Chord Progression Theory: A Guide for Guitar Players

How long does it take to learn guitarGuitar chords and chord progressions are the foundation of playing any song on guitar. If you learn just a few chord progressions, you’ll be playing hundreds of songs and even making up your own. Chord progression theory is about learning how chords are formed from scales and how the harmony of music key works. Below you’ll learn more about chord progression theory by building a solid foundation in music theory and building chords from there.  If you’re just starting out on the guitar, this beginning guitar course will give you step-by-step instructions on how to play.

Basic Music Theory

Understanding chord progression theory begins with understanding that chords are built from scales. The major scale is the scale from which the harmonic structure of all Western music is built, and it is the scale that you’ll use here to learn how to build chords and chord progressions.

In music, there are 7 natural notes that are named after the first 7 letters of the alphabet (A-G). If you start with the note C and go through the next 7 notes until you reach C again, you’ll have a major scale. It looks like this:

C   D   E   F   G   A   B   C

The Chromatic Scale

Notice that once you get to the note G, the note that follows it begins at the first letter of the alphabet again. The C major scale is the only major scale that features all natural notes. If you add the other notes that are located in between the natural notes, you’ll have a chromatic scale. The non-natural notes use the same letter names A through G, but with the addition of sharps (♯) or flats (♭). The chromatic scale looks like this when using sharps:

C   C♯   D   D♯   E   F   F♯   G   G♯   A   A♯   B   C

The chromatic scale looks like this when using flats:

C   D♭   D   E♭   E   F   G♭   G   A♭   A   B♭   B   C

Notice the second note in each scale. Though they are called by different names, they are actually the same note. Depending on what key you’re playing in, a nonnatural note may be characterized by a sharp or a flat.

Music Intervals

The distance between two notes is called an interval, and intervals are measured in half steps and whole steps. A half step is the distance between one note and the next. For example, the distance between E and F in the chromatic scale above is a half step. There are no notes in between these two notes. A whole step is the distance of two half steps. The distance between C to D in the chromatic scale above is a whole step because one half step would be from C to C♯ and another half step would be from C♯ to D. Another way to think of it while looking at the guitar fretboard is to see a half step as the distance between one fret and the next, and a whole step as the distance between two frets.

The Major Scale Pattern

The major scale is built from a specific pattern of intervals. The pattern of intervals is:

Whole step – Whole step – Half step – Whole step – Whole step – Whole step – Half step

If you start on any note in the chromatic scale and follow the interval pattern above, you’ll end up with a major scale and is an important aspect to music theory. The note that you begin with is called the tonic, it is the note by which you will derive the name of the scale. For example, if you start the pattern on the note E, you will refer to the scale you end up with as E major. The flats and sharps become important because you can’t have a scale that uses the same letter name in the scale twice. For example, if you followed the pattern and ended up with a C and a C♯ in the same scale, to avoid using the letter C twice, you would call the C♯ note D♭ instead.

Here is what the C major scale looks like when you include the interval pattern with it:

C (WS) D (WS) E (HS) F (WS) G (WS) A (WS) B (HS) C

An Intro to Chord Progression Theory

Chords are built by harmonizing notes so that they sound out together. The most basic chord types, which will be the focus here, have three notes. To understand how to build the chords in a major key, you’ll need to think again about the notes of the major scale and, specifically, the pattern of intervals that makes up a  major scale. Think of each interval in the major scale pattern as a scale degree, like this:

Scale Degrees

C Major Scale

1

C

2

D

3

E

4

F

5

G

6

A

7

B

8

C

To build the chords of a major key, you start on the tonic, which is C in this case, and add the note that is a 3rd interval up from the tonic and the note that is a 5th interval up from the tonic. It’s simple counting. Starting at C, count down to 3, and you arrive at E, which is the second note in a C Major chord. Again starting at C, count down to 5, and you arrive at G, which is the third note in a C Major chord. Now, you’ve built a C Major chord using the notes C, E, and G.

Start from each interval and build a chord by adding the note a 3rd up and a 5th up, making sure to stay within the major scale you’re operating in. For example, starting on D, count down 3 notes in the C major scale, and you arrive at F. Counting down 5 notes puts you at A. Now, you have a chord that contains the notes D, F, and A. This is a D Minor chord.

It’s helpful to understand what type of chord each note in a major scale will build if you follow the pattern above. Below, you’ll notice the notes of the C major scale. Above each note in a Roman Numeral. If the Roman Numeral is in all caps, the resulting chord is a major chord. If the Roman Numeral is in all lower case letters, the resulting chord is a minor chord. If there is a degree symbol after the Roman Numeral, that means it is a diminished chord, which is a chord you likely won’t use very often. Below the names of each note are the notes that make up each chord.

I

ii

iii

IV

V

vii

viii°

C

D

E

F

G

A

B

C-E-G

D-F-A

E-G-B

F-A-C

G-B-D

A-C-E

B-D-F

The Process of Building Chords for Any Major Scale

  • Decide what note you want to be the tonic

  • Using the chromatic scale, follow the major scale interval pattern of whole steps and half steps to list out all the notes in the major scale of the note you chose as the tonic

  • Determine what scale degree each note resides on

  • Build 3-note chords for each note in the major scale by stacking the 3rd and 5th intervals on top of each note

  • List out the chord names of the major key, using the Roman Numeral method above to differentiate between major, minor, and diminished chords

Now that you know how to determine what the chords are for any major key, you can begin working on actual chord progressions. In major keys, the three chords that are used most often are the I, IV, and V chords. The minor chord on vi is often added as well. On the guitar, these chords like this:

chord progression theory chord progression theory

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Common Major Chord Progressions

Knowing which chords sound the best in the major scale puts you in a position to get creative with developing chord progressions based on those chords. The chord progressions below represent some of the most used progressions in popular music over the last several decades. Try them out using the chords in the key of C that you learned above. As you play through them, you’ll notice that you can learn more about guitar chords and changes, and you may even notice some of them sounding like some of your favorite sounds.

I – IV

I – V

I – IV – V – I

I – V – IV – I

I – V – IV – V

I – V – vi – IV

I – vi – V – IV

I – IV – vi – V

I – IV – V – IV

Putting Chord Progression Theory into Practice

Chord progressions are a lot of fun to play because they allow you to make actual music. Many guitar players love being able to play chords and make up melodies over them, creating their own songs. Understand chord progression theory helps you to be a more well-rounded player and gives you a foundation on which to build more advanced guitar skills. This course on beginning to advanced guitar playing will help you to take your guitar playing to the next level.