Elvis Presley Guitar Chords and Progressions: Breaking Down His Signature Sound

guitar chords and progressions

Elvis Presley is truly a legend in rock music history. Hugely successful and popular in his lifetime, his music still influences rock bands today. Countless young musicians want to learn how to play Elvis Presley guitar chords.

Yet Elvis was much more than the Southern boy who rose to the top of the rock and roll charts. His music was an eclectic mix of styles and sounds that proved genre-busting and had a tremendous impact on the direction rock music would take.

Before Rock, Rockabilly

Elvis was born in rural Tennessee to a poverty-stricken family. From the earliest days of his youth, he was exposed to country music, the blues, and the gospel music he heard in the local Pentecostal church. These musical influences set him up perfectly to perform a new style called rockabilly.

Rockabilly is the fusion of Southern and Appalachian country music, Western swing, and the rhythm and blues of Black musicians. Sun Records, a recording studio and label based in Memphis, Tennessee, had a roster of musicians churning out rockabilly records, including Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis.

The Presley family moved to Memphis where Elvis was able to hear this new genre and hang out with the musicians at Sun Records. Jam sessions led to recording sessions and soon Elvis and the other Sun musicians, Scotty Moore and Bill Black, had five rockabilly records released.

Rockabilly music typically includes the following style markers:

  1. Uptempo blues chords: In these early recordings, Elvis guitar chords are primarily derived from the 12-bar blues. This means plenty of I, IV, and V chords and not much else. 
  2. Basic instrumentation: You won't find the big horns and saxes here. Rockabilly bands consisted of two guitarists, one lead and one rhythm, an upright bassist, and a singer. There may or may not be a drummer, and sometimes one of the guitarists was also the singer.
  3. Strong vocals: Rockabilly vocal stylings were influenced by the rhythm and blues singers of the day. They strove for the emotional, deep, inflected sounds of R&B singers.
  4. Slap-back echo: This effect was often created by the recording engineer sending signals between recording machines to create a split-second echo. Reverb and tape delay were also common post-production additions.

Rockabilly only existed as its own genre for a few short years in the 1950s. By the late 50s, most rockabilly artists had been folded into either the country music scene or the growing rock music industry.

Elvis Chords and Rock and Roll

When Elvis shifted to the RCA label in 1956, he began recording and releasing records that define early rock and roll. While still heavily dependent upon blues chord progressions, his harmonic language begins to move toward a more rhythmically driven, rock-infused style.

Take a look at the following RCA releases as examples:

  • "Heartbreak Hotel": Using just three chords, I, I7, and V7, this song paints a convincingly bleak portrait of a relationship. The verse alternates between the I and the I7 while the chorus introduces the V7 to I progression.
  • "Love Me Tender": This song borrows its melody from an old Civil War song, "Aura Lee," by songwriters W. W. Fosdick and George R. Poulton. As such, it has a more interesting chord progression, namely I, ii7, V7, I. The introduction of the ii7 adds to the melancholy tone of the lyric.
  • "All Shook Up": There are three chords in this song also, the I, the IV, and the V. While this song is harmonically close to its R&B forebears, the prolonged use of the tonic chord during the verse is atypical. The I chord accompanies the first four lines of lyrics. The IV and V don't show up until the vocal tag at the end of each verse.

These simple chord progressions that relied upon the primary chords of I, IV, and V became the foundation for the rock music that would soon follow in Elvis' tracks. Bands and performers such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, and Lady Gaga all take inspiration from the music of Elvis Presley.

Elvis' Music in the Later Years

With the advent of the British Invasion in the early 60s, Elvis saw his popularity wane. Despite the significant influence his music had on the new bands, he had spent much of the decade in Hollywood making movies and had been out of the limelight for too long.

This all changed with his televised concert, "Elvis," broadcast on NBC in 1968. He revisited many of the early hits that made him famous, such as "Jailhouse Rock" and "Don't Be Cruel." Each of these songs uses traditional early rock chord progressions of I, IV, and V with "Jailhouse Rock" adding in the major VII.

This concert relaunched his career. He took up residency in Las Vegas at the International Hotel and released some new hits with similar chord patterns, such as:

  • "Suspicious Minds": This song alternates between the I and the IV until finally moving to the V on the last line of each verse and the chorus.
  • "The Wonder of You": One of the few songs that expand on basic Elvis chords, this progression is a I, vi, ii, V7, which became hugely popular in the 70s and 80s pop/rock scene.
  • "Way Down": The last song Elvis recorded before his death is perhaps the most interesting harmonically. After three lines of the tonic chord, the back half of the verse uses a IV7 acting as a secondary dominant of the flatted VII. 

Although the R&B and rockabilly underpinnings are still there, Elvis' music did develop a more diverse harmonic language later in his career.

Playing Elvis' Music Today

Anyone can learn to play Elvis Presley guitar chords. Begin with mastering the I, IV, and V in several keys. For example, for a song in the key of C major, you should be comfortable playing the C, F, and G chords. Next, add the ii and the vi to your repertoire, in C those are the D minor and A minor chords, and you can play many of Elvis' songs.

Find lead sheets and sheet music for Elvis' hits at Musicnotes. You can choose from a large selection of quality arrangements and song titles.