The ‘Classic Rock’ Progression

In today’s entry I’m going to discuss one of the most common harmonic paradigms of popular music starting in the mid-to-late 1960s, what I call the ‘Classic Rock ‘Progression. Its direct origins are from blues music, specifically the 12-bar blues. Here’s the progression as it occurs in the last 4 bars of the 12 bar blues progression (in the key of C major):

Classic Rock Prog img1

The progression we speak of is in the first three measures here (G F C). Using roman numeral analysis, this is V – IV – I. In the ‘classic rock’ progression, the key center is changed but the intervals are the same. In the 10th-12th measures of the 12 bar blues progression the third chord is the tonic, while in the ‘classic rock’ progression the first chord is the tonic:


This is what is in what is the called mixolydian mode, the fifth mode of the major scale (the bVII chord is called the subtonic using roman numeral analysis).

Since the intervals are the same in both cases, I consider them to be the same progression. Whether you spell it as V – IV – I or I – bVII – IV can often be rather subjective in some cases, because outside of the context of the 12 bar blues, this progression is somewhat ambiguous in terms of its key center.

This is in stark contrast to the I – IV – V progression, which is the basis of common practice (classical) music (and arguably the majority of popular music in the 1st half of the 20th century in its variation the I – vi – ii – V progression) , which clearly delineates the I chord as being the ‘tonic’ or key note of the progression in sonic terms.

Both in a literal and figurative sense, I – IV – V and the V – IV – I are mirror opposites of each other. They are the same intervals in the reverse order. The former seems to move forward while the latter seems to go backward; the first seems to strongly announce a clear hierarchy of key center, while the other is much more tentative and ambiguous.

The mid-to-late 1960s was a period of great social upheaval, so in some sense the ‘classic rock’ progression can be interpreted as musically demarcating this cultural paradigm shift occurring at the time. Values originating in the ‘enlightenment’ era including faith in rationality, the scientific method, and unchecked technological progress were put into question. This period heralded a return to valuing and respecting mother earth, and placed an emphasis on community over individuality, feeling over thinking, and hedonism over stoicism.

Without reading too much more into this paradigm, the ‘classic rock’ progression is in many ways emblematic of the values of this period of sudden social and cultural change.

It again is found in countless songs from the late 60s and early-to-mid 70s, including “Magic Carpet Ride” by Steppenwolf; “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lyrnyrd Skynyrd; “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival to name just a few.

The ‘classic rock’ progression however significantly outlasted this period in history, and was still common-place in popular music in the 1990s, examples popular from this time include “3 A.M.” by Matchbox 20 (verse of the song) and “December” by Collective Soul.

Anyone who plays guitar would know many if not countless songs using this progression. It is possible the rise of this progression may parallel the rise of the guitar as the main accompaniment instrument in popular music over the piano, starting in the 1960s. It seems to fall naturally under the fingers on guitar, particularly in the form of D – C – G.

I think I’ll conclude the discussion on the ‘classic rock’ progression here, among many musicians it is considered to be a cliché, but it is extremely important to be conscious of, particularly in contrast to the I – IV – V paradigm, which is the basis of classical music and many other genres of popular music. Knowing how to attribute the differences in sound between these progressions create is extremely important in being able to write music in any style you want. If you want to write something bluesy or in the classic rock idiom, the ‘classic rock’ progression is your musical touchstone. It can also be used as a point of departure if chord substitutions or other forms of musical ornamentation are employed. That however is for another entry.

Until next time,


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