9 R&B Chord Progressions, With Examples

Whether you’re feeling the rhythm, or you’ve got the blues, sometimes you need a set of sexy R&B chords to express your lovely self.

In this guide, we look at multiple R&B chord progressions, explain each, and even highlight a few useful variants to set you up for success. This ought to keep you busy for a while.

So, let’s get to those progressions.

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vi – bVII

Example: Am | Bb

At the outset, it’s worth noting that there are a lot of great two-chord chord progressions that work quite well for R&B. This isn’t to say that R&B is always easy, or that all songs in the genre should only have two chords, though, because that’s not the case.

Either way, if you’re looking for more interesting progressions, don’t worry – we’ll be looking at more sophisticated progressions later.

Anyway, this one is obviously a minor progression, and the bvii chord might strike you as odd. But guaranteed you’ve heard it.

Here’s Montell Jordan’s smash R&B hit “This Is How We Do It” to show this progression in action (and it basically follows the same structure throughout):

Notes About This Chord Progression

This is a phenomenal chord progression for creating tension in a song. In Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It,” the vi chord lasts for one and a half bars before moving to the bVII chord for half a bar. Drawing out the vi chord like that will amp up the tension even more.

It’s simplistic, sure, but that leaves plenty of room for other instruments to add flavor. You’ll hear some killer piano / keyboard riffs throughout “This Is How We Do It.”

Keep in mind that you can combine this progression with others. While the two-chord sequence in Jordan’s song works great, that doesn’t mean you can’t add it to your toolkit and take it in other directions.

I – vi

Example: C | Am

Well, it doesn’t get much simpler than this. The transition from I to vi sounds quite smooth and natural, and that shouldn’t come as any surprise, because there’s only one note difference between the two chords.

But is there really any applicability in the realm of Rhythm and Blues? Yes, of course there is. You just need to get a little creative with it.

Here’s Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy,” which is basically a two-chord song.

Some people hear a ii chord in “Fantasy” too, but I don’t. If you want to, there’s no reason why you can’t throw it in though.

Notes About This Chord Progression

When you sing like Mariah, you don’t need too many chords it seems. A song like “Fantasy” is filled to the brim with interesting instrumental layers that keep the song engaging from top to bottom. It’s one of those grooves you just don’t want to end.

To that end, you will need to think a little outside the box. A I – vi chord progression will sound boring if you don’t give it a bit of “oomph.” So, layer in the hooks, build some depth in the track, and have some fun with it.

ii – V – I

Example: Dm | G | C

Jazz musicians will be intimately acquainted with this progression because it’s one of the most utilized, and most important. But that’s not to say it’s a one trick pony, because it works quite nicely in other genres as well. And don’t forget that you can add the 7 to each chord to make it jazzier (i.e., Dm7 | G7 | Cmaj7).

You’ll have certainly heard this progression in songs like “Say So” by Doja Cat.

Important note – on every second repetition, they throw in the III7 chord at the end. This is a common thing to do with this progression because variations only add more interest to it! But the III7 is a great one because it naturally wants to return to the ii.

Notes About This Chord Progression

First and foremost, be sure to add this chord progression to your musical vocabulary. Guaranteed it will come in handy! So, try practicing it in all 12 keys. That ought to give you a solid head start.

You’ll find that it has kind of a breezy, beachside vibe, but of course it depends on the rhythm you add to it too. “Say So” has kind of a funk / disco feel, and this progression can kill it in that type of context too.

Finally, because it is a cliché progression, it’s always nice to give it a twist. Try experimenting with it and see what you can come up with. As noted earlier, you can always throw in that III7 chord for more texture.

IV – vi – V

Example: F | Am | G

Let’s keep it nice and simple with the IV – vi – V progression. Now, the I is notably absent from this progression, but that doesn’t pose too much of a problem here. If anything, it can keep listeners guessing a little, but in a good way.

Either way, this progression is just as effective in pop as it is in R&B. Have a listen to it in Carly Rae Jepsen’s catchy “This Kiss.”

Notes About This Chord Progression

Evidently, this is a great progression for infectious pop music. There isn’t any tension in it, but it can be emotionally evocative, and maybe even a little dramatic. The lack of the I chord isn’t unsettling, it just kind of keeps the progression rolling along, like a car on the highway.

I find it a fun progression to solo over, so you could certainly save this one for the solo section in one of your own songs!

I also thought of Def Leppard’s “Animal” as I was listening to this chord progression, although that song features a progression that’s more along the lines of IV – V – vi. But hey, if you were looking for variants on this one, now you’ve got another shade to work with.

IV – V – iii

Example: F | G | Em

Here’s another fun three-chord sequence that’s missing the I. Compared to the last progression we looked at, though, this one is a little sadder, a little more dramatic. That iii is what does it.

Where will you have heard this one? In Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together” no doubt!

When you have an angelic voice like Mariah does, apparently you don’t need too many chords, because the entire song follows the same progression all the way through. Keeps the tension alive in a song about rekindling lost love.

Notes About This Chord Progression

As with most chord progressions, it can’t hurt to add the 7 to each chord to give it a slightly jazzier, more R&B vibe. In this case, that means Fmaj7, G7, and Em7 (which is a little closer to the chord qualities in “We Belong Together”), though I’ll be honest, in this case the V is better left alone. Keep it a natural instead of a dominant 7 unless you like that sound.

