Songwriter U: Classic 4-Chord Progressions for Songwriting

By Shawn Leonhardt for Guitar Tricks and 30-Day Singer

Videos by American Songwriter

When it comes to songwriting there really are four chords to rule them all and they are the I, IV, V, and minor vi. There are so many songs written with these four guitar chords and there are plenty more that you can also write. Just remember that rhythm, bass lines, and chords are all shareable, it is the melody and main riff that must be unique.

Let’s take a look at the different orders of the most popular classic four-chord progressions used in songwriting. Use a guitar chord chart to find all these chords in any key.

Why The I, IV, V, and vi?

A great place to start your music theory study is with your intervals, each one has a distinct sound that can be memorized for ear training. The root, fourth, and fifth, are the most consonant and perfect-sounding intervals. The first and fifth sound the best, while the IV has a slightly less perfect sound. Therefore many songs will move from I-IV-V-I because it has perfect tension and release.

The next most important interval is the relative minor of the root, which is the vi. This addition of the minor into the other major chords provides a perfect song skeleton for nearly every genre. It can be sad, uplifting, or even neutral depending on the order in that you play the chords. 

Keep in mind that some songs use the same chord progression the whole time, while others switch sequences between sections like the verse and chorus. In some of the song examples below you may have to find the part where it is used, but after hearing a few it gets easy.

The Most Common 4 Chord Sequences


Next to the I-IV-V the I-V-vi-IV is one of the most used pop progressions. In the key of C that would be C-G-Am-F. You can pick any famous band and you will find they almost all have an example. Some bands literally build a career on this chord progression. And that is not a dismissive or judgmental statement, songwriters simply tend to stick with what works.

“Don’t Stop Believing” Journey
“Let it Be” The Beatles
“No Woman No Cry” Bob Marley
“Land Down Under” Men At Work
“Hair” Lady Gaga
“You’ll Think of Me” Keith Urban

There are thousands of songs with this chord progression and most are quite popular.


In the key of C, we would have C-Am-F-G and this is known as the Doo Wop progression and covers most songs of the 1950s and 1960s era. Like the one above, this is another common progression that is used by many bands, especially when they wish to have a soul-like sound.

“Earth Angel” The Penguins
“Stay” Maurice Williams
“Telephone Line” ELO
“Teenager In Love” Dion and The Belmont’s
“Baby” Justin Bieber
“Chain Gang” Sam Cooke


This is known as the sensitive pop progression as it has a more emotional overall feeling thanks to the minor key. When we change the orders of these progressions we are also changing their intervals and tones which is what gives rise to the new vibe. Sometimes we will see the order of vi-I-IV-V like in Harry Styles’ “Adore You.”

“The Passenger” Iggy Pop
“One of Us” Joan Osborne
“Apologize” One Republic
“Zombie” The Cranberries
“Foolish Games” Jewel


In the key of C, we have G-Am-F-C which will give us a bit more of a rocking vibe, take the vi out and it’s going to be even more rocking. Especially if G is now our tonal center the flattened F will give it that Mixolydian blues feel. Check out a scale finder to help you with this. Without the vi, our V-IV-I can be written as I-bVII-IV and this shortened version is where we find most of our song examples.

“You Got It” Roy Orbison
“Won’t Get Fooled Again” The Who
“Sugar Magnolia” The Grateful Dead
“Whip It” Devo
“Back in Black” AC/DC


The chords for this order are F-C-G-Am and starting on the IV gives it a slightly more dissonant vibe. Like the one above, it can be written in a different way because we may be entering a new tonic or root. Of course, that depends on other factors in the song. If you are playing the correct sequences you can write them how you like.

“Umbrella” Rhianna
“Midnight Rain” Taylor Swift
“Bad Blood” Taylor Swift
“As If It’s Your Last” Blackpink
“What’s My Age Again” Blink 182

Substitute to Make New Chord Progressions

You can either go look up other popular chord progressions or you can substitute other guitar scales and scale degrees in the patterns above. The latter may be a little better from the creative angle of songwriting. This Nashville Number chart below will allow you to play in different keys and try different chords in the orders above.

TonicSuper TonicMediantSub-DominantDominantSub-MediantLeading Tone Sub-Tonic

Instead of using an I-IV-V try an I-IV-bVII (the seventh is flattened, not diminished). Take out the IV above and instead try an I-vi-ii-V, which has a more jazz-standard sound to it. Or try an iii substitution in I-iii-IV-V for a more classic rock feel. Also, remember to change minors to majors like the popular I-II-IV that The Beatles loved. Try any changes out or different orders and just see what kind of song structures you can create.

A lot of songwriting is really all about chord progressions so it is wise to master a handful and then know the substitutions to make even during your beginner guitar lessons. Not only will this make you a better songwriter, but it also makes it easier to jam with new musicians when you all know the basics. In fact, once you learn the common 4-chord progressions above, you will know how to play the most popular songs, so study them thoroughly.


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