As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 5
Country guitar playing stretches back as far as most people can recall. It predates most modern styles of playing and shares most similarities with blues and rock and roll than most people even realize. In this lesson, I’ll be breaking down the country chord progressions that you might come across while learning songs and may even fuel you with the tools to write your own country hits.
Cover Photo: Lindsay Ell at Watershed 2016
Photographer: Kirk Stauffer
Country music tends to be made up predominantly of major chords and dominant seventh chords.
One common progression you see in country music is the I-IV-V progression. You may recognize this progression as being familiar to blues and rock and roll guitar playing and so you should. It’s the same group of chords. Whatever key you play in, if you choose your I, IV and V chords, you can get an instant country flavor. Some country hits, such as Johnny Cash and June Carter’s “Jackson”, not only use the I-IV-V progression, but they also follow a 12-bar blues eyes style progression in the key of C.
Country artists often add a min VI chord from their chosen key for contrast.
Building the Progressions
To start building our country progressions, we first need to decide what key we are playing in; then we need to use a simple formula based on the major scale of that particular key.
The Major Scale Chords:
- I-1st chord: major
- II-2nd chord: minor
- III-3rd chord: minor
- IV-4th chord: major
- V-5th chord: major
- VI-6th chord: minor
- VII-7th chord: diminished
The most common chords we’ll be using in country music are the I, IV and V chords, which are all major chords, which are all major chords. It’s not uncommon to throw in a minor VI chord for some texture or even to change the dynamic of a section.
For this lesson, we’ll talk about the key of C major. To choose our chords, we first need to figure out the notes of the major scale in that key:
From this, we can see the primary chords we want to target are C, F, G, and A. Remembering the formula of which notes should be major/minor, we end up with: C major, F major, G major, and A minor.
You can use seventh chords to supplement your major and minor chords. One easy way to do this is when you have a repeat of chords for a few bars, change one of the bars to the dominant seventh version of the chord you’re playing. You can also split the bar in half; for example, if you have a bar of C, you can play the first half as C and the second half as C7. Both of these will add another layer of depth to the progression.
For the following three examples, we still stick to a simple strumming pattern. It will include a down strum on each beat and an upstroke on the “and” of beats 3 and 4 as eighth notes:
This is a typical country pop/rock style chord progression utilizing the I-IV-V and min VI chords. It’s an 8-bar progression, which could be a good progression for a verse/chorus of a song. It goes between the I and V chord for the first 4 bars before moving to the IV and min VI chords for bars 5 and 6, respectively, and ending on the I and V for bars 7 and 8.
This is an example of how the min VI chord can be used to change up a progression. If you imagine this progression as a direct follow-up to the previous, you could visualize this as your bridge in a song or a change of mood. The min VI chord takes the same groupings of chords but adds a somber overtone.
This is an example of how you can your I-IV-V chords and create a 12-bar country style loop. Think Johnny Cash style country for this.
Try It Yourself
One great way to find your own voice with progression writing is to try these in different keys. Map out your major scales for other keys, and find your I-IV-V and min VI chords, and try to use them to create your own progressions. The strumming patterns here are for demonstration; you can make the patterns as simple or complex as you feel fit. One thing worth trying is fingerpicking through the chords as you run the progression. The most important thing to take away is that when you’re being creative, enjoy it. Strum away and enjoy the process of creating music. Some progressions will work better than others, but use these tools and craft your own country masterpiece.