Guitar Chords for Songs: Common Chord Progressions
All easy guitar lessons include instruction on how to play guitar chords, but in order to really make learning guitar songs worthwhile, one should be able to recognize common chord progressions. This is done first by knowing a little about recognizing “keys.”
We have seen, and will see again, the basic guitar chords in the key of C major are as follows: C-Dm-Em-F-G-Am-Bdim. This chord pattern is the same for every major key: Major-minor-minor-Major-Major-minor-diminished.
So in the key of D, the same sequence would look like: D-Em-F#m-G-A-Bm-C#dim. Notice that there are two chords in the key of D that are “sharp.” This is how you can determine that a song is in the key of D: there will be two “sharps” in the “key signature” at the very front of each staff, like this:
These easy guitar lessons will show you that, because guitar chords for songs in the key of G include one sharp (G-Am-Bm-C-D-Em-F#dim), you can identify a song in the key of G by the single sharp on the staff:
This sharp note is F, so you will know, as you’re learning guitar songs, that every single F note in the song will, unless otherwise noted, be an F#.
If you were to play a major scale in the key of A, can you figure out how many sharps it would include? The notes of an A major scale are A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G#. There are three sharp notes, so the key signature will include three sharps:
From what our easy guitar lessons have already shown us, you should be able to figure out the guitar chords for songs in the key of A. Using the pattern of Major-minor-minor-Major-Major-minor-diminished, you should be able to determine that the chords for the key of A are A-Bm-C#m-D-E-F#m-G#dim.
That really is the key to learning guitar songs: know the basic principles and look for patterns. If you know how to play a major scale and can identify the notes and the basic guitar chords, then you know how many sharps or flats that scale, and the associated key, has.
Before we learn how to play guitar chords in some common progressions, let’s say something about minor keys. Every major key has a relative minor. That means that they both use the exact same notes, only they begin in different places.
So, with a C major scale: C-D-E-F-G-A-B, its relative minor, which is Am, contains the same notes, but they start on A: A-B-C-D-E-F-G.
To determine a key’s relative minor, look at the sixth degree of the scale. Therefore, in the key of G major, the sixth degree is E, so the relative minor of G is Em.
Guitar chords for songs in minor keys are the same as with major key, except, like the minor scale, they simply start in a different place. So chords in the key of Em are Em-F#dim-G-Am-Bm-C-D.
You can see that Em has the same number of “sharp” chords as the key of G. Therefore, as you will continue to see while you’re learning guitar songs, minor keys always use the same key signature as their relative major. So, Em has one sharp, F#m has three, Bm has two, and Am has none, just like its relative major C.
Okay, let’s look at some chord progressions. In the last lesson we discussed blues guitar chords, which nearly always include the first, fourth, and fifth chords in a key, that is, the I-IV-V. These three basic guitar chords are in nearly every Rock & Roll, Country & Western, Rhythm & Blues, Reggae, punk, and heavy metal song known to man, regardless of what key they’re in.
You already know from these easy guitar lessons that, in the key of C, these chords are C, F, and G, and, if you’ve been paying close attention, you have figured out that these chords in the key of Am will be Am, Dm, and Em (or i-iv-v).
Can you figure out how to play guitar chords of this progression in other keys?
Now let’s look at some guitar chords for songs with a slightly more complex progression:
I | vi | IV | V |
Try to play this chord sequence in the key of C based on what you already know about the chords in a major key. Now try it in D and then in G.
Now try this one:
ii | V | I |
Play it once in each key. Now we’ll put them all together:
I | IV | V | I | vi | IV | V | ii | V | I |
Playing basic guitar chords in a given sequence isn’t very difficult once you figure out what you’re doing. Try this one from a minor key:
| i | VI | III | VII |
Try to play it in Em, then Am, F#m, and Bm.
Sometimes you’ll need to know how to play guitar chords that switch keys. Some songs sound like they start out in a minor key and then switch to the relative major during the chorus. Here is an example of such a chord progression (play it so between each vertical line is four beats):
Verse: vi | IV | vi | IV | vi | IV | V | V |
Chorus: I | IV | V | V | I | IV | V | V |
You can see that, although the verse is in a minor key, and the chorus is technically in a major key, they are relative to one another and would therefore have the same key signature.
Becoming a good guitarist, whether you’re learning how to play electric guitar or acoustic guitar, Blues or Rock, Classical or speed metal, requires being able to identify basic guitar chords in a progression simply by sound. In other words, learning how to play guitar chords, not by what you see printed on paper, but being able to step up on stage with a group of musicians you’ve never performed with before, and being able to play, simply by what you hear the others playing; Basically being able to play the guitar chords for songs you’ve never practiced an have never heard, simply by recognizing how a chord progression sounds.
This is a skill that neither advanced nor easy guitar lessons will give you, but that can be achieved only through a lot of practice, a lot of playing, and a lot of commitment. But you will find as you continue learning guitar songs, that it will be very much worth the effort.