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The Three-Chord Trick

We share with you the simple guitar chord trick upon which most pop music is based.

MAKING MUSIC isn't all just technique. It's about applying that technique, putting technical ability into context. Which means songs.

MAKING MUSIC'S look at the three chord trick is aimed both at the beginner wondering how best he can apply that newly learned third chord, and at the professional who's grown tired of experimenting with minor 9ths and augmented 13ths.

Think of a song: 'Route 66' perhaps? 'Louie Louie'? Everything Chuck Berry ever recorded? 'Gloria'... 'Wild Thing'... 'Respect'... 'Just My Imagination'... 'Jean Genie'... 70 per cent of the Jesus & Mary Chain album...

A list of songs which use the Three Chord Trick is almost a directory of classic pop, from Nat King Cole up to Echo & The Bunnymen. So if you should learn how to use this particular musical stratagem, not only would the history of modern music suddenly be at your fingertips, but the future too. What do you mean, you can't write songs?

The specific relationship between three chords - why they sound right together - is determined by the root note of each, and its place in the key in which the song is written. But you don't need to know that yet - just use your ears.

Let's take 'Bring On The Dancing Horses', a recentish triumph for Echo & The Bunnymen. Beneath the glossy veneer of drum machines, Fairlights and synthesisers, there lurks a fine example of that old Three Chord Trick:

"Jimmy Brown - made of stone
Charley Clown - no way home
Bring on the dancing horses
Headless and all alone
Shiver and say the word
A                D          E
Every line you've heard
A                          D
First I'm gonna make it
Then I'm gonna break it
Till it falls apart
Hating all the faking
Shaking while I'm breaking
Your brittle heart
And so on.

'Dancing Horses' is in the key of A major (at least it is the way I worked it out). The scale of A major is A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G#, and A. Put these two pieces of information together and we can deduce that the Three Chord Trick is the key of A major is composed of the first, fourth, and fifth notes to their corresponding chords, and there you have it. This is a rule, so don't argue.

The chords built around these firsts, as the tonic, sub-dominant, and domi-fourths, and fifths are known respectively nant, which is flash music-speak useful for impressing your less musically literate friends. In any key, the Three Chord Trick always contains first, fourth, and fifth. We can work out the Three Chord Trick for E major (for example) by examining the scale E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D#, E, which gives us E, A, and B. Likewise G major - G, A, B, C, D, E, F# ,G - has G, C, and D as its Three Chord Trick. It's the same for any key.


While you're pondering the glories of intelligible musical theory, let's peer into the past and see if we can discern any musical precedent for this pop conjuring trick.

Although it's a basic fact of Western music that tonic, sub-dominant, and dominant are central to conventional harmony and chord progressions (classical music included), it's not until the 20th Century that they become dominant (ahem) in popular music. It's the influence of blues, and subsequently R'n'B and jazz that has made the Three Chord Trick so important.

The increasing popularity of black music through the Twenties, Thirties and Forties, and its rapid appropriation by white musicians integrated - if not the people - the ideas of both, making such limited (though almost infinitely variable) forms as the 12-bar blues part of the common musical language. Even today, if a group of rock musicians jam together, it's almost certain that they'll play a 12-bar, and usually one in A.

If you should want to play a 12-bar in A, try the archetypal 'Johnny B. Goode', which goes four bars of E, two bars of A, two bars of E, two bars of B, then two more bars of E - that's the verse, which is 12 bars long. The chorus differs slightly.


"Way down Louisiana back of New Orleans
E                                         E
Back up in the woods amongst the evergreens
E                                         E
In a log cabin made of earth and wood
A                                         A
Lived a country boy name of Johnny B. Goode
E                                         E
Never ever learned to read or write so well
B                                         B
But he could play the guitar like a ringing bell
E                                         E


"Go... go Johnny, go, go, go
E                                         E
(play on, but don't sing here)
E                                         E
Go... go Johnny, go, go, go
A                                         A
(keep strumming for another silent two bars)
E                                         E
Go, go...go, Johnny B. Goode
B  A                                    E   B

If you play each letter/chord symbol for a count of four, you won't go far wrong.) You'll also find it sounds better if you don't hit the third in each chord; the third is the note that makes a chord either major or minor and can be found either by experimentally withdrawing notes from the neck of the guitar, or by looking at the scale for the chord concerned (in E, it's G#).

