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Rock Guitar Chord Systems: How to Build Common & Useable Progressions

By Kathy Dickson


I don’t want to say that the rhythm side of modern rock guitar is “easy,” but it’s probably not as difficult as you might think.

Rock music is, generally, uncomplicated.

Classical music, certain sub genres of bluegrass and advanced jazz (among others) are complex, but modern rock is actually quite simple.

And like many of its cousin-genres (pop, blues, country) the number of chord progressions that we see within it is severely limited.

That’s good news for the guitar student.

Because it becomes easier to learn those progressions, thereby understanding the rhythm side of an entire genre of music. Now that’s not to say that other aspects of your rhythm are just as easy. Timing and technique are different matters that are handled after chord progressions have been understood.

But those chord progressions themselves don’t take long to learn and memorize.

And that’s what we’ll do.

Let’s talk about what exactly we’ll cover in this lesson:

  1. Common Rock Chord Progression Structures
  2. Learning and Memorizing the Root Notes
  3. Adding Intervals to Create your Chords

Ready to dive in?

Let’s start with identifying these common chord progressions.

1. Common Rock Chord Progressions

The two places I like to start when talking about common chord progressions is the key of E and the key of C.

Here are two references for each:

If you look at the chords in the key of C, and notice the lists under “Common Chord Progressions” you’ll notice C - F - G and C - Amin F - G.

Between just these two keys, we have several of our most common progressions:

  1. C - F - G
  2. C - Amin - F - G
  3. E - A - B
  4. E - C#min - A - B

This is not to say that each progression will follow the order in which they’re presented, but these are patterns worth memorizing and rearranging as needed.

Let’s go ahead and also add some common progressions from the key of D and the key of G:

  1. D - G - A
  2. D - Bm - G - A
  3. G - C - D
  4. G - Em - C - D

Together, these eight progressions are responsible for a ton of rock music.

Music of the western world, in general, owes them a debt of gratitude.

So it’s not necessary to memorize everything in the links. Just focus on the eight progressions we’ve listed here, as we’ll be working with them exclusively.

Are there other “common” chord progression in rock?


However, these eight make up a large percentage, so focusing on them is a good first step and a way to narrow the scope of information our brain needs to store. It’s less overwhelming and more rewarding in terms of how often we’ll use these patterns.

Which is a lot.

So, what’s the first step?

I’m glad you asked.

2. Memorizing and Using the Root Notes

These chords can end up taking a number of different forms. To name a few:

  1. Barre Chords
  2. Power Chords
  3. Open Chords

Any one of the eight progressions we listed could take any of the above three forms, or a hybrid combination.

So our first step should be to memorize the root note, since it’s what gives each chord its letter value, then decide which form of the chord we want to use.

And luckily, that process is a simple one.

Let’s go ahead and list our common progressions

  1. C - F - G
  2. C - Amin - F - G
  3. E - A - B
  4. E - C♯min - A - B
  5. D - G - A
  6. D - Bm - G - A
  7. G - C - D
  8. G - Em - C - D

It’s fine to memorize each progression in the order given, as the chord’s value is (predictably) also the root note. Even when they’re moved around and played in a different order, you’ll remember them all the same.

Then, if you know the notes of the fretboard for the first two strings, you can easily begin to plot out your progressions.

A Working Example

For example, let’s try and tab out root notes for the C - Amin - F - G progression.

There are a couple different ways to do so.



What if we’re in drop-D? Again, since you know the root notes of the progression, you can still easily map out your chords, even in alternate tunings:



Once you know your progression and you’ve memorized these patterns, it’s incredibly easy to build chords out from these root notes.

For example, let’s say you wanted to build some kind of chord progression from our first example.

Simply add notes to the root based on what kind of chord shape you want to create.


I’ve setup a C - Amin - F - G progression where the first two chords are open (C and Amin) and the second two chords are a barre shape.

This is the same process you would follow for any of the other progressions here.

To summarize that process:


  • Choose your progression.
  • Memorize the root notes.
  • Plot the root notes in a tab and arrange your chords however you’d like.
  • Build chords by adding the desired intervals to each root note.


This knowledge and ability can become highly useful, particularly if you’re into songwriting or improvised jam sessions.


If you already know the progressions and know how to develop your own variations, that gives you more freedom and time to work on things that aren’t as repeatable, like melody and timing. And while chord progressions aren’t always static, they change less than you might think.

They’re structural, in that they give the bass and rhythm guitar something to follow and build on.

Think of it as the structure of a home.

The trenches that are dug, filled with cement and built upon always look more or less the same. It’s what gets built on top of that - windows, siding, paint, interior facets, etc. - that exude creative energy.

This is also true of our songwriting.

Know how to quickly lay a good structure in the form of common chord progressions and you’ll have more time and energy to put into the more creative aspects of your music.

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