Folk music had a golden age in the 60’s, and then in the late 2000’s the genre made a huge surge again with the likes of Mumford & Sons, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, Noah And The Whale among others.
So let’s look at the folk chord progressions associated with this music that celebrates acoustic and natural sounds.
1. I IV I V
This folk chord progression comes from one of my favorite groups, Mumford & Sons with their biggest hit “I Will Wait.” It’s common in folk music for the acoustic guitar to be prominent, and this song is no exception. We hear the chords and the rhythm being carried by the acoustic guitar, with vocals, banjo taking the spotlight from time to time.
Chords from the song: C sharp major, F sharp major, C sharp major, G sharp major
2. I IV V I
No Western genre of music would be complete without its fair share of songs using the I, IV and V chords. This progression comes from the infamous Bob Dylan track “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Bob Dylan used simple chord progressions with a harmonica and philosophical lyrics to change the landscape of folk music in the 1960’s.
Chords from the song: D major, G major, A major, D major
3. I IV vi V
Joni Mitchell is undoubtedly one of the most important female musicians of the 20th century and this chord progression comes from her wonderful song “A Case of You.” Part of the power and emotion of Joni is that it’s just her voice and a guitar. Her music always sounds so real and raw.
Related List: 11 Dreamy Chord Progressions
Chords from the song: C sharp major, F sharp major, A sharp minor, G sharp major
4. i VII i VI III VI III
Without a doubt one of the most famous songs ever written, this folk chord progression comes from Simon and Garfunkel’s immortal “The Sound of Silence.” Another group that stands on the raw nature of acoustic guitar and unfiltered vocals, they managed to incredible popularity by bridging the gap between Folk and Pop music. Poppy songs like “Mrs. Robinson” and “Celia” are what separate them from influential folk groups that didn’t reach the same level of success.
Related List: My Top 13 Dark Chord Progressions
Chords from the song: D sharp minor, C sharp major, D sharp minor, B major, F sharp major, B major, F sharp major
5. i III iv VI i V
This chord progression comes from the traditional Folk song “House of the Rising Sun.” The song has been covered by hundreds, possibly thousands of artists over the years, but I took these chords directly from a version by The Animals.
Chords from the song: A minor, C major, D minor, F major, A minor, E major
6. I Imaj7 vi I IV I
This folk chord progression comes from my favorite song by Crosby, Stills & Nash, “Our House.” They bring the full rock sound into the folk genre by adding electric instruments and a drum kit. Plus their primary rhythm instrument is actually a piano, which is also unusual for folk music.
Chords from the song: A major, A major 7, F sharp minor, A major, D major, A major
7. I iii IV I
This one comes from “Puff, the Magic Dragon” by Peter, Paul and Mary (another band name that sounds like a law firm). Fun fact, many people think this song is about drugs, but that’s not true. It’s based on a poem about losing the innocence of childhood.
Chords from the song: A major, C sharp minor, D major, A major
8. i VI III VII
This folk chord progression comes from a group that is incredibly popular, but that I’ve not really listened to much. The song is “Little Talks” by Of Monsters and Men. I’m ashamed to admit that I’m not very familiar with the band, but I know some of their songs and they have been very influential in modern folk music.
Chords from the song: A sharp minor, F sharp major, C sharp major, G sharp major
9. i III III/VII VI
Another band that has had a big influence on modern folk is Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes, and this chord progression comes from their song “Home.” This song features a trend in modern folk where there’s a melody carried by a chorus of whistlers. I think whistling has sort of replaced the role the harmonica played in earlier folk music.
Chords from the song: B minor, D major, D major/A, G major
10. vi V I I2 Imaj7
This chord progression comes from a group you’ve likely never heard of, but they happen to be one of my wife’s favorite bands. The song “Yet” played at my wedding as I walked down the aisle, and the band Pearl and the Beard actually sent us an un-mastered version of the song (at my wife’s request) before it was officially released. Anyways, it’s a truly beautiful song and I love this chord progression.
Chords from the song: C sharp minor, B major, E major, E major add 2, E major 7
11. I ii I iii IV
“Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen is another of those folk songs from the 60’s that had huge influence on the music of today. That album followed the sounds of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell with the raw Man (or Woman) and a guitar sound. Cohen continued writing and had an 80’s album that brought folk music into the electronic age.
Chords from the song: E major, F sharp minor, E major, G sharp minor, A major
12. IV I V I
Let’s wrap up this list with probably the most influential folk song ever written, “This Land is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie. I’m not sure if this is still the case, but I learned and sang this song in elementary school. It was one of the first songs I learned and it certainly shaped my early understanding of music.
Chords from the song: G major, D major, A major, D major
Writing Folk Music
I like to wrap up these chord progressions by talking about what it takes to write music that takes on a certain sound. It should be no surprise that using a particular set of chords in a certain order isn’t enough to achieve the folk sound.
So while I listening to several hours of folk music to write this article, I took down some notes and noticed some trends:
- Acoustic and natural sounds – some modern folk using amplification of their instruments, but they still maintain the natural sound of the 60’s folk music. That means acoustic guitars, vocals, whistling, harmonicas, clapping, string bass, banjo, maybe piano.
- Thoughtful lyrics – you’re not often going to catch folk bands singing about partying, drinking and overall shallow topics.
- Very few sound effects – You may catch some reverb here and there, but the sounds of these instruments are mostly unfiltered.
These three items seem to pretty much span all folk music. You’ll find some other trends like the use of a strumming acoustic guitar, but this doesn’t span the entire genre.
And of course it’s important to experiment and put your own unique ideas and experiments into your music to make your music your own.