The following is a list of ten of the most used chord progressions in music today. Some are classic and have been used hundreds of times sometimes in combination with each other or with slight alteration to make things a bit more interesting. If you learn these progressions and are able to pick them out of a song by ear, you should be able to play (or at least understand) nearly any song! To make it a little easier to play in any key, I made this PDF that lists all the chords you’ll need in all keys! I’ll be putting more resources including scales for guitar and bass, arrangements, chord charts, etc. here.
If you’re a songwriter, knowing these progressions will help you avoid writing the same song multiple times or copying your heroes’ music. These chord progressions are the musical archetypes.
For those of you that know music theory, I’m providing the roman numerals. For those of you that don’t, I’ll give you the progressions in the key of G in parenthesis.
Number one is the Don’t Stop Believing Progression, I – V – vi – IV (G – D – Em – C). The Axis of Awesome did a great bit about this one in which they play 40 songs in a row that all have the same progression including, No Woman No Cry, Let It Be, I’m Yours, etc… and over the past few years, that list has become a lot longer!
The second is the 50’s Progression, I – vi – IV – V (G – Em – C – D). I call it this because it was hugely popular in the 50’s and 60’s and is still used today. Notably used recently by Justin Bieber for “Baby” (Justin was like baby baby baby oh… what a pity) and Sean Kingston for “Beautiful Girls,” though Kingston really just ripped Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” off.
The third is the Canon, I – V – vi – iii – IV – I – IV – V (G – D – Em – Bm – C – G – C – D). It was the chord progression used by Pachelbel for his Canon in D (not G as above). The piece, forgotten soon after it was written (around 1694), was rediscovered in the early 20th century and has influenced a number of songwriters. It is, however, simply an extension of the basic I – IV – V – I progression that was used by nearly every composer for hundreds of years up to about 100 years ago.
The fourth is the Blues Progression, I – I – I – I – IV – IV – I – I – V – V – I – I (G – G – G – G – C – C – G – G – D – D – G – G). This is the way Chuck Berry played it in Johnny B Goode though the last 4 chords are often V – VI – I – V (D – C – G – D). There are 12 chords because it follows the standard 12-bar blues progression. In this progression it’s common to switch freely between major and minor. This progression has been used in thousands of songs outside of the blues from Cream’s Sunshine Of Your Love to Tracy Chapman’s Give Me One Reason and beyond.
The fifth is the Smoke on the Water Progression, ii – IV – V (am – C – D). It’s usually used as part of a larger progression and was used in Purple Haze, Iron Man, House of the Rising Sun, Stepping Stone, etc…
The sixth is the Good Love Progression, I – IV – V – IV (G – C – D – C). This was used in Wild Thing, La Bamba, and Good Love, etc.
The Seventh is the Sweet Home Progression… (god, how I hate Sweet Home Alabama!) V – IV – I (D – C – G). Can’t Explain, Sweet Child of Mine.
The Eighth is a rearrangement of the Don’t Stop Believing progression vi – IV – I – V (em – C – G – D). I’m not sure what to call this one. The song that always gets stuck in my head with this one is The Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Snow, though I know Taylor Swift uses it in at least three songs (as well as most of the other progressions above…), Green Day used it in Holiday, and The Cranberries used it in Zombie, just to name a few.
The ninth is the stereotypical Descending Flamenco Progression vi – V – IV – III (em – D – C – B (not Bm!)). This one has been used in songs from California Dreamin to Stray Cat Strut… I’m sure you can think of a few more! A variation on this is vi – V – VI – V (em – D – C – D) which arguably may be more popular today…
And the tenth that I see is the As My Guitar Gently Weeps Progression. This one straddles two keys and it’s basic representation is ii – I – V6 – bVII (- VI) (am – G – D/f# – F (- E)). It looks like a variation on the Descending Flamenco Progression and is presented with slight variations by everyone that uses it. The Beatles actually substituted an am7/G for the G chord and left out the E. Chicago, in 25 or 6 to 4 focused on the root notes in the bass -> A – G – F# – F – E. Led Zepplin, Green Day, and Neil Young all offered their variations as well.
These progressions are not the end of music. They’re used a lot but they’re not your only options! If you look on the ultimate guitar archive you’ll see them everywhere, but most songwriters use them in combination with other progressions or with variation, creating something new using old building blocks. Please don’t think of this list as a set of rules! Just information to enhance your own understanding of the way music works.
Check out my teaching website at Thorne’s Guitar
First time at your blog. Excellent presentation. I always knew they were there, but thanks for putting it out there.
Great post – to be honest I’m impressed that you came up with as many as 10! And thanks for the “like”!
It’s funny, there are more, even though they’re really just a reshuffling of the old ideas. i could probably lose 4 of the ones i mentioned but i view them as distinct because they’re just different enough!
Thank you thank you thank you for such clear explanation :). I loved it and I have bookmarked your blog.
Awesome bro, this helps alot
In your canon chord progression, you mistakenly wrote your IVs as VIs
yeah! my dyslexia really kicks it some days… thanks for the heads up!!
i would like to point out that axis of awesome did not do G-D-Em-C … it was actually E-B-C#m-A
That’s a great point. And only a few of the songs they played were originally in that key. The only one i know was in E for sure is Don’t Stop Believing.
thank you so much! this is exactly what I was looking for. would you also happen to have the most common guitar riffs and licks used in rock and how to use them in a song or with a chord progression?
Got more out of this in 10 minutes than I’ve gotten out of a truckload of “lessons-books-etc” in probably 10 years! It’s like the sky parted and angels in unison sang “BINGO!”
What a great article, just loved it. Excelent idea and great examples, it will certainly help many begginers recognizing patterns and playing by ear, and most experienced players can profit a lot too: you provided a summary of simple yet powerfull composition tools.
