Introduction to Guitar: Guitar Chord Families and Progressions
by Elaine Ernst Schneider
Playing the guitar is tons of fun. Most music is marked with the chords that you need. But what can you do when the song you want to play does NOT have the chords written in for you? You can figure out chords on your own, just by understanding a little bit of music theory. It is helpful to know that certain chords are likely to occur in a song – and they will appear in a grouping (or “family”) almost every time.
First, play a few chords and establish a key where you feel that the song is in a comfortable singing range. This first chord is the Tonic chord, indicated by the Roman numeral I. Most songs follow the I, IV, V7 chord progression. If you think about a piano keyboard, you can imagine the notes: A, B, C, D, E, F, G. Then you begin again with A. So, really, you could go on indefinitely: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C … etc. Musicians use this pattern to figure out chord progressions.
Let’s say that you decided the chord to begin your song should be G. That makes G the Roman numeral I of your progression. Count up four: G, A, B, C. That means C would be the Roman numeral IV of the progression. Count up five to get the Roman numeral V. In this case, it would be D. The V chord is always a seventh. Here it would be D7. So, to play a simple song in the key of G, you’d need G, C, and D7. Sometimes, a minor chord is introduced. The minor is always three half steps down from the tonic and is indicated by the lower-case Roman numeral vi because it is the 6th note from the tonic chord. In the key of G, the minor is E minor (count up six from G).
Below is a chart that lists common chord families, using the I, IV, V7 chord progression :
C, F, G7, A minor
D, G, A7, B minor
E, A, B7, D-flat minor (also might be called C-sharp minor in your chord book)
F, B-flat, C7, D minor
G, C, D7, E minor
A, D, E7, G-flat minor (also might be called F-sharp minor in your chord book)
Chord progressions usually begin and end on Tonic (Roman numeral I.) This means that if your first chord is G, your last chord will probably be G. In reality, then the chord progression I, IV, V7 would be I, IV, V7, I.
Here are common chord progressions with a song example for each:
I, IV, V7, I Wabash Cannonball (G, C, D7, G)
I, V7, I Okie from Muskogee ( D, A7, D)
I, IV, vi, V7, I Michael, Row the Boat Ashore (C, F, A-minor, G7, C)
I, vi, V, I Down by the Riverside (G, E-minor, D, G)
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Submitted by: Elaine Ernst Schneider is a freelance writer and a teacher. She has been writing since high school and has published articles, songs, and children’s work. Presently, Elaine is a curriculum author for both Prentice Hall and Group Publishing and is the managing editor of Lesson Tutor, a lesson plan website found at https://www.lessontutor.com. Her most recent books, 52 Children’s Moments (Synergy Publications) and Taking Hearing Impairment to School (JayJo Books and the Guidance Channel) can be found at Amazon.com.