Hey all –
As I teach guitar students many various songs, I try to point out what chord progression the song is built from.
What is a chord “progression”? Just a fancy sounding term that means a series of chords that make up a song. But some are used over and over again. Spotting them early can help you figure out a song by ear.
Songs Come From Chord Progressions
I’m re-reading the book Life by Keith Richards and their pianist used to call the Rolling Stones “My little 3 chord wonders”. Even though he meant it affectionately, many songs are just 3 chords. Let’s look at the most used 3 chord progression:
I IV V
The I-IV-V (or the “one, four five” is how we say it) is a major chord (Or at least a root-fifth of the chord) played on the 1st note of a major key, the 4th note, and the 5th note of a major key.
The key of C is all natural notes (i.e. no sharps or flats):
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
C D E F G A B
With the 1 (I) being C, the 4 (IV) being F and the 5 (V) being G, that is a I, IV, V in C. The order of the chords being played will depend on the song, so don’t get hung up on that. You can write a song that goes G, to F, to C (V – IV – I in order) but we still call it a I-IV-V progression.
So the most popular keys for guitar are actually, G, E and A as they can use open string chords, which are what most students start with.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
G A B C D E F# I, IV, V is G, C, D
E F# G# A B C# D# I, IV, V in E is E, A, B
A B C# D E F# G3 I, IV, V in A is A, D, E
This is extremely helpful in transposing songs. Transposing is taking a song and changing it’s key. This sounds hard, but you, the reader, can see all you need are the notes in a key, find the first, fourth, and fifth out of it, if you know how to play those chords, you’re good to go.
Say for example you are in a band and the song is a I, IV, V in E – so E, A and B. Your singer is really straining to hit the high notes and says something like “Hey guys, these high notes are killing me – can you bring it down a bit?”
Sure! It’s a I, IV, V progression. Looking at E as I (or 1), we need to bring E “down” by not starting on E any more. The note before E is D# or Eb but guitar players don’t like those keys, so let’s do D. D is a whole step, or 2 frets lower than E.
So we had a I, IV, V in E. We now need a I, IV, V in D. Looking up your Key of D we have:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
D E F# G A B C#
Our song would now be D, G, and A major chords, the 1, 4, and 5 of D.
The effect of this is that all the chords have gone down a whole step in pitch. E went down to D. The IV of E, which is A, then down to G. And the V of E, which is B, went down a whole step to A.
This is easier to see in Bar Chords than open string chords. If you’re playing E (root E on 5th string 7th fret) you’ll now play D (root D on 5th string 5th fret).
A on the 6th string 5th fret goes to G on the 6th string 3rd fret.
B on the 6th string 7th fret goes to A on the 6th string 5th fret.
A Note on Roman Numerals
Chord progressions are always written as Roman Numerals. We talk about chords in terms of numbers so that the I chord can be anything in the musical system.
When you start playing with woodwind players (flute, sax) or trumpet players, be prepared to have “flat” keys thrown at you. Many of my students join a Jazz Combo class in high school or college. Forget the key of D, you’ll be in F, Bb or Eb (favorite keys for horns). Just remember the secret is know where I(1) is. Key of….Bb? Ok! Bb is I. Look up (or better yet memorize) your major keys so you know the progression will be Bb, Eb, and F major.
So that concludes this first installment of chord progressions you should know. One could write an entire book on the I-IV-V since it is used heavily in folk (Happy Birthday song), rock (Johnny B Goode), country rock (Already Gone) and blues (almost all of them).
Get to know the I IV V in these keys: E, G, A, and D. Open chords can be used in all these keys.
Next, get to know the I IV V using bar chords. You’ll see a pattern on the neck this way (much easier than open string chords) and can see the chords in a way that changing keys makes more sense, like change from E to D above. Ah, I move each chord down a whole step.
You might catch some grief from the pianist who has to change their whole layout on the keyboard to go from a Key with 4 sharps (E) to a key of 2 sharps (D) because “Hey man, all you have to do is move your hand up and down the neck to change keys”. A saxophonist once said that to me.
Well, he’s right on one level. But the guitar holds other challenges the sax guy doesn’t have. We’ll just leave it at that.
Stay tuned for the 2nd installment of this series. Have a safe and happy 4th of July, 2017!!