5 Best Guitar Chord Progressions (Quick & Simple)

Many things besides individual chords and single notes make up pieces of music, like guitar chord progressions. Composers use these progressions to put guitar chords together into the songs you play.

We’re getting into music theory, but it’s important because that will help you better understand the music you play. 

First, Explaining the Use of Roman Numerals

When talking about guitar chord progressions, you’ll see Roman numerals like “I, IV, V.” Those are the numbers for the chord functions, which correspond to the steps in a scale, so they don’t change even if your key changes.

Think about it this way: Regardless of the key you’re in, step 1 is always step 1, step 2 is always step 2, etc. 

If you’re playing in the key of C, then the notes of the scale you’re using are C, D, E, F, G, A, B. In steps, that’s one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, and the Roman numerals correspond to that like this:

  • C (1) = I
  • D (2) = ii
  • E (3) = iii
  • F (4) = IV
  • G (5) = V
  • A (6) = vi
  • B (7) = viiº 

Wait a second. Why are some capitalized and others aren’t? Each of these notes has a chord attached that corresponds with the notes in the given. C is C, E, G, a major chord, so it gets a capitalized numeral. However, the very next chord is D minor. That’s why it’s got lower-case numerals. 

In short, major chords get capitalized numerals, and minor chords get lower-case numerals.

Okay, so, what’s up with the B chord? B minor is B, D, F#, but there no F# in C. The seventh chord function in major keys is always a diminished triad – in this case, B, D, F. 

You’ll see these Roman numerals everywhere throughout this article, which will ideally reinforce the theory behind these guitar chord progressions and help you develop more substantial knowledge and understanding.

Chord Function Names

You’ll also see names for each chord function. In C major, they go like this:

  • C = Tonic
  • D = Supertonic
  • E = Mediant
  • F = Subdominant
  • G = Dominant
  • A = Submediant
  • B = Subtonic

These, too, stay the same regardless of what key you’re in. So, if you’re playing in G instead of C, the function names are:

  • G = Tonic
  • A = Supertonic
  • B = Mediant
  • C = Subdominant
  • D = Dominant
  • E = Submediant
  • F# = Subtonic

As you can see, the names of each function don’t change from key to key. No matter what key you’re in, step 1 (I) will always be called tonic, step 4 (IV) will always be the subdominant, step 5 (V) will always be the dominant, etc. 

They’re called chord functions because of the way they work and how they’re used in each key. 

The Five Best Quick & Simple Guitar Chord Progressions

There are five simple, fundamental guitar chord progressions you should know to understand and play guitar music. Each one of these serves a different purpose, and each of them is essential to your education. 

1. Blues Progression (I, IV, V)

The I, IV, V chord progression is one of the simplest and most common chord progressions across all musical genres. When it comes to the guitar, it’s known as the “blues progression” because blues music makes heavy use of it.

No matter what key you’re playing in, this progression is “tonic, subdominant, dominant.” So if you’re playing in C major, this chord progression goes like this:

  • C major (I)
  • F major (IV)
  • G major chord (V)

From there, you can go back to C major and usually will. Occasionally, you’ll go from G major (V) to A minor (vi), but it’s more common to go back to C. 

A 12-bar blues progression uses only the I, IV, V chords and does so over the course of 12 measures, or bars. So, in, C, it goes like this:

  • First set of four measures: C, C, C, C (I, I, I, I)
  • Second set of four measures: F, F, C, C, (IV, IV, I, I)
  • Third set of four measures: G, F, C, G (V, IV, I, V)

This pattern repeats itself over the course of the entire song, so you might see it ten times or more, depending on how long the song is.

Why Is This Progression so Popular?

These three chords are the most fundamental chords in major keys because they’re the brightest and most upbeat chords. But perhaps the most important thing is that they create the tension, resolution, and a sense of completion that makes music so satisfying. 

By contrast, minor keys (in which the subdominant, or IV, chord is minor) have a far mellower and sadder sound. They evoke entirely different emotions than major keys because that chord is minor.

Songs That Use the Blues Progression

Since this progression is so standard, you’ll play it across a wide variety of musical genres, including classical guitar. However, it’s pretty ubiquitous across the blues genre (and every other genre), which is why it’s called the “blues progression.” Songs that use it include:

2. Singer/Songwriter Progression (I, V, vi, IV)

While this progression began popping up in 1950s music, it didn’t become especially popular until the 1990s. It has an edgier sound than the I, IV, V progression, which tracks with the changing sounds of popular music in the 1990s.

If you’re playing in C major, the chords you’ll play are:

  • C major (I)
  • G major (V)
  • A minor (vi)
  • F major (IV)

This progression is also popular across other genres, along with variations like vi, IV, V, I, which would be the following chords:

  • A minor (vi)
  • F major (IV)
  • G major (V)
  • C major (I)

That variation has a more pessimistic tone to it and is excellent for evoking a troubled feeling. There are other variations on this progression as well.

