Looking to learn the best guitar chord progressions? Wondering what they are and what makes them great?
If you already have a strong foundation in chords, then chances are you know more than you think you know already. But even if you don’t, don’t worry – this guide should be easy enough for everyone to understand, even those just starting to learn about chord progressions.
So, let’s get into it our top selections.
Table of Contents
I – IV – V – IV
Example: A | D | E | D
The I – IV – V – IV chord progression (as with variations on it, like I – I – IV – V or I – IV – V – V) is a blues and rock and roll essential, made immortal by the likes of The Troggs’ much covered and emulated “Wild Thing,” new wave riding The Cars’ “Magic,” the power balladry of Mr. Big’s “Just Take My Heart,” Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” and even Green Day’s “Minority,” which is a little ironic. Attempt as we might to cover them all, there are examples too innumerable to mention.
Here we’ve featured none other than the classic Troggs’ “Wild Thing,” further popularized by Jimi Hendrix, and later made permanent by the likes of Cheap Trick, Jeff Beck, Divinyls, and others, not to mention the 1989 film Major League starring Charlie Sheen.
This chord progression is a cliché, no doubt, but it’s remarkably effective, which probably explains why it is so often recycled and reused. The trick, then, is to know when to use it, and when to opt for something a little less conventional. Building around it, as Mr. Big did in “Just Take My Heart” is incredibly effective.
Whether you use it in your songwriting or not, it would still be wise to do a thorough study of this progression in every key signature and to add it to your musical vocabulary.
Overall, I, IV, and V are very consonant and happy sounding chords, especially when played together. And they work in every order.
vi – IV – V – vi
Example: Dm | Bb | C | Dm
“Slowhand” Eric Clapton has sometimes been referred to as “God,” and while his lack of musical vocabulary has sometimes been criticized (he doesn’t know his way around jazz, though that’s never been much of a hindrance), his perfectionist tendencies and faithful allegiance to the blues, Robert Johnson, B. B. King, and others, has created a highly influential, unforgettable body of work.
As for this chord progression? It’s the one made famous by Derek & The Dominos’ “Layla,” which, I think you’ll agree, is hard to describe as anything other than “classic” or “essential.”
Whether you want to play the original electric version or the unforgettable acoustic Unplugged version, you’ll want to pay careful attention to the timing of the chords.
As “Layla” demonstrates, this minor chord progression has a very serious, urgent sound to it. And it seems Clapton himself found quite a bit of use for it, as Cream’s “White Room” is based around a rather similar progression, with an epic, wide-open sound to it. There are probably other examples I’m missing.
Whether you’re looking to craft a memorable melody hook, or need some solid chords to solo over, this chord progression will give you what you need in a pinch.
iv – V – IV – V
Example: Am | G | F | G
Yardbird alumni guitarists include the likes of the previously mentioned Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and of course, the unmistakably prolific and influential Jimmy Page.
Page used the Yardbirds platform to begin exploring and expanding on new blues and rock musical territory, later forming the much-celebrated Led Zeppelin as his main outlet. The lead balloon had an obvious influence on the likes of Eddie Van Halen, Extreme’s Gary Cherone, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, and countless others.
The iv – V – IV – V chord progression, of course, was made famous in the crescendo of “Stairway to Heaven,” featuring one of Page’s most memorable guitar solos.
(By the way, in “Stairway to Heaven,” the last V is basically just a passing chord, but you can do what you want with it – including giving each chord equal duration.)
As with the last chord progression introduced, this is another serious, urgent sounding progression, and its overall similarity is undeniable. Not surprisingly, then, it’s another guitarist’s soloing dream, as it creates a rich environment for inspired melodic and speed licks.
If there’s anything to look out for, it’s that there are times when this chord progression is a little too serious, but it is befitting epics like “Stairway to Heaven.”
