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The I-V-vi-IV Chord Progression

So far we've covered the seven diatonic chords of the major scale, and I've given you some example basslines in several styles.

Hopefully you're listening to what you are playing, and you can hear that these seven chords go together. They are like a family sharing the same DNA—the notes of the key.

A Common Chord Progression

In this lesson we will explore a very common chord progression—the I-V-vi-IV progression—and apply the diatonic chord shapes to it.

The way we approach this progression will be similar to the process you can expect when you create music with others. Most likely, someone will have a song, but there won't be a specific bassline written out for you.

Instead, someone will tell you what the chord progression is and expect you to make something up on the spot.

Your First Audition

I remember thinking I knew what I was doing because I could play a bunch of songs. Feeling ready, I answered an advertisement at a music store: “LOOKING FOR BASSIST”. On the phone they said, “Yeah, man. Come on down tonight.” Off I went to go play with some total strangers.

Things started well. Luckily, I knew a couple of the same songs they knew, and I could fumble through the blues. Then they said, “Let's play some of our original stuff with you.”

I'm pretty sure they said something like, “This one goes G minor 27 to a B dim-bla-didly-do, then a riff on C catatonic minor, and the guitar solos over D Delorean.” Well, that's what it sounded like they said!

I was lost. All I could think to do was play root notes to get through it. It was fine by them—people are desperate for bass players!

Improvising basslines on original songs was completely different from playing cover songs. This is something you don't realize early on. Hopefully my lessons on StudyBass will prepare you better and make your first audition or jam session less painful for you.

Creating Music and Improvising Basslines

If music was made up of random notes, then you could sit on a piano keyboard or blindly pluck notes and it would make a lovely song. It won't. Music isn't random. It is quite organized, and theory, like the diatonic chords, helps you organize a lot of its sounds in your musical mind and find it on your instrument.

Where will your bassline creation come from? It will foremost come from the chord progression, and the progression often comes from the diatonic chords of the major scale.

The I-V-vi-IV Chord Progression

The I-V-vi-IV progression uses four of the seven diatonic chords.

This is a great progression to practice. It is used a lot, and it contains the most commonly used chords found in many styles of music.

The I and V are music's most common chords. The IV is the next most common, and the vi is probably the next most common after that.

Thousands of Songs Use the I-V-vi-IV Progression

You may have heard the comedy group Axis of Awesome on YouTube who play dozens of songs over the same four chords. They are using the I-V-vi-IV chord progression.

They are playing in the key of E if you want to follow along (E – B – C#m – A).

This I-V-vi-IV progression shows up in songs like:

  • Let It Be - The Beatles
  • Beast of Burden - The Rolling Stones
  • No Woman, No Cry - Bob Marley
  • Don't Stop Believin' - Journey
  • So Lonely - The Police
  • With or Without You - U2
  • When I Come Around - Green Day
  • Under the Bridge - Red Hot Chili Peppers

Wikipedia has a running list of I-V-vi-IV songs. There are thousands more not on the list. [ WARNING: Serious earworms are on the list!]

Some songs only use this progression, while many more use it only in certain parts like the verses.

Why is the I-V-vi-IV Progression So Common?

Most good chord progressions work on a simple principle: There's a home base, then you leave home, and eventually return home. This progression satisfies that.

If a progression never establishes a home, it will feel lost.

If a song just stays at home, it will be boring.

If a progression leaves home, but never returns, it will feel incomplete like a movie with a bad ending.

Good music takes you on a journey. Good chord progressions help create that journey.

Now let's put together a strategy for learning to create basslines over chord progressions. This is a solid strategy you can keep using until your musical mind takes over and just creates it for you.

On page 2, we'll look at creating basslines over this very common chord progression...

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