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.

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Would you like to learn more about music theory for guitar so that you can have a better understanding of how to play and compose songs? Studying theory will uncover the mysteries of music and help you more quickly develop your skills as a guitarist, songwriter, improviser, and composer. Sign up to receive my FREE 6-step email course, “Bedrock Guitar Theory of the Pros”, and discover the 6 simple concepts that will have you rockin’ guitar music like a pro in half the time of ordinary lessons.

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?