Top 10 Chord Progressions

Top 10 chord progressions

Learn to recognise the 10 most important chord progressions!

Let’s take a look at my top 10, most important, chord progressions. You simply must learn to recognise these as they form the building blocks of popular music, in all styles!

The first step is to connect a progression with one tune. For example, V – IV is the verse of Respect.

The next step would be to find it in many other songs in different styles and tempos. This particular example (V-IV) is particularly easy as it’s the turnaround of a 12-bar blues.

You can use this information when you work out new songs, but also, it will also become your toolkit for improvising as certain patterns of arpeggios and scales fit with these chord progressions.

In many ways, understanding music starts with understanding chord progression.

Let’s work our way through this top 10 list, it’s not just one tune per example, be sure to check each playlist to dig deep and internalise the sound of each progression.

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#10 The VI – II 

The minor version of the I – IV

As the cousin of the most common chord progression in the world, the I – IV, this minor variant is also hugely popular.

Found at the beginning of a minor blues, as well as in countless hits, the movement up a 4th makes us feel so relaxed that it’s fine to just go back again from II to VI again.

If VI is Aeolian then II is Dorian and if you’re fresh out of college it may be tempting to emphasise the notes that make these chords modal.

If you’re a student of songs, however, you’ll probably make a case for chord VI’s pentatonic to be used throughout, maybe with an added b5, should you want to be bluesy.

Classic VI – II appearances include Bob Marley’s I Shot The Sheriff (GmCm in the chorus), Could You Be Loved (also Bob Marley) (BmEm in the verse) and 10cc’s Dreadlock Holiday (GmCm in the verse).

But it’s not just found in Reggae songs, although once you get going, it’s nice to hang around in the genre for a while, chilling.

Next, let’s have a look at another progression that starts with the VI chord.

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#9 The VI – V – IV – IIIx

The falling minor, with a mediant major at the end!

This is a lovely falling minor progression with only one out of four chords being minor!

Because that VI chord feels like home, it feels like minor overall. So powerful is the positioning of each chord, it makes it feel like a minor progression, even though only one chord is actually minor, weird.

Perhaps easiest to come to terms with using Ray Charles’s classic Hit The Road Jack. G#mF#ED#7. Or using a flat key: AbmGbFbEb. Who says Fb? Crazy stuff!

Clearly, it’s better to think in Roman Numerals

Anyway, here the chords go by quickly and we can solo using the Minor Pentatonic, perhaps with a b5, without worrying too much about which chord is played.

As the III chord is major (IIIx) and goes outside the key, we could change that note temporarily.

Music theory buffs with no real-world experience will shout Phrygian Dominant here but I can imagine Ray firing you pretty quickly should you play this over the final chord of the progression.

My top tip would instead be to add this Phrygian dominant note (the 3rd of the III chord) to the VI chord’s Minor Pentatonic as a Maj7 interval (same note).

Do this and the b5 and you get my scale – Conspirian!

Try an Ab Conspirian (Ab Minor Pentatonic b5 + maj7) over the progression and hear this for yourself.

You can find this Conspirian scale in all shapes and keys, as well as all other chords, arpeggios and modes in Chordacus.

For a more drawn-out version of this progression, check out One More Cup Of Coffee by Bob Dylan.

Here we stay on each chord for so long that you actually could explore each mode. So that’s Am (Aeolian) G (Mixolydian) F (Lydian) E (Phrygian Dominant).

Should you work out what Bob is singing, then you’d see that he’s hitting a lot of modal notes, so if you solo, so should you!

Hone in on the b6 over Am, the 4 over the G, the maj7 for the F and the b6 when you hit the E.

Finally, a proper guitar-friendly example we find in Sultans Of Swing, by Dire Straits.

Now we’re in the key of Dm as we go down to CBbA.

The Dm chord is clearly our home chord here so start with the D Minor Pentatonic.

My top tip, aside from learning it note for note, is to check what intervals Mark Knopfler is using in his licks, add them all together and see what scale he is actually using!

As far as I can tell, it’s D Aeolian with a b5 and a maj7!

Or D Aeolian mixed with D Conspirian!

Next up, we look at a progression that starts with the I chord.

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#8 The I – III 

And his determined cousin – the IIIx!

A personal favourite, the I – III reminds me of the I chord becoming Maj7. even though it’s a major chord going to a minor, it does somehow feel uplifting.

The I – III first caught my attention when I heard Bob Dylan’s Lay Lady Lay. Since then I seem to recognise it every time it pops up.

For example, in Hey There Delilah as we go from DF#m, or in Whistle For The Choir. This song switches the key and I’ve recorded it in two keys so there are four examples of it in that song, E – G#m being the original.

