If you’re a relatively new bluegrass guitar player, you’re going to want to get comfortable with some common bluegrass chord possessions.
I’m not gonna lie—bluegrass isn’t the most harmonically inventive style of music. There are plenty of two-chord songs, a zillion three-chord songs, and if you throw in a fourth chord at your local jam, you will have at least a few pickers questioning your jam etiquette and wishing you would go back to whatever jazz club you came from.
Seriously, “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, “Ain’t Nobody Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone”, “White Dove”, “When Springtime Comes Again” and “Bury Me Beneath the Willow” all have exactly the same chord progression.
They’re far from the only ones, either.
But this is what makes bluegrass such great music for people in the beginner-to-intermediate stage of playing. You learn those chords and those progressions, and as long as you can keep time you’ll be welcome to hang with some of the most spectacular players around.
So where should you start?
Two chords to start with: I and V
If you’re really at the beginning, get used to switching from the I chord to the V chord and back again. (If you don’t understand these Roman numerals, please refer to our post that explains the Nashville Number System.)
That will have you covered for most of the two-chord songs.
The IV chord comes next
Next, you’ll want to get comfortable with the transition from the I chord to the IV chord. Most bluegrass songs that start on the I are going to take you to the IV chord next. Get to know the sound of that transition. Start listening for it when you’re listening to bluegrass. Being able to identify that transition from I to IV makes it so much easier to pick up unfamiliar songs during a jam—especially when you can’t see the fretting hands of the other guitarists!
By now you should be comfortable with the I, IV and V chords, so it’s time to just start rolling through them, in that order. Play equal measures—usually two apiece—of I, IV, V and I, over and over and over again. Congratulations, you just played several dozen bluegrass songs. All you have to do is rotate different lyrics in and out.
Basic bluegrass turnaround
The next most essential progression is the I-V-I-I turnaround that ends roughly half of all bluegrass verses. You’ll know it when you hear it.
And that’s really all you need to fit in at most bluegrass jams. Sure, other progressions will come up, but if you’re pretty solid with the foundational stuff we’ve described here, you’ll be able to deal with those curveballs as they come.
11 common bluegrass chord progressions
To help you with your practicing, we’ve put together the little chart below featuring 11 of the most common bluegrass chord progressions, covering 46 songs that we could think of off the top of our head.
Things don’t get very weird here at all. It’s mostly the three chords. We do throw a II chord in on the last one, because that little transition from II to V is one that you’ll encounter at the end of many bluegrass couplets (think “I’m Blue and I’m Lonesome”).Bluegrass chord progressions copy
Click the button below if you’d like to download a higher quality, printable PDF version of these chord progressions.
Rosewood & Hog's Common Bluegrass Chord Progressions (PDF)
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As you advance, next on your list of chord changes should probably be the transitions from I to VII (“Little Maggie”) and I to iv (“Cherokee Shuffle”). But you don’t have to rush it. If you’re at a jam and somebody calls a song with chord changes you haven’t yet mastered, there’s no shame in sitting one out and enjoying the playing of others.