Everything You Need to Know About Rock Guitar Chord Progressions

everything-you-need-to-know-about-rock-guitar-chord-progressions

Seven Reasons Why a Rock Guitarist Should Learn Chord Progressions

  1. Knowing common chord progressions provides you with a roadmap through your musical genre.
  2. Knowing common chord progressions gives you a shortcut through basic music theory.
  3. Knowing common chord progressions prepares you for innovation and improvisation.
  4. everything-you-need-to-know-about-rock-guitar-chord-progressions
    The favorite chord progression of fifties rock-and-rollers like Buddy Holly was I — VI — IV — V.

    Knowing common chord progressions provides you the means of playing with other chording instruments, such as other stringed instruments as well as keyboards.

  5. Knowing rock chord progressions makes you rock better.
  6. Knowing the common chord progressions of all musical genres makes you that much more versatile and well-rounded a musician, which will open doors for you.
  7. Knowing common chord progressions by heart aids creativity by allowing you to internalize the technical stuff so you can focus on the art of playing.

What is a Chord Progression, and Why All the Roman Numerals?

If you don’t know already, a chord progression is the series of chords needed to accompany a melody. Sometimes there is no melody in a piece of music– there are just chords. This is cool too, but it still has to sound like music, which means that the chords have to come in an order that’s pleasing— or at least interesting— to the ear.

everything-you-need-to-know-about-rock-guitar-chord-progressions
The chord progression for Pachelbel’s Canon in D, I – V – VI – III – IV – I – IV – V, is surprisingly common in rock music. If you played the chords in D-major they would be D—A—Bmin—Fmin—G—D—G—A.)

In case this is all new to you, we refer to the series of chords in a particular key with Roman numerals. Thus, I is the first chord in the key, II is the second, III is the third, IV is the fourth, V is the fifth, VI is the sixth, and VII is the seventh.

Some of the chords are minor and some major. (The seventh chord of a major scale is diminished, but don’t worry your pretty head about that, because the seventh chord is rarely heard in rock progressions.) Exactly which chords are major or minor are different between major and minor keys.


The chords in a major scale are:

  • I 1st chord: major
  • II 2nd chord: minor
  • III 3rd chord: minor
  • IV 4th chord: major
  • V 5th chord: major
  • VI 6th chord: minor
  • VII 7th chord: diminished

In a minor scale the chords are:

  • I 1st chord: minor
  • II 2nd chord: diminished
  • III 3rd chord: major
  • IV 4th chord: minor
  • V 5th chord: minor
  • VI 6th chord: major
  • VII 7th chord: major

When we talk about a chord progression (for example V – IV – I, or, in C, G—F—C) we’re referring to the chords used for an eight-bar (for blues, 12-bar) musical phrase. To make a song you can either keep repeating the same progression, maybe adding a bridge of eight bars with a different progression, or you can use different progressions all through. In rock, it’s normal to mix the progressions up a bit.

everything-you-need-to-know-about-rock-guitar-chord-progressions
Marc Hirsh called VI-IV-I-V the “sensitive female chord progression,” because of its special sound and its use by female singer-songwriters. “Zombie” by the Cranberries is a case in point.

We know that when many guitar sites talk about chord progressions they refer to specific keys, but in this article series, we refer to the chord progression according to the chord’s position in its key, that is, like this: I-IV-V-I. In the key of D-major, for example, these chords would be D-G-A-D. In the key of D minor, they would be Dm-Gm-Am-Dm. In this way whichever chord progression we give you can be transposed into any key you choose. Even more important, you get a sense of the internal logic of music, which is often very mathematical.

(A word of caution: When you see a guitar site that tries to teach progressions just by giving you the chords without telling you what key you’re playing in, best move on. If not you’re in for a heap of confusion. Music is a system, and if you don’t have a basic idea how that system works, nothing will make sense.)

What is it about rock chord progressions that makes them so different?

The most basic and common chord progression in Western music is I, IV, V, I (e.g. C—F—G—C). Changing that basic progression is what makes certain musical genres stand out; it’s one of the elements that makes them what they are. And within a musical genre, you can “surprise” the ear by playing chords in an order that people aren’t used to hearing— something rock musicians have always loved doing.

Today we’re using “rock” as an umbrella term for all of rock music, including early rock, prog rock, indie, grunge, punk, and post-rock. We don’t have the time or space to go into progression specifics for the more than 200 rock subgenres, but if you discover something about their chord progressions we’d love it if you’d tell us in the comments section below!

Rock music from its beginnings has carried the stigma of being a simpler genre than jazz, but it’s not necessarily so. Jazz chords, melodies, and improvisations are certainly more complex, but jazz only has two basic chord progressions, whereas rock tends to allow for much greater variation in progressions. Rock composers, although they started out with the same chord progression as country music, have always toyed with chord progression innovations to help their music  “stand out from the crowd.” This is one thing that has kept the genre rich and vibrant for so long.

Some Common Rock Chord Progressions

I — VI — IV — V

This is the favorite progression of classic fifties rock and rollers.

(Example in C major:   C—Amin—F—G.)

I — IV—V—I

Found in traditional or country songs adapted for rock, this progression is a little too simple for rock’s addiction to the surprise effect. Still, there’s something timelessly appealing about this progression. (Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe” Tracey Chapman’s “Give Me One Good Reason”)

(In C major:  C—F—G—C. )

I – V – VI – III – IV – I – IV – V

This is the progression for Pachelbel’s Canon, a classical piece that has inspired many rock songwriters. Producer Pete Waterman says the Canon is “almost the godfather of pop music because we’ve all used that in our own ways for the past 30 years.” Kylie Minogue’s “I Should Be So Lucky,” which Waterman co-wrote, was based on this chord progression.

(In D major:   )

D—A—Bmin—Fmin—G—D—G—A

ii – I – V

Many of the more thoughtful songwriters use this progression to add an air of contemplative sadness to their compositions. (George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”)

(Example in C major:  Dmin—C—G. )

I–V–VI–IV

A bit of an odd duck, this progression is used in Adele’s “Someone Like You” and The Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden.”

(In C major:   )

I – I – I – I – IV – IV – I – I – V – V – IV – I

This is the classic twelve-bar blues progression, the same as it appears in jazz, but with a whole different sound because of the different style, technique, and rhythm with which it’s played in rock music.

(In E-major: E—E–E–E–A–A–E–E–B–A–E–E.)

II – IV – V

Great progression for an ominous sound in a minor key. (The Animals, “House of the Rising Son,” Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man”)

(Example in C major: Dmin—F—G.)

VI-IV-I-V

Columnist Marc Hirsh called this the “sensitive female chord progression.” (The Cranberries’ “Zombie,” Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face,” Green Day’s “Holiday”)

(Example in C major:  Amin—F—C—G.)

I – IV – V – IV

This offers a slight variation on the early fifties I-IV-V-I, one that adds an exciting dimension. (Richie Valens’s “La Bamba,” The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout”)

(Example in C major: C—F—G—F)

In the end . . .

The sooner you can make common chord progressions second nature, the sooner you can build on them to create your own unique sounds through composition and improvisation. So take it slow and easy, move into your creative zone, hold your axe like you love it, and get to work mastering these progressions. And be sure to keep your Uberchord app handy!