Finally, the slightly more angry version we find in Radiohead’s Creep. Here the sweet III chord has become a IIIx as it’s gone from GB7, not Bm.

Next up, we still start with a I chord, although this time we don’t get uplifted, instead we fall.

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#7 The I – VI

The minor fall!

So common and so effective, the minor fall as Leonard Cohen so perfectly describes this VI chord in his gorgeous song Halleluljah has to be fully explored.

We find this movement in so many songs it would almost be easier to list songs that don’t have it!

Stand By Me by Ben E. King with its I – VI – I – V in A or Wonderful World by Sam Cooke in G perfectly captures this movement with an early ’60s backdrop.

What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye repeats the I VI beautifully in the key of E with more production in the early 70s, now using extensions of Maj7 and min7.

Back to basics with Leonard Cohen in 84, we find it, described as the “minor fall” in Hallelujah. Only topped by the outrageously intense Jeff Buckley cover version ten years later.

A few more years later, in the same decade, The Verve incorporated the I VI in their smash hit The Drugs Don’t Work.

But all these put aside, it must be Over The Rainbow that makes use of the I -VI the best. Over the opening octave jump, we switch from chord I – VI, making what seems happy become sad, and that my friend is the power of the I – VI.

As we thought it was all going well, we experienced “the minor fall”.

Next, let’s look at a progression that doesn’t go anywhere at all!

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#6 The static I

Can you play it all night long?

In #6, we have the progression that isn’t a progression, I do like a contradiction I do…

Most of the time, this is a Dom7 or maybe even a 9-chord. Usually, it’s funky, let’s face it, usually, it’s James Brown!

Get Up I Feel Like Being A Sex Machine stays on that first chord for what seems like forever!

Moving between Eb9 and Eb13 does help and this is usually the case with static progressions in general, some kind of variation happens around that static chord.

When James finally takes us to the bridge after 2:12, we go to chord IV.

Another great static example is Sam & Dave’s Soul Man. During the verse, we vamp on a G chord. Some colour is provided as we move from playing a G, to what can perhaps best be described as a Gsus4add9 although it’s so quick it’s more of a lick than a chord! This is one of those cases of TAB is better than chords.

You really want to get this riff right and play it like Steve, to borrow a line from the song.

Finally, let’s not forget Kiss Me, during the verse we seem trapped in a loop of ||: Major – Maj7 – Dom7 – Maj7 :||

This builds so much tension that when we finally release the chorus, it’s a relief!

Perhaps this is the main point of the static chord, the non-chord progression, it makes us crave a movement, whether it be taking us to the bridge like James does or the chorus to be kissed.

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#5 The I – bVIIx – IV

Everybody loves AC/DC and AC/DC loves the I – bVIIx – IV chord progression!

It would almost be easier to list songs they don’t use this awesome progression in.

Let’s just pick one of them so we can fit another couple of artists and bands in as well to explore this chord progression. AC/DC may have claimed this one but they’re not completely on their own.

I guess it has to be Back In Black, possibly one of the best rock tracks ever recorded, which perfectly sums it up as it goes E – D – A, followed by that delicious minor blues lick.

If this doesn’t make you want to play the guitar, I do not know what will!

Released as the album after they just lost their lead singer, Bon Scott, the band and producer Mutt Lange, with Brian Johnson at the microphone really knocked it out of the park with this one.

One of the world best selling albums, a title track with one of the coolest chord progressions. All that is left to do is turn it up.

A more gentle approach to the I – bVIIx – IV we find in Take Me To The River by Al Green.

In this soul classic, we have a horn section helping us build tension as this riff is enhanced with a minor to major for the I chord as well.

Surprisingly, it is actually possible to fit all this into a one-guitar arrangement, although it may require 8 step-by-step lessons to wrap your head around how to do it…

A much more gentle and pop star-friendly version of this progression can be found in Robbie Williams‘s biggest hit Angels.

Here it appears just as he sings: “I’m loving angels instead”. And backed by the progression, we believe him, even though that lyrical message is slightly confusing…

Finally, we can’t discuss the I bVIIx IV progression without mentioning the best band in the world, The Beatles. In their humongous hit Get Back we find the progression during the intro.

Next, we go dancing!

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#4 The II – V 

Put on your dancing shoes!

It may seem like I’ve missed a chord here, but surely the II – V – I is what should have been listed here, and shouldn’t it have been claiming the #1 spot on our list of top ten chord progressions?!?

Well, maybe. But I prefer the slightly less resolved version, where we never go to chord I.

Just loop that II – V and we can get our dancing shoes on to Chic’s Good Times (Em7 Em7sus4Asus4 A6).

By not resolving to I, we want to just keep on dancing all night long!

Another great example is I Wish, here the verse with its funky bass line moves between Ebm7 and Ab. However, when I recorded it on one acoustic guitar I had to move it up a semitone to Em – A.