As with most progressions, you can either repeat it for the length of an entire song or save it for just the right moments. You’re never locked into one progression, and you’re never forced to use more chords than you feel you need to.

Also, that transition from the iii chord back to the IV chord is something I love so much I’ve used it in some of my own tunes, and I could see it being great for R&B too.

vi – iii – IV – ii

Example: Am | Em | F | Dm

Speaking of chord progression that are missing the I (yet another), here’s one you don’t hear all the time. And this one is decidedly minor, with kind of a darker undertone to it.

You will have still heard it though, in songs like Ariana Grande’s “Positions.”

Grande manages to pull a great melody out of it, and that’s a key point in a chord progression that can sound a little bland.

Notes About This Chord Progression

This is one of those chord progressions that takes a little skill to use, because it can sound a dull if you’re not careful! That ii chord at the end is kind of a tricky one, especially given that two minor chords preceded it. It works well if you make sure to include some pauses / rests as you’re playing it, mind you (just as you hear in “Positions”).

One thing you will like about this progression, even if it does feel a little dull to play, is that it tends to help create some great melodies and licks. That means it’s a great progression to solo over. Give it a try if you don’t believe me.

IV – iii – VI – VI

Rhythm and blues song breakdowns

Example: F | Em | A | A

Here’s a nuanced progression if there ever was one (again no I in sight). It may seem commonsense at first but take a close look at the VI chord. That would normally be a minor. In this case, we’re turning it into a major, or more likely a dominant 7 chord instead (like you sometimes would in jazz).

So, where have we heard this one before? Anywhere? Yes, of course!

You’ll be happy to know that Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” uses this chord progression in the chorus:

Notes About This Chord Progression

Like I said, this is a nuanced progression. In “Happy,” the actual progression is essentially Dbmaj7, Cm7, F11, F7 although the bass outlines a different harmony (so these could very well be slash chords). Basically, to get the most out of this progression, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to add the 7 to each chord.

As well, it’s not entirely uncommon in jazz to turn a minor chord into a dominant 7, so that, in effect, is what we’re seeing here with the VI chord. And the dominant 7 sounds decidedly better than a plain major.

Fair warning – without the right harmony and chord qualities, this progression can sound weird and be a little challenging to work with. So, like I said, make it a maj7 | m7 | dom7 | dom7 progression, or maybe look for other ways to make it sound exciting.

This one (or variations on it) could easily become a go-to in your R&B songwriting efforts, so give it some time to grow on you.

I – vi – IV – V

Example: C | Am | F | G

Just when you thought it was safe to assume I chords usually don’t appear in R&B songs… Well, you would be mistaken about that.

The I – vi – IV – V progression is common in most genres, including acoustic / folk, singer-songwriter, pop, rock, and more.

It’s simple, effective, emotional, and quite classic too (and we’ll talk about why that is a little later).

Here’s one place you will have likely heard it – the verse section of K-Ci & JoJo’s “All My Life” utilizes this progression:

Notes About This Chord Progression

This is basically the same chord progression as “Earth Angel.” That’s why it’s classic.

Played slowly, it’s perfect for a ballad, but played too fast, it’s going to sound like punk rock – because it’s a common progression in punk rock too!

This progression can also be a little boring if you don’t put your own spin on it. There’s obviously a lot you can do in terms of instrumentation, melody, harmony, rhythm, and so on, so if this feels like the right progression for your song, try a few different approaches before settling it.

I – V – bVII – IV

Example: C | G | Bb | F

It might seem a little off the wall at first glance, but these types of progressions show up frequently in pop music. That bVII can sort of throw you for a loop, but once you’ve heard it, you should be able to capture the essence of the progressions relatively quickly.

In a way, this is a chord progression that came to represent the 90s in a big away, because it was at the foundation of TLC’s “Waterfalls.”

Notes About This Chord Progression

The “Waterfalls” chord progression adds a little color to the chord qualities, and it goes something like this (in the key of Eb) – Ebmaj7 | Bb(add9) | Dbmaj9 | Ab. Generally, these qualities would give it a jazzier vibe, but it’s exactly what was needed for that lazy “Waterfalls” feel.

And, in the case of “Waterfalls,” that bVII chord almost plays as an Ab, but the bass gives it that Db quality.

As well, the bVII chord draws us a little outside of the “typical” world of chords, usually made up of I, IV, V, and vi. For that reason alone, it’s a good one to know!

And, if you look closely, you’ll probably also see that the relationship between I and V is a fifth, and likewise the bVII and IV a fifth as well.

Final Thoughts

With nine new progressions in tow, you should be ready to tackle your next R&B tune. What makes a song isn’t necessarily its progression (though the right combination of chords can go a long way). It has just as much to do with how you use the chords!

So, even if you feel like you’ve hit a dead end, keep playing with things until they feel fresh. I guarantee you this is what most producers and songwriters do!

P.S. Remember though, none of what you've learned will matter if you don't know how to get your music out there and earn from it. Want to learn how to do that? Then get our free ‘5 Steps To Profitable Youtube Music Career' ebook emailed directly to you!

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