Are you a fan of R&B? Do you want to get a lowdown on the best and most gorgeous-sounding R&B chord progressions? Which are the easiest? Which are the hardest? Which are the most harmonically complex?
Then join us as we explore 20 of the best right here, right now!
1. ii7 – ii7 – IV – IV – iii7 – iii7 – iii7 – (iii7 – VI7) in C major
This chord progression is a great example of what makes Bruno Mars’ later material so rewarding, offering forth rich complexity, all founded on the root of a C major chord.
This major key is belied by the several minor chords on array, but it eventually makes it to where it needs to go. Using elements from the D minor scale, D Dorian, and the C major scale, this song is an intelligent display of what harmonic wit can achieve in modern pop music.
2. i – (i – bII) in F Minor
Montell Jordan‘s hit anthem “This Is How We Do It” also makes use of a minor chord to achieve its ends, using the i chord as something of a drone note throughout the song. This lack of harmonic movement – which might be altogether dull in other songs – is here reverent, even in its lack of extended chords.
That being said, the bII that appears every so often is a great way to introduce the Phrygian mode into your enterprise. Maybe you could even make this an extended chord of your own? Good luck out there!
3. i – V7 – VI – IVdim7 in G# Minor
This neo-soul classic features some interesting chords, chords that might otherwise be used in jazz or classical music. The 7b9 chord here, for example, has some deep harmonic intonations, working well as a dominant chord while still providing some harmonic freshness.
The C#dim7 that is used in its place, taking the position of the diminished 5th and increasing the harmonic urge to gravitate back toward the root of G# minor, itself a rarely used key center, especially in the realms of pop music. Who knew diminished chords could be so useful and so fun?
4. i – VI – VII – III – i – IV – VII – VI – III – VI – bII – bII – I – I in A Minor
Gee, there sure are a bunch of chords on display here! If you’re not used to it, this number of chords can feel pretty overwhelming. Thus, it is important to note at this point that some chords are more important than others.
Here, those chords are the D chord, the Bb chord, and the A chord, all of which are littered throughout the song. Bb works because it is the relative dominant for F; D works because Am is the relative dominant to D (as well as the tonic itself).
This chord change, the dominant to the tonic and vice versa, is one of the most important in all of western composition, the effects of which we are likely to keep feeling for centuries more.
5. i – (i – v) – iv – (iv – VII) in C#m minor
The simple melody of this tune is supported by the harmonic changes which, though relatively simple on their own, really shine as the backdrop to the melody. Make sure to be wary of the minor chord voicings in this song – they might sound better played as power chords, something you won’t often hear this website saying.
6. I – vi7 – I – vi7 – (vi7 – v) – ii7 – I in F Major
One thing that you can learn from Stevie Wonder is that it’s okay to reuse the same chords in a song. This will achieve a certain effect just as never returning to the same chord will have its own effect. Hence the F major chord occurs repeatedly throughout the chord progression.
This logic works for a minor key just as it does for a major key, so don’t be afraid to experiment a bunch with whatever key signature seems to take your fancy at any given moment.
7. I – I – V – V – ii – ii – IV – V in C Major
Here, the Four Tops couldn’t help but keep things within the central key of the song. C major is a near-religious symbol that all these chords subscribe to without question, spreading out their own harmonic ideology like seeds inflected with the language and beliefs of their own teachers.
Like the song’s title suggests, the Four Tops can’t help but strictly follow this key signature to the very end even if it should conclude in dusty death.
8. I – I – vi – vi – IV – IV – V – V in D Major
As we have previously learned with the great Stevie Wonder, you don’t have to keep changing the chord each and every time you reach the next bar. Sometimes, there is much to admire in holding a chord for a certain length of time.
No matter how much we might want the challenge of a whole series of chords running one after the other, good songs aren’t usually made up of such displays of virtuosity. Instead, it is best to pay careful attention to the most important chords and hold onto them for dear life, in this instance the vi chord which does so much of the heavy lifting.
9. I – (IV – I) – (iii-vi) – (IV – V7) in Bb Major
In contrast, we have a track by Diana Ross & the Supremes that, instead of holding onto chords, changes them regularly. This is not just one chord per bar either – rather, the chords can sometimes change twice, even thrice per bar, making this one a real challenge if you are looking for chord progressions to solo over.
Still, this is a worthy challenge and one that you will gain much from – there are many rewards for challenging yourself in this way, none more amazing than simply feeling the winds of change coursing through your hair.
10. Imaj7 – V – bVIImaj7 – IV in Eb Major
This 90s classic features many of the same tropes we have come to understand in R&B chord progressions up to this point, albeit with one major addition of its own.
Here, we have a Dbmaj9 which, in the language of harmony in relation to the tonic, would be referred to as a bVII, largely because a Db doesn’t at all appear in the overall key Eb major.
In fact, a closer look and you will see that Dbmaj9 shares all the same notes as Fm7, a chord that is diatonic to Eb major, hence why this chord is such a mainstay of R&B chord progressions.
11. (IVmaj7 – ii7) – (iii7 – vi) to (II – II – I6 – IV) in D Major
This track is by now a staple in everyone’s collective unconscious and, while there are a few chords to get to know here, it is easier when compared to all the keys it fits in. A closer look and you will see that everything fits into the key of D major aside from the E major chord.
Normally, it is difficult to make this much movement feel graceful and/or sensical, something the top voice heeds and adheres to by staying in more or less the same place for much of the song (or at least for the duration of the chorus).
12. I – IV in C Major
Who said you need a whole bunch of complex chords blooming out from one another? The Temptations here exhibit the full glory of a two-chord vamp that anyone can play!
Here, we are treated to one that works within the bounds of C major, vamping between the dominant 5th C major and the tonic root of F major. We shouldn’t have to tell you why this works.
13. i – VI – iv – (iv – #VII7) in C Minor
Who knew such complex chord changes could rear their heads in the realm of popular music? Who knew that such a witty use of diminished 7th chords and a bassline with such giant leaps could ever be a number-one single?
Bdim7 contains many of the same notes as Bb7, which is the VII7 of C minor. In this way, It can basically be used as a substitute for Bb7 and work anywhere that this chord can be used. The limits are, in this way, positively endless.
14. I – vi – iii – V in F Major
Sitting firmly in the key of F major with little confusion about it, this chord progression could even be a case study of a successful late 50s/early 60s chord progression. This was an era where the combination of I, vi, and V was used a hell of a lot. Sometimes, even the IV would be used in place of the iii!
Some arrangement of these chords is guaranteed to have your songs sounding like they are authentic products of the 60s and 70s in no time at all!
15. i7 – IV7 – VII7 – VI in C# Minor
Fitting well onto the guitar’s fretboard, this is a chord progression that has attracted the attention of many guitarists over the years. It is, after all, not very common for a chord progression conceived on a piano to translate entirely well to a guitar without at least some modification.
This song in particular provides plenty of space for percussive and melodic improvisation while also offering up enough harmonic interest to allow you the challenge and to ensure that these improvisations don’t turn stale. Though these aren’t as well-known as the Minor Swing chords, these are still some reliable jazz chords to fling yourself upon.
16. i7 – ii7 – i7 – ii7 in F# minor
If you are in any way familiar with the A major scale and its related chord structures, then you will no doubt already be aware of how the F# minor scale and its related chords work – F# minor is, after all, the relative minor of A major.
Remember to be extra conscious of the voicing of each particular chord and how it relates to and includes the melody of the song itself. Being more conscious of this will ultimately help you to choose the right chords for your own compositions when you get to that point.
17. iv7 – i7 In C# Minor
Clearly evident at first glance is the fact that the m9 chord uses 5 chords and only leaves two notes left in the key to use. Thus, just playing these two notes can imply the key signature very well – you are left with a very powerful tool for harmonic implication.
In R&B and many types of popular music, you will see lots of chord progression that just use one or two chords for a riff or a progression. It’s okay to do that – especially since it is psychologically so effective on the consuming mind – whether the progression implies the key signature or not.
18. I – I – V7 – V7 – I – I – IV – I – I in A Major
As with much of Ray’s work, this one is very similar to the 12-bar blues format, though not quite as strict to the formula as some purists might like.
As can be seen, it goes to V (E7) before going to IV (D7) and back to A6. Although it can come across as a little pastiche to use these three chords in tandem, there are plenty of ways to add variety to the progression, as you will no doubt have seen above.
19. 12 Bar Blues in F Minor
Chord progressions in popular music scarcely come much more classic, and what better way to demonstrate than with this classic track by Booker T. & the MGs?
Booker T. & the MGs were the session band for Stax Records in Memphis. Steve Cropper, the guitar player, actually co-wrote “Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay” with Otis Redding. All the guys would have a major hand in penning many of the songs at Stax that would top the charts.
And yet, this is arguably their greatest legacy in popular music, a song that has been used countless times in countless different contexts.
20. (ii – V7) – (iii7 – vi7) – I7 In A Major
In this chord progression, the band is using what’s called a ii – V progression, a very common move in Jazz music and R&B music where the Bm7 is a relative V chord to E. The relationship between I and V is the strongest in music as it establishes a key signature like A Major even while it is subverting the relationship between the chords in the key.
Most of the chords except A13 sit perfectly in the key of A major. A lot of times you can’t go wrong by taking the chords available in any major key and making some chord progressions – they will all sit perfectly together.
So, there you have it! Hopefully, you are now feeling ready and able to learn a few of the best R&B chord progressions for yourself!
FAQs R&B Chord Progressions
There are many different chord progressions used in R&B, many of which are in some way lifted from ancestral genres like jazz and blues.
Though there are many different chords used in R&B, three tend to pop up repeatedly at least in the golden age of rhythm and blues. These are the I, IV, and V, though these chords are also present throughout popular western music.
Chords that are considered soulful often extend past the complete triad, adding additional tones within and outside the scale’s octave. These notes are named based on their distance from the root note. You’ll hear chords played with 7th, 9th, 11th, and 13th scale degrees layered in.
Generally speaking, dark chord progressions are focused around minor chords since these chords tend to evoke a darker, more mysterious feel. This is all entirely subjective, though.