How to Play Common Chord Progressions on the Guitar
You use the numbered chord pattern to put together chord progressions on the guitar. This is where you get into playing by numbers. Songs can center on any number (chord) and combine numbers (chords) in any order and any amount. The most basic type of progression uses just the major chords, numbers I, IV, and V.
How to play I-IV-V chord progressions
By far the most common type of chord progression is the I-IV-V (that’s one, four, five, in case the Roman numerals are throwing you off). A I-IV-V chord progression is any combination of the three major chords in a key.
You find an example of this chord progression in the song Wild Thing by The Troggs. Its chords, A, D, and E, are I, IV, and V in the A major scale. Start the chord pattern at the 5th fret of the 6th string and play through the three major chords. If anyone asks, you can say, Oh, it’s just an ordinary I-IV-V in A. No big deal.
The following list provides some other common songs based on I-IV-V. To play through these, find the scale note on the 6th string, start the chord pattern, and then follow the numbers I list. You can also play along with the recordings of these songs, if you have them.
In some of the examples, the recorded guitar parts may not use plain barre chords, but you can still practice strumming along using the barre chords in the pattern. These songs may have other chords and progressions in them too, but the main sections are as follows:
I-IV-V in A
Stir it Up by Bob Marley
When the Sun Goes Down by Kenny Chesney
V-I-IV-I in A
What I Like about You by The Romantics
I-IV-I-V in G
Brown Eyed Girl by Van Morrison
I-IV-V-IV in G
Hang on Sloopy by The McCoys
V-IV-I in G
Magic Carpet Ride by Steppenwolf
Seven Bridges Road by the Eagles
Sweet Home Alabama by Lynyrd Skynyrd
I-IV-I-V in F
The Lion Sleeps Tonight by The Tokens
I-IV-V in F
Twist and Shout by The Isley Brothers
I-IV-V-IV in F
The Joker by Steve Miller Band
I-IV-V-IV in Bf
Walking on Sunshine by Katrina and The Waves
Mix of I-IV-V in E
I Love Rock ’n’ Roll by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
I Wanna Be Sedated by the Ramones
Walk of Life by Dire Straits
You can form major and minor chords in other ways besides the standard barre chords. But using a different type of chord shape doesn’t change a chord progression. For example, G-C-D is always I-IV-V, whether you use standard barre chords, open chords, or something else.
How to play major chord progressions
When a song centers on a major chord, it’s called a major chord progression. Notice that in the previous song list the actual order of the chords varies. Also, some examples, like What I Like about You by The Romantics, don’t even start on chord I. Progressions can center on any chord. Major chord progressions typically center on chord I or V, but IV is also an option.
How to add minor chords ii, iii, and vi
In the next group of lists, you see chord progressions that incorporate the minor chords in the pattern ii, iii, and vi. These examples are in different scales, so be sure to position the chord pattern with chord I on the right starting note. As you play through these progressions, remember to call out the numbers while you’re at it.
Heaven by Los Lonely Boys (I-ii G with guitars tuned down one half-step to Ef)
One Night at a Time by George Strait (I-ii-IV A)
Upside Down by Jack Johnson (I-ii and I-ii-IV-V E)
What’s Up? by 4 Non Blondes (I-ii-IV A)
All She Wants to Do Is Dance by Don Henley (V-I-iii-IV G)
Do You Believe in Love by Huey Lewis and the News (I-iii-IV-V B)
The Weight by The Band (I-iii-IV A)
Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine) by The Penguins (I-vi-IV-V Bf)
Every Breath You Take by The Police (I-vi-IV-V Af)
Hit Me with Your Best Shot by Pat Benatar (Mix of I-IV-V-vi E)
Hurts So Good by John Mellencamp (I-V-vi-IV A)
I’m Yours by Jason Mraz (I-V-vi-IV B)
Stand by Me by Ben E. King (I-vi-IV-V A)
When I Come Around by Green Day (I-V-vi-IV G)
How to play minor chord progressions
When a song centers on a minor chord, it’s called a minor chord progression. It can be any progression that centers on chord ii, iii, or vi in the major scale. The following song examples all start and center on a minor chord. The major scales that these progressions are based in are indicated in parentheses.
All Along the Watchtower by Jimi Hendrix (vi-V-IV-V E with guitars tuned down one half-step to Ef)
Black Magic Woman by Santana (mix of vi-ii-iii F)
Evil Ways by Santana (ii-V F)
Layla (Unplugged) by Eric Clapton (vi-IV-V F)
Livin’ on a Prayer by Bon Jovi (vi-IV-V G)
Moondance by Van Morrison (ii-iii G)
Oye Como Va by Santana (ii-V G)
Paranoid by Black Sabbath (vi-V-I-IV G)
Rockin’ in the Free World by Neil Young (vi-V-IV G)
Who Will Save Your Soul by Jewel (ii-IV-I-V G)