Rock and roll is all about breaking the rules and having obnoxious levels of fun while at it.
Yet, just as with any other music style, there are some unwritten rules that lay the foundations over which the entire genre is constructed.
In this post, we’ll go over the most common (the fundamental) 25 rock chord progressions.
They will help you have a better understanding of the structure of rock and roll from a composition point of view and from a player perspective as well.
So, tighten up the bandana, get your leather pants on, and your gleaming six-stringer because rock and roll is the name of the game and these are the unwritten rules of one of the most famous musical styles of all time.
1. I – vi
This conjunction of a minor chord and the root, major chord (lowercase Roman numerals are minor chords and uppercase ones are major chords) being so close harmonically creates a subtle movement that’s very popular in rock music.
Also, you can transform the vi into a minor seventh chord for more variation (I – vi7).
Songs using this chord progression: “Locomotion”, “Pretty Woman”, and “My Sweet Lord”.
2. I – IV
The I and IV degrees in any major key are major chords.
Therefore, this combination makes a powerful statement that has been used extensively in Western music in general and rock and roll in particular.
For example, it is the chord progression behind many of the early Rolling Stones hits. We’ll see some more variations of this progression down the line.
Songs using this chord progression: “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”, “Start Me Up”, and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”.
3. vi – IV
Therefore, to make the progression above even more interesting, you can replace the I with the vi and use the same chord progression.
Plus, with the minor chord, the progression gains a darker quality that’s suitable for some mean rock n roll playing.
Songs using this chord progression: “Eleanor Rigby”, and “Rhiannon”.
4. I – ii
This is another great variation of the I – IV chord progression since the ii chord is the relative minor of the IV chord.
Plus, playing chords that are so close keeps it interesting and easygoing.
Songs using this chord progression: “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and “Don’t Let Me Down”
5. I – V – ii
Just like we did before, here we replace the IV chord with the ii chord, and what we get is a very different progression when compared with the I – V – IV since it ends in a minor chord.
The difference in texture and feeling is very noticeable.
Songs using this chord progression: “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”, and “With a Little Help From My Friends”.
6. I – IV – V
Perhaps, the most common progression in Western music is to use the three major chords of the major key and use the dominant (V) to go back to the root (I).
This is something that rock n roll borrowed from the blues (and never gave it back).
Try transforming the V degree into a seventh chord to increase the sense of urgency in going back to the root.
Songs using this chord progression: “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Pride and Joy”
7. I – ii – I – IV
Our ears as music lovers like hearing that repetition going from the I chord to the IV chord.
But we have to keep it interesting to avoid our audience from falling off from our melodic lines.
Thus, a common rocker trick is to swap the IV chord for the ii chord (its relative minor).
This inclusion of a minor chord in a major sequence can keep your verses more interesting.
Songs using this chord progression: “Blackbird” and “Uptown Girl”
8. I – V – I – IV
I – IV and I – V are two of the most popular progressions in the history of Western music.
What happens if we combine them? Well, we get this bombastic combination that has inspired countless hit songs.
Perhaps, the best-known and most widely used is the “Happy Birthday” song.
Do you want to add more spicy sauce? Turn the V chord into a V7 chord.
Songs using this chord progression: “Happy Birthday” and “Hey Jude”
9. I – iii – vi – IV
What happens if we take the above progression and we change the middle chords for their relative minors?
Well, we turn the song into a 3d adventure that takes the listener on an emotional rollercoaster going from major to minor to major.
Songs using this chord progression: “Oh Baby I Love Your Way”
10. I – V – vi – IV
Taking the examples above and substituting only one of the chords for its relative minor is perfect to add that extra layer to an otherwise very conventional progression.
Songs using this chord progression: “Let It Be” and “No Woman No Cry”
11. I – vi – IV – V
This is a chord progression that was utterly famous in the ‘50s but recently made a stellar comeback to the forefront of pop music with Justin Bieber.
Yet, don’t be fooled by its popularity, because if you add some distortion and power chords, you’re in rocking heaven.
Songs using this chord progression: “Baby” (Justin Bieber), “Beautiful Girls”, and “Stand By Me”
12. I – IV – vi – V
There’s something magical about swapping the I chord for its relative minor.
In this example, the addition to a lonely minor chord and the ending with the dominant (which you can, of course, transform into a dominant seventh) makes it a great circular progression for an interesting verse before the exploding chorus.
Songs using this chord progression: “Cryin’”
13. I – IV – I – V
Expanding the quintessential I – IV – V progression by adding a I chord in the middle is a very common practice in Western music.
This touching-ground move makes the entire progression major which is a perfect fit for rock and roll’s grandiloquent choruses and stadium anthems.
Now you know the recipe; use it wisely.
Songs using this chord progression: “You Shook Me All Night Long” and “Free Fallin’”
14. I – IV – V – I
What if you could sandwich the entire progression and instead of going for the return to the root, you make the root a double statement?
Well, this is another version for your bigger-than-Jesus chorus.
Songs using this chord progression: “It Ain’t Me Babe”
15. ii – IV – V
When a chord progression starts with a minor chord, it sets the mood for the rest of the chords.
What makes this progression such a rock and roll favorite is the IV – V combination that resolves back to a minor chord.
It works wonders for any rocking anthem since it adds a different layer of emotion to a known cadence.
Songs using this chord progression: “Smoke on the Water”
16. vi – V – IV
If you’re reading this rocking post, chances are you’re not a flamenco lover; otherwise, you might recognize this one as being the typical descending flamenco progression.
That being said, when used in a rocking environment, this progression blossoms as an instant favorite.
Finally, it has been used extensively in modern Western music, something flamenco players in the last two centuries would have never guessed would happen.
Songs using this chord progression: “Stray Cat Strut”
17. I – V – vi – V – IV – V
This is a very clever way to prolong the archetypical I – IV – V progression.
Yes, instead of adding the I chord in the middle, we use the relative minor vi chord.
Then, we just move on to a dominant, major chord sequence that takes us back to the root.
Furthermore, try turning your last V chord into a V7 chord and make the transition even more urgent.
Songs using this chord progression: “Tears In Heaven” and “Dust in the Wind”
18. I – V – vi – iii – IV – I – IV – V
19. I – IV – V – IV
20. I – V – IV – V
21. ii – I – V
22. V – IV – I
23. vi – IV – I – V
24. vi – V – IV – III
25. vi – V – VI – V
The Bottom End
These rocking chord progressions are great tools to transform your songwriting into a much more colorful, resourceful, and varied endeavor.
Yes, the more colors you have in your palette, the more colorful and interesting the results will be.
Therefore, make sure you use the songs given as an example, but try transcending the limits of this post and apply these structures to different keys to really grasp the intervals that have made them the most common in Western music for decades.
Finally, I hope these progressions are an inspiration and that they help you tell the world whatever your heart holds.
Hello there, my name is Ramiro and I’ve been playing guitar for almost 20 years. I’m obsessed with everything gear-related and I thought it might be worth sharing it. From guitars, pedals, amps, and synths to studio gear and production tips, I hope you find what I post here useful, and I’ll try my best to keep it entertaining also.