Folk Guitar 101: Chord Progressions
Part I: I-IV-V --the One-Four-Five Chord Progression

The following article is intended to give you a better understanding of the relationships of the various chords to each other. If you're reading sheet music, it will help you make some sense of the changes. If you are trying to figure out how to play a song, it will help you figure out the changes more quickly and correctly. If you're improvising or writing songs, this information is invaluable.


If you play even a little folk guitar, you've probably noticed that certain sets of major chords go together:


These progressions are, in fact, all the same. Here's how:

Take G-C-D-G. If you name the first note in the scale as 1 and count up, then G=1, A=2, B=3, C=4 and D=5. If you start on C, then C=1, D=2, E=3, F=4 and G=5. Musicians use Arabic numbers to designate notes in the scale and Roman numerals to designate the chords in a key. If you do the same exercise for each of these chord progressions, you'll notice that each of them has the same pattern: I, IV, V, I. Play each one and you can hear it - The steep rise followed by the step rise, followed by a fall back to the start. Natural as gravity.

I-IV-V is the foundation of folk music. Armed only with this information, you can pretty much play any blues, rock or traditional song in any key. Also, almost anything by Woody Guthrie, including "This Land Is Your Land." Just start out on the I chord and when you hear a chord shift, nine times out of ten it's either to the IV or V chord.

Goooooooo C ooooooooooooooo G
Ioooooooo oIVooooooooooooooo I
This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York islands
From the redwood forests to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me


Seventh Chords

Without going into a lot of musical theory, when you take your V chord and turn it into a V7 chord, it pulls you back to the I chord more powerfully. That's why in the key of G, you'll see a lot of D7 chords just before ending up on G - especially at the end of a phrase. In the key of C, you see G7 a lot.

Goooooooo C ooooooooooooooooG
I oooooooo IVoooooooooooooooo I
This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York islands
From the redwood forests to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me


Relative Minor Chords

What about the minor chords? Again, think of the chords that always seem to go together:

With G-C-D you usually find Em, Am and - a little less often - Bm. Hardly ever Dm or Fm for instance.

With C-F-G you often find Am, Dm and sometimes Em - but rarely Bm


It turns out that for reasons too obscure to go into here, if you move 3 half steps down from the root note of any major chord you arrive at what's known as its "relative minor."*

So, if you count down 3 half steps from C (B, Bb, A) you see that the relative minor of C is Am. The relative minor for G is Em and the relative minor for D is Bm. Now, it's very common that in a chord progression you can SUBSTITUTE a major chord with its relative minor (minor chords are usually written with small roman numerals). So, reading down the columns you can see the major chords in each key and which minor chords they're related to:

General Key of C Key of G Key of D Key of E
I becomes vi
IV becomes ii
V becomes iii
C -> Am
F -> Dm
G -> Em
G -> Em
C -> Am
D -> Bm

D -> Bm
G -> Em
A -> F#m

E -> C#m
A -> F#m
B -> G#m


So you can get something like this:

G - C - G
Iooooooooo IVooooooooooooooooI
This land is your land, this land is my land
D - G
From California to the New York islands
ooooooooooooooooC ooooooooooooooooG - Em
ooooooooooooooooIVoooooooooooooooooI - vi
From the redwood forests to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me


And "Blowin' in the Wind" is:

C - D - G - Em
ooooIV oooooooVoooooooIoooooooooovi
The answer my friend, is blowin' in the wind
ooooIV ooooooVooooooooooI
The answer is blowin' in the wind

Notice how in these examples, the major chord is played and then turns or resolves into the relative minor chord. You use both. In the first line of "Puff the Magic Dragon," the B minor chord substitutes for the D completely:

G oooooooooo Bm oooCooooooooG
I ooooooooooooiii oooIV ooooooooI
Puff the magic dragon lived by the sea...


Often you have both movement from major to relative minor as well as complete substitutions going on in a progression. You can hear this in the classic 50s riff, which you can now see is just a variation on the basic I-IV-V:


Minor Keys

If you completely substitute the minor chords for the major ones, you wind up in the minor key. Then, of course, you can start substituting major chords for minor ones....

So, even though you may be dealing with seemingly complicated combinations of 6 chords - plus 7ths, suspended chords, and occasional color chords, etc. - in folk and folk-rock, it usually all boils down to the simple I-IV-V progression.

In songs that have verses and choruses you'll notice that if the song begins on the I (almost always), the chorus will often jump up and start on the IV or V chord - or shift to one of the minor chords in the key. A song in a minor key may shift to the major for a chorus. Bridges are not common in folk songs - they are more in the pop idiom. They often shift tonalities more drastically.

*OK, I'll go into it: The relative minor scale uses the same notes as the major scale, just starting in a different place. To see this on a piano, play a C scale (all the white notes) - This is a major scale. Now play all the white notes starting on A instead of C and voila - you get the minor scale. (oh and by the way, start on D and you get the Dorian scale....).

How does this happen? The different scales occur because in the 8-note octave scale some intervals between notes are a whole step and some are 1/2 step. In a major scale, there are half steps between notes 3-4 and 7-8; the rest are whole steps. You can see this quite clearly on the piano: starting on C, there are no black keys between E and F or between B and C - they are 1/2 step apart. In a minor scale - the white keys starting on A - the half steps come between notes 2-3 and 5-6.

If you stay on the white keys and play an octave starting on each of the different notes of the scale, you get a different pattern of whole steps and half steps. Each pattern of whole and half steps has its own feel. These are the classical modes. The major scale - ionian mode - is happy, declarative; the minor scale - aeolian mode - is sad or melancholy.

For more on scales and modes, see:


Next page > bass runs: getting from one chord to the next > Page 1, 2, 3