V – vi – V – IV
Example: B | C#m | B | A
Flashy, left-handed virtuoso Jimi Hendrix rewrote all the guitar playing rules, leaving an undeniable impact on future generations of guitarists. It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that many of today’s guitarists are still building on the foundation Hendrix himself erected, with Eddie Van Halen layered on top.
And that influence stems, not just from Hendrix’ ability to write amazing original tunes, but also his ability to transform other people’s songs into superior epics.
“All Along The Watchtower” was originally a three-chord singer-songwriter wonder written by songsmith Bob Dylan. Hendrix, though, turned it into a psychedelic rock essential.
The progression is deceptively simple. And yet, it’s an odd one, because you would expect it to be a major, happy sounding progression. The fact that it bypasses the I chord, somehow, turns it into a dramatic minor chord progression. And that could be because even though it picks up on the V, it’s really anchored in the vi.
If you play it at the same tempo Jimi played it, it will instantly suggest “All Along The Watchtower,” but sped up, it can become an effective pop or punk rock progression as well. And, of course, it’s a spacious bed for guitar solo pillows.
V – IV – I – V
Example: D | C | G | D
Hard rock band Guns N’ Roses were certainly a product of their time. But they were also one of the few in their category to bridge that perilous 80s to 90s gap, in which hair metal hardly survived. And that, in part, is thanks to the band’s varied musical contribution. They were hair enough to be metal, but grunge enough to be 90s (Slash’s hair?).
And infamous rock ballads like “Sweet Child O’ Mine” (in this case more rock than ballad), basically gave them immortal status, to the chagrin of many a guitar store employee (let’s just say they’ve heard their share of poorly rendered “Sweet Child O’ Mine” imitations). It’s not on the top of my list of favorite songs, either, admittedly, but I was a guitar teacher for over 10 years.
This chord progression, V – IV – I – V, is the one undergirding Slash’s famous “finger exercise” riff as heard in the intro:
This is obviously a major chord progression, but it’s a little nuanced. Despite being consonant, it sounds a tad non-committal. Is it in the key of D? Is it in the key of G? Despite that C chord, it could sort of swing either way. And that’s honestly the best thing about it, because you can have fun with that aspect of it. AC/DC and Lynyrd Skynyrd certainly did.
Though it is a perfectly viable rock progression, it can work nicely in folk songs too.
vi – I – ii – IV – V
Example: Em | G | Am | C | D
Power chords are everywhere in music featuring the electric guitar – rock, punk rock, metal, and other offshoots. There’s no denying they sound full and heavy with a bit of distortion, and because they are made up of little more than a perfect fifth interval (sometimes with octaves), they are vague “chords” (if you can call them that), leaving room for interpretation, especially in terms of harmony.
That said, depending on how they are ordered, they always lead in certain directions, like this minor progression.
Okay, so where have you heard it before? In the Scorpions’ “Rock You Like A Hurricane,” of course.
Even if it is a tad overplayed, this is a classic minor riff. Somewhat serious, but it doesn’t take itself so seriously that there isn’t room for fun, and tremolo picked guitar solos.
It's fun to play it not just as power chords but also as proper triadic chords, and if you do, let me be the first to inform you that the ii chord tends to sound better as a II7 (in this case A7) chord. Try it and see for yourself.
If you play it with the exact phrasing the Scorpions do, then obviously you should not expect it to sound like anything other than “Rock You Like A Hurricane.” So, if you’re going to use it in your own songwriting, try it with a different rhythmic pattern.
I – IV – I – V
Example: G | C | G | D
Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” continues to live on as a crowd favorite at bars and pub stages all over, but its foundation is rooted in radical simplicity.
Listening carefully to the layered guitar parts, you’ll notice that there’s a lead guitar that’s a little more “all over the place,” and a rhythm guitar that hammers out the time-perfect chords on command. Every band with a rhythm / lead setup should strive to emulate this level of innovation and ingenuity.
