Throughout the long tumultuous history of Rock ‘n’ Roll, there have been certain song patterns that have shown up over and over. Many of them are cliches by now (how many times have you heard the fire/desire rhyme?), but others are classics, comfortable sounds we recognize in our bones. We’ve heard them a million times, but can’t help but feel inspired anew every time. Today I’ll cover one of those: The I-vi-IV-V Chord Progression. Yeah, just rolls of the tongue, right? Well, trust me that it sounds better when you play it than when you try to name it.
First a chord progression is a sequence of chords played one after another, often repeated in a loop. For example, if the rhythm section of a band plays a G chord for a measure, followed by Em for a measure, then C , then D, and then starts over at the beginning, we can say the song uses the G-Em-C-D chord progression.
Those four chords all happen to be in the key of G major. If we instead wanted to play in the key of C major, we could transpose each of those chords into the equivalent chord in the key of C. That would give us C-Am-F-G. (I haven’t covered transposition yet, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.)
Just looking at G-Em-C-D compared to C-Am-F-G, it’s not obvious that they are really the same progression, just in different keys. That’s where the Roman numerals come in. Since G is the first note in the G major scale, we can write it generically using the Roman numeral one, that is, I. Next is the Em. Counting from G to E gives us six (G, A, B, C, D, E), so we can write that as the Roman numeral six, VI. Since it’s a minor chord, the VI is usually written in lower-case, as vi. Doing the same thing with the C and the D, we get I-vi-IV-V, which can just be spoken as “one-six-four-five.”
The one-six-four-five is one of the most common chord progressions in rock and pop music. It was used especially frequently in the 50s, but you’ll still hear it nowadays. (You may even hear this progression referred to as the “50s progression.”) Stand By Me uses it, as does Jackson Brown’s Stay. More recently, Green Day’s Jesus of Suburbia, and Every Breath You Take by The Police.
Practice playing this progression in some common guitar keys. Strum each chord for four beats before switching to the next one. Start with four simple down-strokes, then try mixing up the rhythms a little bit. Listen to my recordings at the end of this article for some ideas.
Here are the chords for this progression in some common keys. Click on each chord name to see how to play it using the Chorderator.
This is also one of the most fun progressions to improvise over. I’ve recorded a couple of loops you can practice over. You can improvise using notes from the major scale (read about major scales), the major pentatonic scale (read about pentatonic scales), or, for a more “bluesy” sound, even the minor pentatonic scale. I recommend downloading the MP3s and playing them on repeat.