Understanding Chord Progressions On Guitar – Three Simple Steps

We’ve discussed chords and scales before on this blog. This blog we’ll be using all that information to understand why some chords sound good together, and others completely obscure: Chord progressions.

Understanding Chord Progressions

A chord progression is a sequence of chords. They’re the foundation of songwriting and music in general. A chord progression exists of two or more chords, which are usually referred to with Roman numerals.

Understanding chord progressions on guitar helps us analyze and write unforgettable music. It helps us connect artists like Lady Gaga, Tim McGraw and Metallica by just looking at a few numerals. This knowledge will help you become a better musician yourself.

At the end of this page we’ll be able to read chord progressions in three simple steps:

  1. What are the notes of my scale?
  2. What are the roots of my chords?
  3. Are my chords major or minor?

1. What Are The Notes Of My Scale?

A chord progression we’ve discussed before is the vi – IV – I – V progression (Em, C, G, D).

The reason why this progression sounds so great is that all chords in this progression exist of notes that are all in the same scale: The natural major scale.

We learned that there are seven notes in a natural major scale. Last time we discussed the C major scale, so we’ll continue to use that as our example.

Understanding Chord Progressions

  • 1 is a C
  • 2 is a D
  • 3 is an E
  • 4 is an F
  • 5 is a G
  • 6 is an A
  • 7 is a B
  • 8 is a C again

2. What Are The Roots Of My Chords?

All those notes can be the starting point of a chord. Musicians call such starting point a root. There are seven notes in a major scale, so there are seven possible roots, and therefore 7 different chords. At the end of this blog, these notes will be referred to in Roman numerals, so it’s important to know which note belongs to which number.

In a C major chord, the root is a C (number 1):

Understanding Chord Progressions

In a D minor chord, the root is a (number 2):

Understanding Chord Progressions

3. Are My Chords Major Or Minor?

Besides a root, a chord also has a third.

If you take the seven notes from our C major scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B…) there’s always one note between a root and its third.

This means:

In a C major chord, the root is a C (number 1), the third is an (number 3):

Understanding Chord Progressions

In a D minor chord, the root is a D (number 2), the third is an (number 4):

Understanding Chord Progressions

In a C major chord, there’s more distance (4 frets) between the root and its third.

Understanding Chord Progressions

In a D minor chord, there’s less distance (3 frets) between the root and its third.

Understanding Chord Progressions

The distance between the root and its third will decide if a chord is major or minor. 

The order of tones and semitones in a major scale is irregular (W, W, H, W, W, W, H). This means the order in which the major and minor tones appear are irregular too. Luckily, just like the order of tones and semitones, it always stays the same. Once you’ve remembered its order, you can apply it to every other major scale.

It goes as follows:

  • The first chord of a major scale will always be major.
  • The second chord of a major scale will always be minor.
  • The third chord of a major scale will always be minor.
  • The fourth chord of a major scale will always be major.
  • The fifth chord of a major scale will always be major.
  • The sixth chord of a major scale will always be minor.
  • The seventh chord of a major scale will always be minor (diminished, but you shouldn’t worry about that term yet).

Roman Numerals

We often use Roman numerals to refer to chords. An uppercase numeral refers to a major chord and a lowercase numeral refers to a minor chord.

This means:

  • The first chord (major): I
  • The second chord (minor): ii
  • The third chord (minor): iii
  • The fourth chord (major): IV
  • The fifth chord (major): V
  • The sixth chord (minor): vi
  • The seventh chord (minor): vii

And there you have it. With this knowledge, you can start reading chord progressions, or start to make your own chord progressions.

Examples

Example 1

A very common chord progression is I – IV – V.

Step 1: What are the notes of my scale?

For this example, we’re using the C major scale. The notes of a C major scale are C, D, E, F, G, A, B.

Step 2: What are the roots of my chord?

  • I: C
  • IV: F
  • V: G

Step 3: Is it major or minor?

You can immediately see there will be no minor chords in this progression because there are no lowercase numerals. This means we can simply add “major” after all the roots.

  • I: C major
  • IV: F major
  • V: G major

Conclusion

I – IV – V in C major = C – F – G (major isn’t written down, it’s only written down when it’s minor)

Example 2

vi – V – I in C major

Step 1: What are the notes of my scale?

The notes of a C major scale are C, D, E, F, G, A, B.

Step 2: What are the roots of my chord?

  • vi: A
  • V: G
  • I: C

Step 3: Major/minor?

  • vi is lowercase, so it’s minor: A minor
  • V is uppercase, so it’s major: G major
  • I is uppercase, so it’s major: C major

Conclusion

vi – V – I in C major = Am, G, C

Outro

There are many other scales. The reason why teachers learn the C major scale first is that it’s the easiest. There are no sharp (♯) and no flat (♭) notes in the C major scale. For example, the G major scale goes like this: G, A, B, C, D, E, F♯, G…

We’ll discuss chord progressions in other scales, once we’ve mastered the C major scale. In the end, it’s exactly the same, just with other other notes.

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below.

Happy strumming,

Timo

4 thoughts on “Understanding Chord Progressions On Guitar – Three Simple Steps

  1. Years ago, when I was a teenager, I spent all my savings and purchased a guitar. I took a few lessons from a good friend of mine who was in a band, and I can’t tell you the joy I got from that guitar.  I never got very good at it, and like a lot of things in life, it ended up just collecting dust.  

    Now, years later, my son (who is 25) has picked up the guitar and has started trying to play it.  I’ve been looking around online for some information to help him (he’s not sure he wants to pay for lessons right now) and I’m so happy I found your site because it looks like it could be a good place to start.

    Thanks for putting this together.  It’s awesome and so helpful!

    1. Thank you very much, Babsie 🙂

      Playing music with other people is one of the best feelings in the world. Thank you for sharing your story with us 🙂

      Good luck to you and your son!

      Timo

  2. Hey Timo,

    Thanks for the great article!

    I just have one question for you.
    I don’t really get the whole major/minor lesson
    About the distance.

    Can you help me with that?

    Thanks!

    Mira

    1. Hey Mira,

      Yea, that’s probably the most complicated part of this blog.

      Click

      This is a C major. If the third was one fret below where it’s now (on number 3 instead of number 4), it would have been a C minor.

      In the D minor:

      the third is on the number three. It would’ve been major if it was one fret higher.

      In a scale some chords are major and some notes are minor.

      I’ll post a blog about how chords are built really soon. I get this can be really complicated 🙂

      Thank you for posting!

      Timo

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *