The I-IV-V chord movement goes back past the very earliest days of rock ’n’ roll, right through to the blues. It’s the foundation upon which the very history of rock was built, and yet it’s so iconic, so intricately woven into the fabric of music that it can be tempting to see it as merely another element of the idiom, like alternating the kick and snare drum or playing a steady 8th-note rhythm on the bass. But a well-placed I-IV-V can be so much more.
To talk theory for a moment, the common I-IV-V movement involves the first, fourth and fifth chords of the major scale. If you’re playing in the key of E, the chords are E, A and B. If you’re in A, they’re A, D and E. If you’re in The Rolling Stones-approved key of G, it’s G, C, D. The beauty of it is that once your ears have identified the presence of the pattern, you simply need to find the pitch of the first chord and you’ve figured out the riff or, often, the entire song.
Although the progression is commonly heard as the underlying harmony of the 12-bar blues, if you tune your ears to listen for it you’ll hear it in many, many other contexts. Let’s look at a few:
Ritchie Valens – “La Bamba”
This Mexican folk song was adapted into an early rock ’n’ roll hit by Ritchie Valens in 1958. You can hear the I-IV-V movement under the vocals, but you might have to squint your ears a little to hear it in between the weaving bass line.
The Troggs – “Wild Thing”
Staying with the early days of rock for a moment, “Wild Thing” is a perfect example of the I-IV-V being used in a more rowdy, unrefined way (like its spiritual cousins “Louie Louie” and “Twist and Shout”). “Wild Thing” is also one of the few songs that many non-guitarists can play as their party trick. It’s simple, it’s fun and because of the song’s cyclical nature, you don’t need to ever really stop!
Led Zeppelin – “Rock and Roll”
The classic jam song – almost every garage band has blustered their way through this legendary Led Zep track at least once, and it’s a perennial encore jam song for top-tier superstars. Even Van Halen have been known to throw this one into their set. The studio version includes some heavy guitar layering, but to get right to the heart of the song's I-IV-V goodness, check out the live version of “Rock and Roll” from The Song Remains the Same.
Gary Moore – “Walking By Myself”
The late, great Moore updated the blues-based, boogie-woogie variant of the I-IV-V with a raunchy, distorted Les Paul, but the song structure itself is quite traditional – no great surprise since it was written by bluesman Jimmy Rogers in the mid-’50s. Although known primarily for his fiery blues playing, Moore also had quite a few hard rock/heavy metal albums under his belt, and his approach to “Walking By Myself” on the One Night in Dublin DVD is a deft blend of the two styles.
Whitesnake – “Here I Go Again”
This ’80s FM radio classic is actually a reworking of an older Whitesnake song, but both versions of “Here I Go Again” rely heavily on the good old I-IV-V in the chorus. The less-frequently heard original 1982 version is much more upfront about its bluesier inspirations, and it features a beautiful harmony guitar solo by Bernie Marsden and Micky Moody (while the 1987 version features John Sykes and Adrian Vandenberg).
U2 – “I Still Haven't Found What I’m Looking For”
U2 switch things up a bit with their approach to the I-IV-V in “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” The verse actually hinges on a I-IV-I progression, building tension until reaching for the V at the top of the chorus. The I-IV-V pattern is actually reversed in the chorus of this song: the chords are V-IV-I rather than the other way around.
Roxette – “Dressed for Success”
Augmented by a healthy splash of 12-string guitar and a big, of-its-time drum sound, the chorus of this 1988 hit is largely based on the I-IV-V, but it gets sneaky in each second bar by substituting the I for a II (that is, instead of F, Bb, C, Bb the chords are Gm, Bb, C, Bb. This song is a great crash course in teaching your ear to identify the pattern, then immediately teaching it how to recognize when a substitution is made.
Counting Crows – “Mr. Jones”
“Mr. Jones” is somewhat deceptive in its use of the I-IV-V progression because the intro/verse riff throws the listener off the scent. It’s not until the chorus, with its driving-yet-ringing C-F-G progression, that you’ll hear it, and even then it’s somewhat disguised because the focus is on the vocal melody rather than the rest of the band.
The Ting Tings – “That’s Not My Name”
“That’s Not My Name” is another song that distracts you from its I-IV-V construction because of its colorful instrumentation and a dominating vocal melody – these things are usually much easier to spot when they’re presented as a standalone riff. In the case of “That’s Not My Name,” the V chord is used briefly in the form of a short, half-bar turnaround at the end of the chorus. Proof of how well the song works when stripped of its instrumentation can be found in this acoustic version from MTV Sessions.
The White Stripes – “Hotel Yorba”
For a band so steeped in rock history, The White Stripes sure could have written a lot more I-IV-V songs than they did. One especially notable example is “Hotel Yorba,” which features a straightforward, driving rhythm and a ringing, jangly acoustic guitar playing a meat-and-potatoes I-IV-V progression.