When we start out playing guitar, we all start learning the same guitar chords. Most of them are basic major and minor chords. Em, E, A, G, D… Learn these chords, we get told, and you can play almost every song in the world! Is this true? Yes and no.
I decided to analyze guitar chords in popular songs. I consulted Billboard’s Year-End Charts and gathered information on the most popular songs of each year of this century. From Ed Sheeran to Usher, from Adele to Flo Rida. Expecting a bunch of E minors and G majors, I was quite surprised by the results.
I decided to start to focus on more guitar-oriented genres: country and rock. How different would the numbers be if the guitar had a more prominent sound? Again, I was surprised.
Before I post my data below, I want to add that I didn’t take capos into account. I’ll discuss the capo later.
Most Used Chords In Pop
As you can see, there’s a lot of variety in chords. There are two chords that are ahead of the rest. I’ll give A# the first place, because there’s also a Bb in there, which is basically the same chord, just in another context. The second place goes to F.
Two barre chords in the top 2, which are not considered to be “beginner” chords. Where are our basic chords?
In the third place, there is 5-way-tie, and only 1 of those chords is a simple open chord: the C major.
So where is our G, our A, and where is our Em? G and A both only get one appearance. Em and D are not even on the list. There an Em7 in Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together”, but that’s it.
I think the biggest reason why the chords in pop are more complicated is that the guitar is not that prominent in its genre. A lot of music is written on the computer. When a song is a bit too low for a singer, it’s transposed a semitone higher without too much effort. A simple Em becomes a Fm and nobody notices.
Also, a lot of music is written on the piano in modern pop music. There are no open strings or barre chords on a piano. This makes it easier to play chords that are harder on guitar.
So what happens when we focus on a guitar-oriented genre: country?
Most Used Chords In Country
The list is a lot longer. There are a lot more chords being used. A lot of those chords only appear once, but you can tell country artists like to add some extra flavor to their chords, even if it’s just occasionally.
So which chords take the first spot? A, G, C, with D just falling behind. Whew! All is good in the world again. A# and Bb together are in the third place.
Again, a really strong appearance by this chord, which we often barely pay attention to. A# (or Bb) is very popular in the second decade of the 21st century with Florida Georgia Line, Sam Hunt and other bro-country artists topping the charts, taking influence from R&B, hip hop and modern pop in general.
Artists like Little Big Town and Taylor Swift put the Em on the chart, but again, the chord does not appear as often as we’d expect. Even the Dm, which I often consider to be a less popular chord is ahead of the very popular Em.
Chords in Rock
Looking at the chart, we can only take one conclusion: rock is straightforward. Besides an Asus6 and a D7 in Imagine Dragon’s Radioactive, there are only simple major and minor chords in this genre (or at least in the songs that topped the charts last two decades). Country had 47 different types of chords on its chart, rock only has 27. That’s remarkable.
The major chords are again the most popular. C, E, F, G, and G# take the lead.
The G# is surprising, considering it was barely being used in country and pop. I’d at least expect the A to be ahead of it. G# is the most popular during the second decade of the century, with Imagine Dragons, Walk The Moon and other electronic influenced rock bands topping the charts.
Opposed to pop and country, rock artists seem to like the Em better. Foo Fighters and Trapt help to make this chord a bit more popular in this genre.
Chords in Pop, Country, and Rock
Putting all of those results together, we can see which chords do best across all genres.
When C didn’t do so well in pop, I was extremely surprised. But thanks to its popularity in country and rock it ended up on top. In the second place, we find F and G, which is pretty cool, considering we can make a I – IV – V progression in C major with our top 3.
A, D and E fall behind but are still significantly ahead of the rest.
Cm and Dm are the most popular minor chords across all genres, with Em in third place. Cm before Em? Who would’ve thought…
When we analyze what types of chords the most popular, basic major and minor chords take the first place. Once again, reminding us how important they are. They’re a full 75% ahead of the second place: seventh chords.
So can we play almost every song in the world with basic open chords?
Are the guitar chords In popular songs really that easy?
No. Especially in pop, basic open chords are not enough. There’s a limit to what you can do with them. Once you know how to play barre chords, chords like F and A# can be added to our skill set, and we’ve seen how popular those chords are.
Almost every song can be played with basic open chords if you use a capo. A# can become an A and Fm can become an Em. They’re extremely useful and I use them a lot, but it’s important not to rely on them too much. More on capos later.
That’s all for today. Thank you for stopping by. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below.