If you’ve spent much time on YouTube, you’re probably familiar with the Axis of Awesome. For the uninitiated, the Axis of Awesome performs snippets of almost 50 songs in under 6 minutes using the same 4 chord progression. The video is super fun, and it creatively shows off an open secret that professional musicians have known about for decades.
Essentially, most popular songs are based on just a handful of guitar chord progressions. Sometimes the chords are modified (adding a 7th or 9th for example), played in a different order, or using different instruments and grooves, so to the untrained ear it may be hard to detect the same underlying chord structure. However, once you understand how the most common chord progressions work, it will open the door for you to play thousands of songs easily.
Basic Guitar Chords
If you’re just getting started on the guitar, you’ll want to learn a few basic chords. The guitar chord charts above show five of the most common open chords. Open chords are chords where some of the strings are played “open”, without holding down any of the frets.
To read the chord charts, imagine that the top line of the chart is the nut, where the neck of the guitar meets the headstock. Each of the six vertical lines represents a guitar string, with the low E string at the far left and high E at the far right. Each horizontal line represents a fret. The numbers along the bottom of the chart let you know which finger on your left hand should fret each string. Your left hand fingers are numbered one through four, starting with your index finger.
For example, to play the A chord as pictured above, hold down the D string with your middle finger on the second fret, the G string with your ring finger on the second fret, and the B string with your pinkie finger on the second fret. Now, strum from the A string down. The X at the top of the diagram indicates that you should not strum the low E string.
What is a Chord Progression?
A chord progression is a pattern of usually three or four chords that is repeated throughout a song. Some songs might use a couple of different chord progressions, switching back and forth for the verse and the chorus. You might find other songs that use a single chord progression the whole way through.
The Nashville Number System
Many musicians use what is called the Nashville system to talk about chord progressions. For an example, we’ll look at the common chord progression C-F-G, also known as I-IV-V in C.
On the Nashville number system, each note in the scale is given a number one through seven, written as a Roman numeral. The root note of the scale is I. For the example, C-F-G, C is I, the root note. F is the fourth note in the scale, IV, and G is the fifth, V.
The Nashville system encourages musicians to focus more on the relationships between notes rather than the notes themselves. This is particularly helpful if you are playing with a singer or another musician and they ask you to change the key you are playing. Rather than scrambling to transpose the song, using your familiarity with the relationships between notes you can quickly and easily switch keys.
I-IV-V Chord Progressions
The I-IV-V chord progression forms the foundations of countless classic songs and contemporary favorites. According to Ultimate Guitar, the I-IV-V progression, with slight variations, can be used to play the following songs:
I-IV – “Imagine” by John Lennon or “Everybody Talks” by Neon Trees.
I-V – “The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers or “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” from “Cheers.”
I-IV-V-I – “Basket Case” by Green Day or “You’re Beautiful” by James Blunt.
I-V-IV-I – “All the Small Things” by Blink-182 or “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga.
Common chord progressions like G-C-D, A-D-E, and E-A-B are examples of the I-IV-V chord progression in action. Next time you are looking at a song and you see one of these sequences of chords, you will know you are looking at a I-IV-V chord progression.
I-V-vi-IV Chord Progressions
Want to learn to play all the songs from the Axis of Awesome video we were talking about? Simple, just get familiar with the I-V-vi-IV chord progression and you have all 50 songs (and many, many more) in the bag!
You can play all the songs from the video, including Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing”, Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours”, and The Beatles’ “Let It Be”, using the chord progression C-G-Am-F.
ii-V-I Chord Progressions
These progressions are commonly seen in jazz standards, though they do creep in to pop songs from time to time. Using a ii-V-I progression, such as Dm-G-C, you can play songs ranging from the jazz favorite “Autumn Leaves” to Justin Bieber’s “Boyfriend”.
Practicing Guitar Chord Progressions
Now that you are familiar with the most common guitar chord progressions, memorizing the chord patterns and practicing will help you get to the point where you can easily learn hundreds of songs. If you’re just starting out on the guitar, changing from one chord to another quickly and smoothly might be challenging for you. Choose a chord progression and practice strumming each chord slowly and evenly for four counts. Try to keep your transitions on tempo with the pace you are playing.
Once you feel comfortable changing chords, try playing one song in a few different keys. As you play, sing or hum along to hear the difference.
Try playing “Amazing Grace” as pictured to the left in the key of C and then move it to the key of G. Changing keys helps you to hear the relationships between notes, which makes it easier for you to develop your ear.
Write Songs of Your Own
Another great way to apply these chord progressions is in writing your own songs. Don’t feel like you have to use only these chords. Instead, use them as a starting point to explore your musical vision.
If you’re just beginning to write your own music, it helps to know which chords will sound good together. Try taking one of the tried and true chord progressions you’ve just learned and put your own spin on it by adding or subbing a new chord or playing it with a funky rhythm.
For more help with guitar, private lessons with a qualified instructor are the best way to sharpen your skills. The right teacher will give you the personal attention you need to make your dreams reality. TakeLessons teachers are qualified, prescreened, and motivated to help you succeed. Search for your perfect guitar teacher today!
-Megan L. TakeLessons Staff Member and Blogger