How to Play Guitar Chord Progressions



  • Do you think you could pick up on new songs quicker if you knew how they were put together?
  • Could you play by ear better if you knew where to look?
  • Would knowing how chords relate to one another make it easier for you to write songs and compose music?
  • Have you ever heard a musician talk in numbers and wondered what the numbers meant?

The answer to each one of these questions is, yes, and this is where music theory as it relates to guitar chord progressions and playing by numbers comes into play.

Guitar Chord Progressions

Music is always based on movement, whether it be melodic movement, chordal movement, or, in most cases, both. Almost every song is composed using a group of chords that move from one to another. A chord progression is the way in which chords are put together to form a series of chord changes. As chords change they determine the music’s movement and a song’s structure. Composing a chord progression requires you to understand relationships between chords and concepts involving the way chords lead to and pass from one another.

Generating Chord Progressions

Chord progressions follow patterns that stem from the major scale. The types of chords used in these patterns relate to the scale as well. Here’s how it works:

  • Chords are built by stacking notes of the major scale
  • Each scale degree produces a different chord
  • Chord progressions move (progress) from one scale degree (or one chord) to another
  • You play different chord progressions by changing the order of the chords and changing on which scale degree you start
  • Since scale degrees are numbered, the chord progressions based on those scale degrees are numbered as well
  • Chord progressions make numbered patterns on the fretboard that can be moved around and used to play in different keys

When you develop a proper understanding of how chord progressions are generated, you more easily follow a song’s changes and compose your own music.

Playing Chord Progressions By Numbers

One of the most important aspects of music is the number system used to chart chord progressions. Perhaps you’ve heard guitar players talk about a “1 4 5” or “1 5 6 4” chord progression but didn’t know what it meant. Well-informed musicians relate everything to intervals and numbered patterns that are moved around the fretboard like a template. The neat thing about knowing progressions as numbers is that you don’t need to worry so much about key signatures, flats, and sharps.

When it comes to playing guitar chord progressions, you can always know what chords go together no matter what key you’re in and no matter where you are positioned on the neck simply by visualizing numbered patterns. Once you learn a chord progression in one key, you can transpose it to another key by simply shifting its pattern to a new fretboard position. In fact, each key is numerically the same. Instead of trying to keep track of all chords in all keys and in all positions you instead use one number system that applies to them all!

major scale chord pattern guitar

The neck diagrams above illustrate the pattern that the first six chords in the G major scale make on the fretboard. In music theory, Roman numerals are used to represent scale degrees, and major and minor chords.

Chord Progression Songs

The follow list is just one very short example of the songs that can be played using the above G major scale chord progression pattern.

  • “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison I-IV-I-V
  • “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd V-IV-I
  • “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” by Bob Dylan I-V-ii
  • “All She Wants to Do Is Dance” by Don Henley V-I-iii-IV
  • “More Than a Feeling” by Boston I-IV-vi-V
  • “Nothing Else Matters” by Metallica vi-V-IV

Playing Over Chord Progressions

Something else to consider about chord progressions, and this is critically important to lead guitarists, is that knowing them is necessary in order to apply scales correctly and understand modes. You know which scales to use over chords by recognizing from which scales the progressions are drawn. The modal concept is really a concept in chord progressions too. Each degree of the major scale produces a different sound when it’s used as the primary pitch of a piece of music. This is why I tell guitarists to learn major scale patterns and chord progressions before attempting to make sense of modes, otherwise you’re getting ahead of yourself.

Chord Progression Video Instruction

Fretboard Theory DVDs transparent 150When you’re ready to learn the whole process of building chords, forming numbered patterns, and playing chord progressions, your journey begins with the Fretboard Theory video instruction featured in the GMT member area. There are over 20 courses and 150 video lessons pertaining to scales, chords, progressions, modes, and more. Aside from learning these components of music individually, you learn how they fit together to make music. Furthermore, everything is taught from a guitar player’s perspective by focusing on the fretboard and relating all concepts to familiar songs.

Desi Serna

Desi Serna guitar music theoryHailed as a “music-theory expert” by Rolling Stone magazine, guitarist Desi Serna is a music instructor and author who has written several books on guitar including Fretboard Theory, Fretboard Theory Volume II, Guitar Theory For Dummies, Guitar Rhythm and Technique For Dummies, and How To Teach Guitar and Start Your Own Music Instruction Business. He is known for his practical, hands-on approach to music teaching, with a focus on the guitar fretboard and emphasis on popular songs. Desi honed his craft through decades of teaching, performing, and publishing. He lives in the Nashville, Tennessee area, produces all the instruction featured in the GMT member area, and is online everyday connecting with his subscribers and giving guitar players personalized training and support.

Beginner Chord Progressions

I do not recommend that beginner guitarists study chord progression theory. If you’re just getting started with guitar, then focus on learning the basics of playing and strumming simple songs. For more information, please visit my beginner guitar page which features free guitar lessons for newbies.

Read More About Chord Progressions and Related Guitar Theory

What Is Guitar Theory?

What Scales To Learn

How to Learn Chords On the Fretboard

What Are Scale Modes?

Learning the Guitar Fretboard

What Is Fretboard Theory?