This approach to songwriting, also favored by the likes of Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, Eagles, and others, leaves plenty of room for layers of complexity to be added as cherries on top.
It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that this chord progression is just another variation on I – IV – V and all its derivatives. As most pop songs are some combination of I, IV, V, vi in varying orders, this should not strike you as surprising. That said, if this is the first time you’ve heard that, you just learned the secret to playing 80 to 90% of pop songs!
Anyway, the trick with this progression is how it keeps returning to “home” with the I chord. That’s what makes it.
I – V – vi – iii – IV – I – V
Example: E | B | C#m | G#m | A | E | B
If you haven’t watched “Pachelbel Rant” by Rob Paravonian on YouTube, you should. It’s a comedic rant, demonstrating how Pachelbel’s Canon is, in effect, at the foundation of all pop music.
And that, in effect, is what we’re talking about here. The I – V – vi – iii – IV – I – V chord progression is at the heart of Pachelbel’s Canon (with the term “canon” indicating a repeating bass line with variations above it), and this formula has been applied to more pop and rock songs than most care to admit – Vitamin C’s “Graduation (Friends Forever),” Scatman John’s “Scatman’s World,” and of course, Green Day’s “Basket Case.”
This is, without a doubt, an important chord progression, and one you need to add to your musical vocabulary. As I’ve already pointed out, it’s proven a winning formula in pop music again and again.
That said, I’m the kind of guy who tries to avoid too much cliché, so if you’re going to use this progression in your music, as beautiful as it is, I would urge you to put your own spin on it, create variations on it, and get creative.
I – IV – vi – V
Example: E | A | C#m | B
Some chord progressions are instant hooks. Pat Benatar and her band obviously recognized the potential in the I – IV – vi – V chord sequence as it forms the foundation of one her most known hit rockers, “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.”
Obviously, it’s another variation on I – IV – V, but it just goes to show that there are many ways to combine these chords.
This progression is happy without being annoyingly happy, upbeat without being too cliché, and fun without being too in your face. It makes for a great hook, and there are many ways to put a spin on it.
vi – ii – V – I
Example: Em | Am | D | G
We’ve covered this chord progression before, so if you’ve scanned some of our other guides, you’ve likely come across it.
It's less common than a lot of other progressions we’ve explored here, but it is, nevertheless, effective. Despite starting on the vi, is still has a happy, laid-back vibe overall. Weird, huh? But that is the fun thing about chord progressions. They delight and surprise.
The prime example is Weezer’s “Island In The Sun,” the hit that became a near instant modern-day classic.
Weezer basically plays this chord progression straight, but if you add a syncopated feel to it, it could work perfectly as a reggae progression as well. It also has a bit of a doo-wop vibe.
Other than that, it’s kind of up to you. Try messing around with different rhythmic patterns, and you’re sure to come up with something fun and enjoyable.
vi – V – IV – II
Example: Dm | C | Bb | A
Now here’s a bit of a nuanced progression, but it’s a great one to learn! It has a bit of a Spanish feel to it.
It’s the same progression that made the Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing” a big hit:
Obviously, the chord to look out for is that II, which would normally be a minor rather than a major. Why is it a major here? Well, as we are nearing the end of this guide, I will leave that to you to ponder and explore.
What I will say, though, is that in the context of “Sultans of Swing,” the A sounds perfect. It would be a very different song with an Am.
The Straits don’t have a corner on this market, as this progression has been utilized in a lot of different music. Put your spin on it and you’ll be off to the races.
Top Guitar Chord Progressions, Final Thoughts
As with anything music related, “best” is entirely subjective. So, while the above progressions have proven mainstays, that’s about the only way we can quantify “best.” There might be a lot of other chord progressions you like that aren’t even represented here!
That said, the above should prove an excellent starting point, and as I’ve said so many times, you can put your own spin on anything! It’s a great way to exercise your creative muscle and stretch a little outside the box. It’s how new ideas are formed.
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