “Numb” by Linkin Park (Key of F♯ Minor)
  • “Save Tonight” by Eagle-Eye Cherry (Key of A Minor)
  • “Self Esteem” by The Offspring (Key of A Minor)
  • “The Scientist” by Coldplay (Key of D Minor)
  • “Zombie” by The Cranberries (Key of E Minor)

12. VI – III – VII – i Progression

Our next progression, VI – III – VII – i, should look familiar because it’s the same progression that we learned yesterday, only we’re starting on the VI chord rather than the tonic (i). Like major progressions, minor changes don’t require us to start on the tonic chord; in fact, many popular minor progression start on chords other than the tonic. In yesterday’s progression, we started on the i chord and ended on the VII; here, we’re starting on the VI and ending on the i. This harmony, VI – III – VII – I, sounds great, so it’s no surprise that it’s a favorite among pop artists and songwriters (see list below).

Examples in popular songs:

  • “Bad Blood” by Taylor Swift (Key of E Minor)
  • “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever” by ZAYN and Taylor Swift (Key of A Minor)
  • “I Really Like You” by Carly Rae Jepsen (Key of D Minor)

13. i – III – IV – VI Progression

Up to this point, all of our minor progressions have been diatonic. Now, we’re going to turn our attention to our first non-diatonic minor progression, i – III – IV – VI. In this progression, only one of the four chords, the IV, falls outside the key; the other three chords are part of the same family. For example, in the key of A minor, Dm is the diatonic iv chord. Here, however, the uppercase “IV” indicates that the chord is major; therefore, our i – III – IV – VI progression would be played as Am – C – D – F, rather than Am – C – Dm – F.

Unless your radio is tuned to a classic rock station, you probably won’t hear the i-III- IV-VI progression in action very often, but it’s worthy of study nonetheless because of the iconic status of some of the songs that have used it, or at least variations of it. Two prime examples include The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” Let’s hear how this progression sounds in a half dozen of our own examples…

Examples in popular songs:

  • “House of the Rising Sun” by The Animals (Key of A Minor)
  • “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin (Key of A Minor)

14. i – VII – VI – V7 Progression

Our second non-diatonic minor progression, i – VII – VI – V7, hit its popularity peak in the ’60s and ’70s, and even found success well into the ’80s. The changes will no doubt sound familiar to you right away due to the string of massive hits to use them throughout the years.

What makes this progression non-diatonic is the use of a major (or dominant) V chord, which is minor in quality in a diatonic minor progression. However, many composers actually prefer the sound of the major V chord in a minor progression due to the presence of the leading tone. For example, in the key of A minor, the leading tone, G♯, is the 3rd of the major V chord, E (E-G♯-B), whereas the minor v chord’s 3rd is G natural. If you remember, the leading tone has a strong urge to resolve to the i chord – in this case, Am – which is a desirable sound in many compositions. However, the minor v chord, Em, and its minor 3rd chord tone (G), lack this inherent pull, but may still sound great in certain situation.

In this article, we created our minor progressions by harmonizing the natural minor scale, which is common and why the i – VII – VI – V7 is considered non-diatonic. But, if we constructed our minor progressions by harmonizing the harmonic minor scale, then this progression would be considered diatonic to that scale. It sounds confusing, but the only thing to concern yourself with is the fact that the v chord in minor progressions is often major (or dominant) in quality because it sounds great, even though theoretically it might not be part of the scale being used to construct the song.

Examples in popular songs:

  • “A Hazy Shade of Winter” by Simon & Garfunkel (Key of D Minor)
  • “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys (Key of E♭ Minor)
  • “Happy Together” by The Turtles (Key of F♯ Minor)
  • “Maneater” by Hall & Oates (Key of B Minor)
  • “Runaway” by Del Shannon (Key of B♭ Minor)
  • “Stray Cat Strut” by Stray Cats (Key of C Minor)
  • “Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits (Key of D Minor)

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