Try playing, instead, a proper boogie rhythm guitar part. You will need the two lowest strings of each chord (preferably the E, A, or D shapes), bouncing the extra note on the second and fourth beats of the bar (see Fig. 1). The extra note is a sixth, and will allow you to do accurate impressions of Status Quo's 'Down Down'. You can spice the part up by adding the seventh (the sixth slipped up a fret) on the third beat of the bar, in between the two sixths (see Fig. 2 - A major). This sounds like Status Quo's 'Caroline', and I apologise for such reactionary examples.


Chuck Berry is the king of the 12-bar, and without doubt 'Johnny B. Goode' is the best known of his songs. But this means it's now also the most cliched of Three Chord Trick applications within straight blues and R'n'B. For a more imaginative example, which inverts the normal structure listen to Hendrix's 'Remember' from "Are You Experienced".

The thing that sets the blues apart is its use of flattened thirds and seventh - the blue notes - and also the predominance of minor chords and unresolved chords (those without a third).

But if you take those flattened thirds up by a semitone thereby dropping the song into a major key, there you have it - instant Buddy Holly white pop. Titles like 'Peggy Sue', 'I Fought The Law', 'Summertime Blues', 'Hang On Sloopy'... all up-tempo adaptations of the traditionally slower, heavier blues form.


So much for the historical perspective - good for gossip, but not necessarily vital when it comes to using the Three Chord Trick for your own purposes. Once you're familiar with the way the three chords work together, and how particular changes suggest others, you can start altering the chords to your own ends.

Adding a seventh to the dominant is a standard ploy for giving a little extra impetus to the chord changes. Thus in A major, you would be playing A, D, and E7; the tension that the seventh adds to the E makes the subsequent resolve back to A even more satisfying. Put a seventh in the tonic chord four bars before it changes to the sub-dominant (giving A, A7, D, A, E7, D, A, E7, as a standard progression).

Get confident and slip some minors in here and there. The alternation of Em/A major is used so many times on the Doors' first LP (and to great effect) you begin to think they're the only chords Ray Manzarek could play. Other progressions you could try (and I know I have) are Am/Dm/E7, Am/D7/E7, or even C7/F/G7. Just experiment - whatever sounds good is right.

All the time you're working on chord progressions and the like, you should be exercising your vocal cords, humming and even singing along. It doesn't matter for the moment if you find snatches of famous tunes slipping into your wailing. As William Reid of The Jesus & Mary Chain said, "We use classic chords like A and D and E. There's been thousands and millions of songs written around those, and I think there's thousands more to go."

Pick out the individual notes of the particular tonic chord you happen to have lit upon - all five or six of them. Even though some of them may be octaves, there will be three to choose from as a starting point for your vocal. But just because you happen to be playing a major chord with your fingers doesn't mean your voice has to compound the key. Try singing a semitone below the root note; this makes a major seventh (as opposed to an ordinary seventh as referred to above, which is more properly known as a dominant seventh). The major seventh makes a soft emotional noise (eg first note of Tears For Fears' 'I Believe') and is much beloved of singer/songwriters; but don't dismiss it out of hand.

Sing two semitones below the root note, making a dominant seventh. This produces a harder, more dissonant chord frequently used in rock'n'roll and Sixties pop songs (the main vocal to The Monkees' 'Last Train To Clarkesville' starts on a seventh).

The idea behind going through the notes in the relevant scale is simply to locate one that you think might work for a vocal line. Even if it seems to create an appalling disharmony (not a washing-up liquid, but a bad noise), it might work for what you have in mind. Think carefully, and don't limit your options.


We take our leave of the Three Chord Trick with a note on a classic single from 1985 (the best, in my opinion): 'Never Understand' by The Jesus And Mary Chain, which plays very nicely in F.

Play the intro and verse as two bars of F/two bars of Bb repeated over and over; the chorus is simply two bars of C, two bars of Bb, then back to the repeating verse figure. Easy. As for the words - if they're unintelligible when the Mary Chain do it, why not make up your own? You never know, you might have a hit on your hands.

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Key Bored

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Technically Speaking

Making Music - Copyright: Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.


Making Music - Jun 1986


Music Theory


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