I just have a question, why did you avoided minor keys? For example, in the descending flamenco you wrote vi – V – IV – III (em – D – C – B (not Bm!)).
I maybe wrong, but I see it as in the key of E minor, which will automatically account for that B major. Plus we end up with the dominant as the last chord. We have then:
i – bvii – bvi – V
Congratulations again on the article 🙂
That’s a great point. I wanted to keep everything in the same relational group even though some of the progressions are minor. I know seasoned musicians will know about minors, but I wanted to keep it as simple as possible for people just learning!
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Excellent post.. Noticed it was from 2011.. I am sure it will be just as relevant in 2030.. Keep up the great work!
This is good stuff, man. Big ++ on using the number system.
Reblogged this on exzentrum and commented:
Thanks for your great article on common progressions. Just one minor correction. I think progression 8 should read vi – IV – I – V (em – C – G – D) rather than iv-IV- etc
Thanks for that catch! I’m surprised I missed it for the past three years!
Well done. Though some minor correction if I may. The end of blues progression might be better off with a V-IV-I-V sequens. The 8th progression: the key isn’t G but E minor. So it should read: i-VI-V-VII. Same for the flamenco progression. Em: I-VII-VI-V. The Gently Weeping progression is written in the key of A minor so A is the root: i-VII-V-IV. Just some theorethical corrections.
You’re absolutely right! I wanted to keep it in pure key for the purpose of introduction to the progressions and have been meaning to post a follow-up about substitution chords. Perhaps I should just get off my butt and do it! Thanks for the comment!
Very nice chord progression. please I need more lessons on how to play slash chords and how to play melody of a song. Thank you sir.
Hello friend, thnx for this one, the holy grail of R&R… good job > THORNE FOR PRESIDENT,yesss! RICK >DR ZENN™< from Belgium 🙂
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Another one is one that I call “moving fourths”. Am, D, G, Cmaj7, F etc. ie 4 notes up each time. The classic being “I will survive”, others include:
Goodbye yellow brick road – Elton John
Windmills of your mind – Neil Diamond
Heartbreaker – will.i.am
It’s a sin – Pet Shop Boys
For the I-V-VI-IV (point 1 in your article), I would combine it with VI-IV-I-V (point 8 in your article), as indeed Axis of Awesome do in their song. I would also add IV-I-V-VI and V-VI-IV-I. So all 4 are basically the same progression, just starting at a different point. These 4 probably make up 20%+ of al songs these days (50%+ if you’re Taylor Swift)
I’d also like to add some to the I-VI-IV-V: the classic being Mandy (Barry Manilow), others being:
Friday – Rebecca Black
Total eclipse of the heart – Bonnie Tyler
Crocodile Rock – Elton John
Every breath you take – Police
We are young – Fun
Great observation! I tell my guitar students the same thing. And thanks for the song additions!
Thank you, It was useful to me
super super!!!! hey jude-with a Little help from my friends- VIIb-IV-I(Bb-F-C) double cadenthia plagal(gospel)
I thought I-bVII-IV-I (G-F-C-G) would be included in a list like this. (Sympathy for the Devil, Fortunate Son (though this also includes I-V-IV-I), Dear Mr. Fantasy, If I Were A Carpenter, Gloria).
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Great stuff, love the names, lol. (PS I always thought the standard 12 bar blues ended V – IV – I – I, not V – V – I – I, giving that classic V – IV – I -ish ending so prevalent in so many genres)
I would like to see this for seasoned , or advanced players, that don’t have
a lot of theory….
Give us this with more advanced minor or colorful chording, same basic
progressions, if you are inclined.
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Great article, but I can’t really make sense of the “house of the rising sun progression”… I’m a pianist and to me, the chord progression is A minor C D and F, but doesn’t the A minor has the role of a minor third , and not of a minor second?
I was thinking of the a minor as the ii chord in G major. The C and D are IV and V. Of course, the F is the bVII so it breaks key a little there. Since, in this key the melody is A, b c, e d, a a it would have difficulty passing for the iii chord… but now that i’m spending more time with this, i think it’s the vi chord instead and rather than the vii diminished chord being altered, the ii chord is made major… like this: vi – I – II – VI. Does that make sense?
First of all, thank you for the great resource.
Well, to answer your Q on the Rising Sun progression, it does not make sense to me – unnecessarily forcing the system on a clear example of a-minor i-III-IV-VI i-III-V-V7. Like that no alteration, no accidentals, just pure tonic relations.
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This is a wonderful list! I’m teaching a History of Rock and Roll class and this adds a great element. Do you have any examples for The Cannon chord progression that I might use? (I’m not a musician in any way, but I’m bringing in a friend who plays guitar for this class session)
Just replying so I can get email notification.
Green day’s Basket case is close. The song Streets of London is closer!
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Just adding a quick thanks. As a closet songwriter with knowledge of chords but very limited in how to string them together, this is a welcomed building block. If you don’t teach, maybe you should 🙂
Wow, just found your site. I was looking for a clearer way to teach the common chord progressions to my students. Terrific examples! I think i will be visiting you blog more! Fantastic!
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This is a nice resource. One edit: I think you mean While My Guitar Gently Weeps instead of As My Guitar Gently Weeps.
Thanks for sharing your knowledge in such a straightforward way! Greetings from Ireland 😉
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Question: Was “Summer In The City” by The Lovin’ Spoonful, released in
July 1966, the first Top 40 hit with the descending Flamenco chord
progression, which was the same chord progression as in “While My Guitar
Gently Weeps” by The Beatles in 1968 and “25 or 6 to 4” by Chicago in
1970 and “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin in 1971?. Or was it
“California Dreamin'”, released December 1965?
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