What Is So Great About the 1-4-5 Chord Progression?!

What do Wild Thing, Bad Moon Rising and Sweet Home Alabama all have in common? Go ahead and Google it. I’ll wait. Still can’t find the answer? Here it is: They are all three chord songs. Yep! That’s it! Just THREE simple chords were used to make those mega hits. Now, the trick is knowing WHICH three chords to use.

There is a simple code that is used to decipher which of those three chords will sound the best together. If you were observant, you would have noticed it in the title of this article: 1-4-5. Now, you’re probably saying, “Okay, smart guy. What exactly does 1-4-5 mean?” That is a great question. Why those numbers? That’s another great question.

The 1-4-5 code or chord progression comes from the tones within a major scale. A major scale is made up of seven tones/notes. You have probably heard the Do-Re-Mi scale, right? Each one of those notes has a specific position and function within the scale. Within those seven tones, there are three that sound really good together. Can you guess which ones they are? I’ll give you a hint: Look at the title. If you guessed 1-4-5, give yourself a high five (And post a picture. I’d like to see that.) LOL

Now we know the reason for those three chords being used but what do the numbers mean? That’s another great question. You are just full of them today, aren’t you? The 1-4-5 refers to the first, fourth and fifth notes respectively in a major scale. We call the 1 the root/tonic because it tells us which key we are in and what the best note is to stop on. This is often how we find the key of a song. By listening for the root, we can find the best resting tone of the song and then figure out the 1-4-5 in that key. Let’s look at an example.

Since the key of C major is the easiest and is the most commonly used, we will start with that. The notes in C major are: CDEFGAB. As you can see, there are seven notes listed. Did you notice something different about the C, F and G notes? I made them in bold because they are the 1-4-5 in the key of C major. VOILA! Now you know the reason for the 1-4-5 progression. Let’s look at some common progressions for 1-4-5.

The first and most common progression using these chords is 1-4-5-1. It’s just a loop. The 1 chord can go to any chord but once there, there are certain rules that govern which chord usually comes next. The 5 chord pulls very strongly to the 1 and so it is usually found right before the 1.

The 4 chord is an unresolved chord and can either go to the 5, which is most common or return back to the 1. This is seen in John Denver’s Sunshine on My Shoulders. Although he uses more than three chords, he uses the 1 and 4 over and over in the verse. The first part of the verse is just bouncing between the two chords. That’s how I play it. Here’s a cool little tip in using the 1 and 4 chords. A good way to end a song is to do a quick 1-4-1 (e.g. G-C-G) progression right at the end. It brings a nice closure to the song, Try it! See what you think. I LOVE it!

Another common use of the 1-4-5 is 1-4-1-5-1. One of the most recorded and universal songs of all time uses this progression. It used to be a drinking song but the words got changed to a classic gospel tune. If you’ve been in church for a while, you’ll recognize the iconic melody of Amazing Grace.

It’s a favorite of people all over the world and is often played at funerals. It’s even part of my set when I perform. You can play it with just three chords:1-4-5. I add a 6m for spice but it’s not needed. In the key of G this progression would be G-C-G-D-G. The secret is knowing when to change the chords. Listening to the melody can really help you with that.

There are untold variations on the 1-4-5 progression but they still use just those three chords. Now, go make some three chord hits!

Here is a list of the 1-4-5 chords in all 12 major keys:

A#: A#D#E# (F)
C#: C#F#G#
D#: D#G#A#
F#: F#BC#
G#: G#C#D#

-David Henry - MU Columnist

What are YOUR Plans Tonight?
Start Your Search Here!