Sure, you can shred a banging solo alone in your living room but if you really want to make music, that solo needs some context. And the context for melodies and rhythm is harmony! 

Whether you’re a beginner, intermediate, or an advanced guitarist, chord progressions are foundation for your musical expression.

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • Nine common chord progressions and songs that use them
  • Four chord shapes you need to learn to play those progressions
  • Why you should learn how to use and read roman numerals 

Must-know chord shapes on guitar

Once you learn the four chords below, you’ll be able to play 62% of popular music. (Just remember that 76% of all statistics are made up, so…)

These are the simplest chord voicings for a C, D, G, and Em chord:

If you’re having trouble with these diagrams, check out our article on how to read guitar chord diagrams.

You can use three of those chords you just learned (G, D, and D) to play these classics

Try them out! 

If you’ve never played chords on guitar before, watch the video below – it should help you get the hang of things. 

What is a chord progression?

A chord progression is a collection of chords that you can loop!

  • One chord repeated over and over is usually called a vamp.
  • Two chords or more are a chord progression.
  • Repeat the progression and you have yourself a song section (or an entire song).

Here’s an example: Listen to Jason Mraz’ song I’m Yours and notice how he repeats the same four chords over and over on guitar while the melody and lyrics change.

A lot can be done with a handful of simple guitar chords, huh?

Notating guitar chord progressions 

There are two ways to notate guitar chords:

  • Chord names (C, Dm, etc.)
  • Roman numerals (I, IIm, etc.)

Let’s look at the chord name version first.

We’ll use the Jason Mraz song as our example. Here’s one way to write out the chord progression using chord names:

G - D - Em - C

You play a G major chord, then a D major, then the E minor, followed by the C major chord – rinse and repeat for a pop smash hit.

Side note: You need to place a capo on the 4th fret to play along with the original song. Otherwise, the chords would be B - F# - G# - E. Yikes!

Read this article to find out what a capo is good for.

How long do you hold each chord in a progression?

When you’re lucky, you’ll find chord progressions written out with both simple rhythm notation and the chord names. 

The numbers in front are the time signature and the vertical lines mimic measures and indicate when the chords change.

Example 1

4/4 ||: G | D | Em | C :||

  • 4/4 means that you play each chord for four beats and each beat is a quarter note long.
  • The : symbol means that you repeat the progression once you get to the C chord.

Example 2

3/4 ||: G | D | % | C :||

  • 3/4 means that you play each chord for three beats and each beat is a quarter note long.
  • The % symbol means that the chord stays the same. 
  • After playing the D chord for three beats, you repeat it for another three.

Using lead sheets to write down chord progressions

Lastly, a proper lead sheet is one of the best ways to write out the chords for a song.

  • Lead sheets are an industry-standard format of communicating songs.
  • The song title appears at the top of a lead sheet, followed by composer and lyricist credits
  • The style and tempo of the song appear next.
  • Chord symbols provide an outline of the song for harmonic instruments.
  • Detailed melodic and lyrical information appear below the chord symbols.
  • Repeat signs (:||) and letters (A, B) indicate the song’s form.

What are roman numerals good for?

Roman numerals are part of a numbers system that musicians developed over time to communicate musical ideas with each other. It’s an essential tool you can use to analyze, transpose, play, and write chord progressions.

Here’s how roman numerals work in music:

  • Memorize the seven chords (and their order) that make up the key of C.
  • C major, D minor, E minor, F major, G major, A minor, B half-diminished.
  • Assign each chord a number from I to VII. (C = I, Dm = IIm, etc.)

Now, when you see a chord progression notated in roman numerals, you can translate it into chords.

I - IV - V is 

  • C - F - G in the key of C Major
  • G - C - D in the key of G Major

You can also translate or transpose a chord progression that’s hard to play/read into something easier:

  • Translate F# - A# - C# into I - IV - V in the key of F# Major
  • Or transpose it to another key like G major: G - C - D

Go deeper into learning all about roman numerals with guitarist and producer Jude Smith:

Songs you can play with just four open chords: G, D, Em, and C

Many songs stick to chords from a single key – it’s simplifies the writing process and guarantees the progression will always sound great. 

We can narrow down the list even more and select only the four money-maker chords from the seven that are available within a key. 

In the key of G major, those chords are:

  • G (the I) 
  • C (the IV) 
  • D (the V)
  • Em (VIm)

Below are some of the most popular ways to combine them into chord progressions. 

Not all the song examples are in the key of G but with a capo, you’ll be able to transpose them to the original key of each song.


These three chords are almost synonymous with the blues and have found their way into many other genres.

The are sometimes used as a trio in verses or choruses but the most common way to combine them is the 12-bar blues formula:

You can hear this chord progression in 


This is the bread and butter of hit songs. Some songs are built entirely on this magic combo, others use it just for a song section. 

