Guitar chord progressions are the bread and butter of learning to play acoustic guitar. Whether you’re a beginner or someone more advanced on guitar, you’ll quickly find that all roads lead back to chord progressions.
But here’s the thing. Once you learn a few chord progressions, you’ll be able to play hundreds of well-known, catchy tunes – and write your own songs!
They’re key to determining the structure of a song. All other components, such as melody and rhythm, build on the chord progressions.
But, as you’ll discover, there are almost infinite chord progressions you can play.
So, where do you start?
There are just a few things you need to know about chord progressions that will massively speed up your ability to learn new songs, jam with other musicians, and write original tunes.
In this article, I’ll get you up to scratch on:
- What exactly a guitar chord progression is
- How to read a chord progression chart
- And then I’ll break down a few of the most common chord progressions
Read on and you’ll start to recognize some common chord progressions everywhere – including your favorite songs!
Let’s start at the beginning.
What Is a Chord Progression?
A chord progression is a sequence of chords played one after the other – it’s the order in which chords are played in a song.
Every song consists of chord progressions (unless for some reason the song only has one chord) – some of which are often repeated. They form the foundation of a song’s harmony.
As you might have already guessed, the number of different guitar chord progressions is endless, making it confusing to know where to start or to create your own.
But the good news is, there are plenty of easy, established guitar chord progressions that you can start learning immediately.
You’ll usually see chord progressions vary in difficulty depending on the genre of music. For example, rock, pop and even blues shuffles use fairly basic guitar chord progressions, whereas classical music and jazz are generally more complex.
Once you get familiar with a couple of the most popular chord progressions, you’ll quickly start hearing them in almost anything you listen to.
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How to Read Chord Progressions
There are a number of different ways that musicians visually express chord progressions.
One way is to simply write the chords and chord changes above the lyrics of the song. This has its merits, and it’s easiest for beginners. But as soon as you move onto more complex songs, changing the key of a song, or writing your own songs – keeping up with the chord progressions becomes tricky.
The second way is to use the Nashville Number System, a simplified method that replaces chords with numbers. The numbers correspond with notes of the scale, based on which key you’re playing in, and tell you whether a chord is major, minor, or any other variation.
This allows you to learn a song without having to rely on music theory and music sheets. If you know what a scale is, you can learn this system in minutes!
The Nashville Number System was devised with the main goal of making it quicker and easier for musicians to read music. It’s super flexible, so you can easily switch keys or pick up a new song by ear.
It’s also a secret code for songwriting, giving you a list of chords that sound good together in each key. You can play around with the tried-and-true progressions in this article, or come up with endless chord progressions using the chart below as a starting point.
The best thing about this system is that it is not dependent on keys, so there’s no need to label your chords with letter names.
This will all begin to make a lot more sense once you see some easy guitar chord progressions broken down below.
Nashville Number System Chart
If you want to have the Nashville Number System on hand, just download the above chart and either print it out or view it on a tablet. That way, you can have it right in front of you while you practice.
Common Acoustic Guitar Chord Progressions
There are a number of common chord progressions for guitar that will make your life easier as you start down your acoustic guitar journey.
By learning these chord progressions, you’re equipping yourself with an awesome musical arsenal to play a lot of popular songs and to start writing your own.
You might wonder how songs that use the same guitar chord progressions differ at all?
You can actually add some unique flare to a song just by changing up the melodies, tempo, and rhythms of the chords themselves.
But you won’t need to worry about any of that at this point. For now, let’s take a look at some of the most common chord progressions that many musicians have used.
1. The 50s Progression
Also known as the I-vi-IV-V or the 1-6-4-5 progression, the 50s progression is one of the most popular in Western music.
It’s common in many genres of music – especially rock, pop, R&B, and many ballads – but it’s best known for its use in 1950s doo-wap music. Since this chord progression is mostly made up of major chords like the G chord, it has a bright, uplifting feel to it.
To play this chord progression in the key of C, play the following chords: G, Em, C, and D.
Some popular songs written in the 1-6-4-5 chord progression include:
- “Stand By Me” by Ben E King
- “Beautiful Girls” by Sean Kingston
- “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston
2. The I-IV-V Chord Progression
The I-IV-V (or the 1-4-5) chord progression is synonymous with rock and roll and, more recently, modern pop. If you ever listened to “Red House” by Jimi Hendrix, you would have heard this bluesy progression laying the foundation underneath his incendiary solos.
To play this chord progression in the key of C, play the following chords: C, F, and G.
Some popular songs written in the 1-4-5 chord progression include:
- “Stir it Up” by Bob Marley
- “Johnny B Goode” by Chuck Berry
- “Twist and Shout” by The Beatles
3. The I-V-vi-IV Chord Progression
The I–V–vi–IV (or the 1-5-6-4) progression is one of the most popular and simplest chord progressions for guitar players. It’s most popular in Western pop music and has been used by some of the world’s biggest artists to write some really great songs. It actually uses the same chords as the 50s progression, but just at a different starting point.
To play this chord progression in the key of C, play the following chords: G, D, Em, C.
Some popular songs written in the 1-5-6-4 chord progression include:
- “Clean” by Taylor Swift
- “Dammit” by Blink182
- “Little Talks” by Of Monsters and Men
4. Eight Bar Blues
The eight-bar blues is a common blues chord progression that has more variation than its big brother, the twelve-bar blues. It’s found in a ton of folk, rock, and jazz songs, and is a really fun and easy chord progression to learn.
To play this chord progression in the key of C, play the following chords: G, Dm, F, G, Am.
If you want to learn more about the blues technique, start with Day 1 of the 5-Day Blues Challenge!
Some popular songs written using eight bar blues progressions include:
- “I Want a Little Girl” by T-Bone Walker
- “Great Balls of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis
- “It Hurts Me Too” by Tampa Red
These easy guitar chord progressions will give you an edge in learning new songs and understanding why the songs you love are so catchy. You’ll start listening out for them, and most importantly, playing them yourself!
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