Chord sequences

Chord sequences: What’s wrong with C, F and G?

What have The Troggs and Green Day got in common? An appreciation for 12-bar blues chord progressions for one thing

ou might not realise it, but many famous songs have the same chord sequence. There are several that are commonly used to establish a bedrock for a song to be developed, and perhaps the most well used of all is the 1, 4, 5 progression (C, F, G in the key of C). This is the progression used for 12 bar blues although other rock ‘n’ roll, country and punk songs, such as Wild Thing by The Troggs, Louie Louie by The Kingsmen and Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival, use this progression exclusively. A more contemporary example would be Good Riddance by Green Day [see video above] who use this progression for the verse section – another chord is added to the bridge and chorus which gives the song a different colour.

Another well known progression is 1, 6, 4, 5 (C, Am, F, G in the key of C). This can be heard in Ben E King’s Stand By Me, Richard Rodgers’ Blue Moon, and This Boy by The Beatles – all examples from the 50s and 60s, when this progression became very popular. In recent years, artists are have used the same progression but rooted on the minor chord of the sequence (Am, F, G, C). In this fashion it produces chord 1, 6, 3, 7 of a minor key sequence. Examples of contemporary pop songs using this sequence are Self Esteem by The Offspring and The Power Of Goodbye by Madonna, below…


Two very different songs, but both use the same chords, so let’s see what sets them apart from each other…

To start with, Self Esteem uses distorted guitars to play the chords, a punchy bass guitar laying down the root notes and a hard-edged drum kit to provide the beat. This creates a rough and ready sound that hits hard and has an immediate energy, as opposed to The Power Of Goodbye which uses synthesized chords, arpeggios and bass. The synths instantly put the song in a different state, as the chords are sustained with a soft textured sound, rather than being strummed rhythmically on an electric guitar. Furthermore, the use of a drum machine and bells on Madonna’s track takes the edge off the beat, in contrast to the dry, raw energy of the drum kit in Self Esteem.

Both tracks are essentially constructed with a 4/4 ‘back-beat’ (snare on beats 2 and 4), but Self Esteem has a solid feel at around 105bpm while The Power Of Goodbye floats along at 80bpm. As well as the tempo, another factor is the way the hi-hats are used – in Self Esteem they’re playing straight 8th notes which keeps the beat clear and strong, whereas The Power Of Goodbye uses the open/closed sound of the hi-hats on some off-beats. This, combined with the bell sound, leaves the groove feeling more open and less rigid, which suits the lyric of the song, whereas Self Esteem requires a less subtle approach.

So the answer is… there’s nothing wrong with C, F and G! If you find yourself writing songs around the same chord sequence, remember that they can sound totally different depending on the arrangement. Aspects such as the tempo, groove, instrumentation, texture, singer, choice of words, production and many more have a huge effect on the sound, style and impact of a song.

Jack JenningsJack Jennings offers songwriting workshops in Bath and Bristol, where he teaches in-house for well established music centres. He is also a co-founder of NightTrain, who run blues guitar courses/jams, and Raag School, a foundation for learning Indian classical music on any instrument.
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  1. Gary Ewer

    Thanks for the very good article. You make a point I make very often on my own site, and with my students. If something is boring about a song, the chord progression is almost never at fault. Thanks again!

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