Four Common Chord Progressions and Song Structures

Now that you’ve seen that there are certain recurring patterns in chord progressions, you’re going to enjoy opening that up even further. Becoming familiar with these chord structures and the way that they sound will enable you to play almost any song you hear, by ear. Once you understand how they work and you can play over them, you’ll also be able to improvise and create sympathetic guitar arrangements for solo or ensemble playing.
1. All the pop songs part one:

I – V – vi – IV (G – D – Em – C).

As per the handout for this, and the Axis of Awesome medley.
2. All the pop songs part two – otherwise known as the 50’s progression.

I – vi – IV – V (G – Em – C – D).

It is sometimes called this because it was hugely popular in the 50’s and 60’s and is still widely used today. Everyone from Ben E King (Stand by me) to Justin Bieber via Sean Kingston has had a shot at this one. Just a few examples from hundreds:
Hallelujah – Leonard Cohen
Unchained Melody – Righteous brothers
I Will Always Love You – Whitney and Dolly Parton
Purple Rain – Prince
Big Girls Don’t Cry – Franki Valli and the Four Seasons
Dream – Everley Brothers
All my loving – The Beatles
A day in the life – The Beatles
Every Breath You Take – Police
No Surprises – Radiohead
All the pop songs part two and a bit:
It’s very close to All the pop songs part 2:

I-vi-ii-V (G-Em-Am-D)

C and Am have two notes in common.
Songs that use this include:
Dancing in the Moonlight – King Harvest
Hungry Heart – Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Back to you – John Mayer
Give me Novocaine – Green Day
Mercy mercy me – Marvin Gaye
Without you – Harry Nilsson
3. Progression number three looks related to All the Pop songs parts one and two – and indeed it is. It starts with the VI minor chord in the key, so I’m going to call it the relative minor progression.

vi – IV – I – V (Em – C – G – D).

Examples of songs that use it: Toto-Africa, Iggy Pop – Passenger, The Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Snow, Green Day – Holiday, Cranberries – Zombie, Adele – Hello, The Scorpions – We Built This House, The Offspring
– The Kids Aren’t Ok, Self-Esteem, and an enormous list beyond that.
Don’t be fooled into thinking – oh – this information isn’t very significant because this chord progression is very similar to the other one I can play, it’s just that Em goes first now. What we’re dealing with are some very foundational elements of music which will really help you build up rapid recognition in the musical contexts you want to explore.

What are those weird Roman Numerals?? Don’t worry about them yet if you haven’t encountered them-they’re a way of describing how far apart or close together chords in a key are to one another that you will find out about in due course.

Here is a selection of backing tracks in different styles for each progression. Play each one in turn if you’re working on chord changes, or use them for improvisation backing tracks.

G D Em C

Country/folk style

Reggae style with guitar strums on the offbeat

Pop rock style

Acoustic trio style


G Em C D

Electronic dance music style

Laid back funk pop style

Eighties pop style

Slow Blues style


Em C G D

Harder Rock

Reggae style, guitar on beats 2 and 4.

Indie Brit Rock style