Song examples include 

As the Axis of Awesome demonstrate, there are many many more that use this progression across different keys:


Same chords, different order. This progression was very popular in the 1950s and 60s. That hasn’t stopped neither Taylor Swift nor Alicia Keys to cash in on this fabulous chord combo:


Yes, these are still the same chords but yet a different variation. By now you’re catching on how simple it is to write a chord progression. You should try it some time!

Here are some song examples:

  • Verse of All Of Me by John Legend (key of Ab)
  • Chorus of Africa by Toto (key of F#)


With only one chord shape more, you too can be a sophisticated jazz musician. These three chords are found in a slew of jazz standards and jazz adjacent genres.

The IIm-V-I chord progression can appear multiple times in different keys within just one jazz standard – this means you won’t get away with just three chord shapes.

Your best bet to play this beauty without using bar chords is the key of C:

  • C (the I)
  • G (the V)
  • Dm (the IIm)

Here’s a D minor chord shape:

Guitar chord progressions for rock, neo soul, and R&B

We’re leaving the safe haven of four chord wonders behind. Below are some examples from other genres. They will include some symbols we haven’t mentioned yet – more on that below.

Neo soul: IIm9 IIm9/V VIm bIII13

Brown Sugar by D’Angelo

We’ve got a great article about neo-soul chord progressions for you to check out.

R&B: IIIm IIm and IV IIIm IIm

Doo-Wop (That Thing) by Lauryn Hill

Rock: I V VIm IIIm IV I V

Basket Case by Green Day

Punk: Im bVI Im/V V7

All Torn Down by Living Endmply

Understanding guitar chord progression symbols

Some chord symbols are pretty straightforward and others look more like a math equation. 

We’ve already talked about roman numerals for chords in a major tonality. 

But what about chords in a minor tonality or chords outside of the key of a song?

Each chord in a song is identified by its relation to the note that is the key center of a song or in relation to its neighboring chords.

  • For example, the third chord in the key of A minor is C major. 
  • Since it’s a minor third away from A (and not a major third) we can write it as bIII.
  • You can add a b or # (flat or sharp) in front of a roman numeral.

Secondary dominants deserve their own analysis

Sometimes it’s easier to notate chords in relation to its neighbor. This is especially true for the commonly used secondary dominants.

  • This progression is part of Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah: C - F - G - Am - F - G - E7 - Am.
  • All of the chords fit neatly into the key of C except E7
  • We could write it as III7 but to underline its purpose, it makes more sense to define it as the V7 of VIm.
  • E is the V of A and was conveniently sneaked into the progression just before the Am chord as a secondary dominant.

Beyond minor and major chords

Other chord qualities you’ll find in the wild west of music notation:

  • Half-diminished chords = note name/roman numeral + “m7b5” (Bm7b5, VIIm7b5)
  • Diminished chords = note name/roman numeral + “o” (Bo, VIIo)
  • Augmented chords = note name/roman numeral + “+” (C+, I+)
  • Chord extensions = note name/roman numeral + extension interval (Em9, IIIm9)

There’s stylistic variation in the way numbers system roman numerals are written. Occasionally, you’ll see lowercase roman numerals to indicate minor and diminished chords.

Below are two different ways of notating the same scale degrees:

  • I - ii - iii - IV - V - vi - viio
  • I - IIm - IIIm - IV - V - VIm - VIIo

All you need to know is that the above examples all mean the same thing.

Writing your own chord progression

Now that you have a few examples, it should be fairly easy to come up with your own chord progression.

  • Pick a key and find out which chords are in the key.
  • Combine a few of them.
  • Use one of the popular progressions from this article or use your ear to find what sounds good to you.
  • Pick a tempo and strumming pattern.

Don’t be worried about “stealing” a chord progression. In the eyes of the law, it’s the lyrics and melody that make a song unique – no musician has the copyright to a chord progression. 


For beginners, it makes a lot of sense to focus on learning these four chords first: G, C, D, and Em.

They make up some of the most common chord progressions in contemporary music:

  • I-IV-V (G - C - D)
  • I-V-VIm-IV (G - D - Em - C)
  • I-VIm-IV-V (G - Em - C - D)

It’s worth learning the number system and how to translate roman numerals into chords and vice versa.

Lead sheets are the standard format for notating the chords, melody, and lyrics of a song. Sometimes, simple dashes between chords will do in order to jot down a chord progression.

If you want to learn more about how to write chord progressions and how to analyze songs, sign up today for a free 14-day trial for Pickup Music. 

Our Music Theory Learning Pathway is a guided course with daily lesson plans and assignments. All aspects of music theory are directly related to the guitar so you can apply them right away.

Author: Julia Mahncke