Unless you’re listening to jazz, you’ll hear that most chord progressions (which means the series of chords played in a certain order) are quite similar. When listening to the acoustic version of favorite artists, like Ed Sheeran, Kacey Musgraves, Shawn Mendes, Harry Styles, and Taylor Swift, you’ll realize most typically don’t use more than 5 chords in the majority of their songs.
Listening to the acoustic versions of songs has helped me with songwriting because I’ve learned that more complicated doesn’t always mean better or catchier. Sometimes overcomplicating chord progressions just for the sake of using more chords can make a song feel awkward — like someone squished the chords together. Complex chord progressions can sound amazing, but you don’t have to use them to be an effective player and songwriter.
There are a few simple chord progressions that are known for their catchiness and melody. If you’re just learning guitar, it’s helpful to learn basic chord progressions that you can apply to a lot of different songs.
In this blog, I’ll cover the top 3 most common chord progressions and some examples of the different songs that use them. So grab your Orangewood, and let’s start!
The Number System and Playing in Key
I’ll be referring to the chord progressions themselves with cardinal numbers, but if you aren’t familiar with the number system, you can refer to this chart to see what each number translates to in various keys. I also recommend watching this short video to learn more about the number system.
3 Popular Guitar Chord Progressions
Pop, Pop-Country, and Rock Chord Progression: 1-5-6m-4
Most pop songs are variations of the 1-4-5-6m progression in different orders. There are a number of pop songs that even use just two of these chords. Of all variations though, the most popular progression is 1-5-6m-4.
This pop chord progression spans across genres, and even though it’s technically the same chords, the songs have extremely different feels from one another because of the key that they’re played in.
Here are a few songs that use the 1-5-6m-4 progression:
“Don’t Stop Believing” – Journey
“Photograph” – Ed Sheeran
“What’s My Age Again” – Blink-182
“All Too Well” – Taylor Swift
“Cruise” – Florida Georgia Line
“I’m Yours” – Jason Mraz
“I’m so Tired” – Lauv
Jazz and R&B Chord Progression: 2m-5-1
For jazz players, this chord progression is known to be the gold standard for jazz standards (I crack myself up!). Of course, since this is jazz that we’re talking about, the chords are never that straightforward. Instead of Dm-G-C, in this progression, we typically use Dm7-G7-Cmaj7 to add flare.
Even for non-jazz players, this simple progression is important to know since a lot of pop songs incorporate these chords as well – like “Sunday Morning” by Maroon 5. There’s also a lot of variations to this progression, and sometimes you’ll see 6m added to the end.
To start learning jazz chords, here are a few songs that use the 2m-5-1 progression:
“Tune Up” – Miles Davis
“Autumn Leaves” – Nat King Cole
“Summertime” – Ella Fitzgerald
“Fly Me To The Moon” – Frank Sinatra
Blues Chord Progression: 1-4-5
If you want to play the blues, you probably already know exactly how this 1-4-5 progression sounds. It’s usually referred to as a “12 bar blues,” and these chords are often played as 7th chords. The rhythm is essential for this chord progression when playing 12 bar blues, and it’s usually played in 4/4 or, if you listen carefully, 12/8 (which sounds complicated but basically feels like a more swinging version of 4/4).
This 1-4-5 blues chord progression is not only important for learning songs, but it’s especially useful for jamming with others since it’s a universally known chord progression. Plus, if you use the blues scale, you can solo to it no matter your guitar skill level. If you don’t know your 12 bar blues yet, check out this lesson with Marty Music to learn it!
Here are some songs that use this 1-4-5 progression (with some slight variations):
“Red House” – Jimi Hendrix
“Everyday I Have The Blues” – B. B. King
“Cross Road Blues” – Robert Johnson (you can hear the progression a bit better in Eric Clapton’s or John Mayer’s version)
“Pride and Joy” – Stevie Ray Vaughan
“Give Me One Reason” – Tracy Chapman
As guitar players, we’re trained to have unique, sometimes flashy, and signature-sounding solos. Studying a popular chord progression is interesting because the songs overall sound so different from each other, even though the chords are the same. It’s cool to see how much a song can change by adding production, an interesting guitar or synth part, or a unique rhythm.
I like to think of chords as the backbone of a song, rather than thinking of chords as the focal point. To better understand the chord progressions that you naturally love, I recommend making a list of your favorite songs and writing down the chord progressions to each one. You might find that there are certain chord progressions you love, or that the songs you thought were too complicated actually have simple chords.
Whether you just got your Orangewood Guitar, or you’re making sure you have your bases covered as a guitar player, I hope this gives you some ideas of popular progressions to practice. Thanks for reading!
Haley is a guitar player, blogger, and guitar teacher based out of Nashville, TN. When she's not playing or writing, you can find her in line at her favorite breakfast taco shop, taking her dog hiking at the nearest waterfall, or binging Outer Banks with her hubby.