The bass line may incorporate all sorts of chromatic notes but the progression is still clearly just a II – V on a loop.

Not just suitable for dancing, the II – V can also be slowed down and give us a cold, eerie backdrop for a ballad. Mad World does this well using EmA in the intro and during the chorus.

Once you get to know the II – V as a sound, you’ll find her everywhere. Be it slow and cold or fast and hot on the floor!

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#3 The I – V – VI – IV 

The safe bet for modern hits!

It’s weird but this progression has so many hits connectors to it, it’s truly mind-blowing.

You’d think I – VI – IV – V would have more and perhaps early on it did. There are a few 60s hits using the I – V – VI – IV.

But as we fast forward a few decades, it’s almost as if it’s taken over and I wonder why sometimes when I philosophy about the importance of chord progressions.

Perhaps it’s the initial surprise of going straight to the V, then up to the VI, rather than down to it (the minor fall). Or maybe it’s the completely unexpected movement from VI to IV, that’s a big jump!

Or is it the IV – I at the end that somehow makes us want to repeat the whole thing again?

I guess I’ve answered the question here, it’s the constant unexpected movement that drives the progression forward. This in turn must make us feel interested.

Compared with the classic I – VI – IV – V, which felt obvious, the modern version is unexpected.

So what songs that are huge hits do use this unexpected movement?

Rewind (Paolo Nutini), I Try (Macy Grey), Cryin’ (Aerosmith), I’m Yours (Jason Mraz), Price Tag (Jessie J), With Or Without You (U2), No Woman No Cry (Bob Marley), So Lonely (The Police).

I could go on and on, but you get the picture, the I – V – VI – IV is a safe bet if you want a hit!

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#2 The V – IV

Or is it the IV – V?

Either way, the idea of two major chords a tone apart is only possible in one part of the diatonic scale, between chords IV and V.

Numerous songs have this movement. Going up, Twist & Shout and La Bamba come to mind. Both these include the I chord as well, making it a I – IV – V, another ridiculously common movement, but I’m getting sidetracked…

Let’s look at a few songs that use it more in isolation.

Respect is a good example, having the V – IV on a loop during its famous verse.

In I Heard It Through The Grapevine we have a V – IV after the I chord which unusually is minor.

My favourite V – IV is an odd variation we find in On Broadway. First recorded by The Drifters in 1963 and then by George Benson in 1978.

In this song, we have a blues progression, but instead of chord I, we play the chord followed by a major chord a tone down, just like a V – IV.

As we later moved up to chord IV, this same movement was applied again.

Like this in the key of A:

||: A G : || x8
||: D C :|| x3

Finally, we move from the actual IV up to V, D – E.

What we end up with is a blues-like progression, with a V – IV/IV – V, every step of the way – Genius!

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#1 The I – IV

Take it to the bridge!

The I – IV progression claims the top spot on our top 10 chord progression list, purely down to its popularity.

To begin with, all major blues songs go from I – IV to; this is probably why the popularity of this movement has remained.

But not just found in the blues, the I – IV is present in most songs.

I decided to have a look at the songs currently taught in my step-by-step courses and see how many of them actually have this movement.

Here are the results:

29/48, that’s more than half of all songs that use this movement!

Perhaps even more famously than in a blues, we go to the IV chord whenever James Brown asks us to “take it to the bridge”!

I’ve mentioned Get Up I Feel Like Being A Sex Machine before when we looked at the chord progression which isn’t a progression in the #6 spot.

When he finally takes us away from that static I chord, we do of course go to chord IV.

Let’s look at a few more examples.

Respect, another song mentioned before for its V – IV movement, uses the I – IV during the intro and chorus.

Another song worth a mention is Son Of A Preacher Man which also uses the I – IV in the verse and chorus as E – A.

As we hit the M8, we get it again as we move to a new key, now, first as D back to A, and then as we settle in with our new key as A – D in the final chorus.

Chord progression summary

If you want to find out more about chord progressions, I have a mini-course in the SEPR where I’ll lay out all these theories from beginning to end. There’s also plenty of information in my eBook Spytunes Method.

Learning about chord progressions is a three-step process.

  1. First, you must understand the theory
  2. Then you must actually play each example in a real song
  3. Finally, you can start comparing similarities between songs you actually know how to play

Only by going all the way like this will you hear a song for the first time and be able to tell what the progression is, without even holding a guitar.

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About me | Dan Lundholm

Dan Lundholm wrote this article on Top 10 chord progressions.

This was an article about Top 10 chord progressions, by Dan Lundholm. Discover more about him and learn guitar with Spytunes.

Most importantly, find out why you should learn guitar through playing tunes, not practising scales, and studying theory in isolation.


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