As a beginner guitar player, the number of chords you feel you need to learn can indeed seem overwhelming. The reality, however, is quite different. You can actually play thousands of songs with just a basic vocabulary of chords.

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For example, with just the G, C, D, A minor, and E minor chords, you can play an incredibly large number of songs. In fact, these five chords form a subset of what is known as the “open chords,” which are commonly used in a variety of genres from rock to folk to pop. It’s difficult to quantify exactly how many songs you can play with these chords, but it’s safe to say that the number is easily in the thousands.

But how is this possible with just five chords? The secret lies in chord progressions. Chord progressions are a series of chords played in a particular order. It’s these progressions, rather than the individual chords themselves, that form the backbone of most songs.

The most common chord progression in popular music is the I-IV-V progression, where I, IV, and V represent the first, fourth, and fifth notes in a given scale. In the key of G, these would be G, C, and D. Throw in A minor and E minor, and you’ve added the capacity to play songs with ii and vi chord progressions, which are also very common in many songs.

That’s not all though. It’s important to note that a lot of songs use what we call a “transposed” chord progression. This means that the same relative changes between chords are preserved, but all chords are shifted up or down by the same number of notes.

For example, the I-IV-V progression in the key of G major is G-C-D. But in the key of A major, the same progression would be A-D-E. The relative changes are the same (move up 4 steps for the IV chord, then up 1 more for the V), but the actual chords are different. But here’s where the magic happens: if we capo the second fret (a capo is a device that effectively shortens the neck of the guitar, raising the pitch of the strings), the G-C-D progression we play with our fingers will actually sound like A-D-E.

The I-IV-V progression is just the tip of the iceberg. Here are a few more common chord progressions that you can play with the G, C, D, A minor, and E minor chords:

I-IV-V Progression (G-C-D): This is a classic progression found in countless songs. Transposition might be needed for some of these songs. Here are some examples:

“Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen
“Wild Thing” by The Troggs
“La Bamba” by Ritchie Valens
“Twist and Shout” by The Beatles
“Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” by Green Day
“Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash
“All I Have to Do Is Dream” by The Everly Brothers
“Get Off Of My Cloud” by The Rolling Stones
“Already Gone” by The Eagles
“Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard

I-V-vi-IV Progression (G-D-Em-C): An incredibly popular progression used in many modern pop and rock songs.

“Don’t Stop Believin'” by Journey
“Let It Be” by The Beatles
“No Woman, No Cry” by Bob Marley
“When I Come Around” by Green Day
“Uptown Girl” by Billy Joel
“Can You Feel the Love Tonight” by Elton John
“If I Were a Boy” by BeyoncĂ©
“Paparazzi” by Lady Gaga
“Cryin'” by Aerosmith
“Africa” by Toto

vi-IV-I-V Progression (Em-C-G-D): This is another common progression in pop music.

“Someone Like You” by Adele
“When You’re Gone” by Avril Lavigne
“Apologize” by OneRepublic
“Where Is The Love” by The Black Eyed Peas
“Perfect” by Ed Sheeran
“With Or Without You” by U2
“Save Tonight” by Eagle-Eye Cherry
“How to Save a Life” by The Fray
“Poker Face” by Lady Gaga
“She Will Be Loved” by Maroon 5

I-vi-IV-V (G-Em-C-D): Also known as the ’50s progression’ due to its prevalence in music from that era.

“Stand By Me” by Ben E. King
“Earth Angel” by The Penguins
“Duke of Earl” by Gene Chandler
“Teenager in Love” by Dion and the Belmonts
“Why Do Fools Fall in Love” by Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers
“I Wonder Why” by Dion and the Belmonts
“Three Steps to Heaven” by Eddie Cochran
“Lollipop” by The Chordettes
“A Teenager’s Romance” by Ricky Nelson
“Donna” by Ritchie Valens

Remember, it’s okay if you don’t initially recognize these progressions when you listen to the songs. With practice, your ear will start to pick up on these common patterns, and you’ll start to hear them everywhere!

A small vocabulary of chords, a basic understanding of chord progressions, and the use of transposition (often with a capo) opens the door to playing thousands of songs. There is no need to learn and memorize hundreds of chords! Simply focus on mastering a small set of chords, learning common progressions, and how to use a capo to transpose. This simple formula puts thousands of songs at your fingertips.

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