Common chord patterns are a series of chords that are used together much of the time in popular music. They're not key specific and aren't even really genre specific. Learning these common chord patterns (also called common chord progressions) does a few good things for your guitar playing.
First, they help you learn chord changes you're more likely to see. For example, you're more likely to see G, C, and D together rather than G, Bbm, and Eb. This helps you focus your time on more important things.
Learning to recognize these patterns regardless of key will help train your ear. This will also benefit you when you're trying to learn a popular song. You really only need to find the key and you'll be able to figure out the rest quickly.
And lastly, it helps you be able to change keys on the fly. This gets especially important when you start playing with vocalists.
Understanding Common Chord Patterns
Before we go onto common chord patterns, we have to have a very basic understanding of music theory. Let's look at the C Major scale:
Each of these notes can be represented by a scale degree, which is really just a number that tells us where in the key that note is. So these same notes can also be seen as:
C is 1, D is 2, and so on. Now, each of these notes or degrees also represents a chord. The 1 chord in the key of C Major is a C, the 4 chord is an F, and the 5 chord is a G.
It's more common to replace the Arabic numbers (1, 2, 3, etc) with roman numerals in music. Roman numerals are more helpful because they'll tell us if the chord is Major (uppercase) or minor (lowercase).
So the I, IV, and V chords are Major, and the ii, iii, and vi chords are minor.
Instead of trying to memorize these scale degrees in every key, it's more useful to learn them in the common keys on guitar. Those keys are C, A, G, E, and D. You can remember them easier by making the acronym CAGED. We'll use the key of C Major for all of the patterns today just to keep things simple.
*The vii chord is a diminished chord, which we'll cover in another lesson.
Common Chord Patterns
The 1st common chord pattern is the I-V-vi-IV (one-five-six-four) pattern. This is used in countless songs. We can see that the I chord is major so we'll play a C. The V chord is also major, and in the key of C this is a G chord. the vi is lowercase which tells us it's a minor chord. In the key of C this is an Am. Lastly the IV is uppercase telling us that it's a Major chord. In C this is an F chord. Together they look like this:
Think of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'"
Number 2 on our list is the I-vi-IV-V (one-six-four-five) pattern. This is that 50s progression mostly used in ballads. In the key of C you would play C-Am-F-G. Same chords as the first common chord pattern? Yes! But by changing the order and the feel they become different and unique. Think of Unchained Melody by The Righteous Brothers.
Number 3 is I-IV-V-IV. This is only 3 chords with the IV chord being played twice. You'll see this a lot in Punk Rock, Folk, and Pop music. In C Major that's C-F-G-F
The 4th common chord pattern is I-IV-vii-V. In C Major this is C-F-Am-G. This one is also used a lot in punk and Pop Punk, Folk, Rock
The 5th pattern is a little different. It's a ii-V-I-vi pattern. This gets more used in Jazz styles of music. It's a very common pattern there so it's worth adding to this list. It also introduces a new chord to the list, the ii chord. In the key of C Major it's a Dm chord.
Play that a few times. Since the pattern doesn't start on the I chord it feels a little unstable. It resolves briefly on the C chord, then get's less resolved on the Am. That's part of what Jazz musicians are known for, unresolved tension.
The 6th pattern starts on the 6th scale degree, vi-IV-I-V. This one is also common in Rock, Folk, Pop Punk, Pop. The I and vi chords in any key are relative keys. So when you start on the Am instead of the C, it feels like you're in the key of Am. But guess what? Am and C have all of the same notes! This is why they're called relative keys.
And lastly, the 7th common chord pattern is called the Andalusian Cadence. We're going to get a little different here and view it from the key of Am (the relative key to C Major). In the key of Am it's i-VII-VI-V, Am-G-F-E. If you were to think about it in the key of C Major, it would be vi-V-IV-III.
You'll notice that the E is a major chord, but in the key of both C Major and A minor it should be an Em. This is part of what gives it that Spanish feel. There's some deeper music theory to this, but for now just remember that making the iii chord in any Major key a Major chord can give you that Spanish vibe.
So this is a lot to think about and take in. Pick one or two of these progressions to work on and get down, then learn another. These are by no means the only common chord progressions. And they're not the only ones you can write your own songs with. But they do tend to appear in much of the music you'll hear.
Which of these chord progressions do you like the most? Did any of these progressions remind you of a song you like? Let me know in the comments!