Why Is This Progression so Popular?

Music and math go hand-in-hand, and oddly enough, there’s a mathematical explanation for why the I, V, vi, IV progression is so pleasing to the ear. The chord functions are opposites of each other, and in math, opposites balance each other out:

  • The V (dominant) chord is the opposite of the I (tonic) chord
  • The vi (submediant) chord is the opposite of the V (dominant) chord
  • The IV (subdominant) chord is the opposite of the vi (submediant) chord

That balance is why this chord progression is so absolutely pleasing to your ears.

Songs That Use the Singer/Songwriter Progression

As one of the most aurally pleasing progressions in music, you’ll see this in many places, particularly more recent pop:

The chorus from Adele’s “Someone Like You” also uses this progression. 

3. 50s Progression (I, vi, IV V)

The 50s chord progression uses the same chords as the singer/songwriter progression, but in a different order. The difference between the 50s progression and variations on the singer/songwriter progression is that you always play these chords in this order no matter what your starting point is.

Going back as far as Mozart, you can hear the I, vi, IV, V progression in so much music that you must understand it separately, especially if you’re interested in learning classical music on your guitar.

It’s most prevalent in what’s known as “doo-wop” music, which was one of the most popular genres during the 1950s.

To play this progression in C, you’ll play the following chords:

  • C major (I)
  • A minor (vi)
  • F major (IV)
  • G major (V)

Why Is This Progression so Popular?

Unlike the I, IV, V progression, which is bright, upbeat, and has a very predictable resolution, this progression adds brightness but less predictability because it doesn’t have the same symmetry as the I, IV, V progression, among others. 

The A minor chord (vi) in this progression is sometimes known as the “sad twin” of the I, IV, V progression because you can add a bit of a troubled sound to a standard major key chord progression. 

Songs That Use the 50s Progression

Even though this progression became quite popular in the 1950s, it’s still prevalent today. You can hear it in songs like these:

Some more modern music using the 50s progression includes:

4. Jazz Progression (ii, V, I)

Are you interested in playing simple jazz guitar songs? The ii, V, I chord progression is the most essential of guitar chord progressions you’ll learn for that. Its primary purpose is as a building block for the things you hear in jazz.

This particular progression happens so often in jazz music that our brains recognize it as part of a pattern. Because of that, we can identify the pattern on some level even when it’s undergone an alteration. There’s predictability there, but it’s not so strong that the music gets boring.

In C major, this progression uses the following chords:

  • D minor (ii)
  • G major (V)
  • C major (I)

Why Is This Progression so Popular?

You can find the jazz progression across many different musical genres, but it’s essential in jazz harmony. This particular chord progression serves two functions: One is as a passing chord bridging two diatonic chords, while the other is to create a strong sense of heading towards a goal. In this case, the goal is to reach the tonic chord (C major) if you’re playing in C.

Also, the jazz progression can “tonicize” another chord. To put it another way, you can use it in keys besides C major, and it’s strong enough that the passage you’re playing doesn’t have to resolve to the C major chord.

Songs That Use the Jazz Progression

Because this is a crucial jazz progression, you’ll hear it in jazz music like:

You can hear it in some more modern music, like Maroon 5’s “Sunday Morning.” Still, it’s far more difficult to find because modern music, mainly pop and rock, prefer other chord progressions to the ii, IV, V progression.

Pachelbel’s Progression (I, V, IV, iii)

This progression is called Pachelbel’s progression because Pachelbel popularized it with his famous “Canon in D.” You’ll most often see this progression in classical music, so it’s excellent if you want to learn classical guitar arrangements. 

However, it has exerted a powerful influence on modern pop music, and you can hear it across many different genres. 

The I, V, vi, iii progression is a shortened version of the full Pachelbel’s progression, which is I, V, VI, iii, IV, I, IV, V. Since we’re looking at popular music using this progression, we’ll stick to the shortened version. In the C, the chords you’ll play are:

  • C major (I)
  • G major (V)
  • F major (IV)
  • E minor (iii)

Why Is This Progression so Popular?

This progression works so well because of the descending fourths in the bass line of “Canon in D.” It’s a logical pattern, and our brains love logical patterns, so our ears love this progression. 

“Canon in D” has exerted a significant influence on modern music. Many songwriters and composers use this progression either as a base for their music or as inspiration for a song. The progression itself is versatile – you can use the shortened version and go in a completely different direction from the entire progression. 

In 2002, it gained new vitality when producer Pete Waterman called “Canon in D” “The godfather of music.” Comedian Rob Paravonian added to that in 2006 with a show he did at Penn State University called “Pachelbel Rant.” 

Songs That Use Pachelbel’s Progression

When you’re learning and playing guitar, just learning chords by themselves isn’t enough. Knowing how music gets put together helps you understand what you’re learning a bit better. 

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