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Two Pay

Two-Chord Songs

Article from Making Music, August 1986

Just two, yup. Everyone from the Who to Duran Duran has used the trick. Now you can.

IF YOU READ Making Music regularly (and I know I do), you already know about the Three Chord Trick (Issue 3) and the four chord Turnaround (Issue 4).

But I beg you, pause for a moment; in your state of heightened awareness, are you perhaps neglecting some aspects of compositional technique? Or are you still waiting to master your third chord? Fear not, for the naked simplicity of the two chord song is on hand.

It was a very young (17?) and angry Peter Townshend that wrote 'My Generation'. Listen to the record: aggressive, vituperative lyrics, and just two major chords (A and G) crashing away inbetween the vocals; it's an almost perfect combination of words and music, with the playing reflecting the content of the song.

If we ignore the fact that Townshend had already been a musician for some time, and actually knew a bit about music, it's clear that (theoretically) anyone could have written 'My Generation' within two weeks of picking up a guitar for the first time. Which means you and me.


Let's go back to those two chords: two majors, a tone (two frets) apart. Ray Davies of The Kinks was good friends with those chords, as he proved in

"You really got me"
G      A    A G    A

and a whole bookfull of other songs.

(Most of the examples I give won't be in the same key as the records. That's partly because certain changes are easier to play, or sound better on the guitar, and partly because I've forgotten the original.)

My favourite two fret change is A to G, as both include bassy notes in the ordinary chord (A on the open A string, and G at the third fret on the E string). If you use E and D in their open shapes, the D will sound weedy in comparison, as you miss out on the volume and bass of the two lowest strings. D and C is another useable combination, as is G to F, if you can change barre chords fast enough. Experiment, and find out which sounds best, and feels most comfortable for you.

Figure 1

Away from open chords, there is another shape which, though it's useful in its own right as another way of playing E, can be turned to good effect into part of a two chord riff. Barre the neck at the seventh fret, but leave the bottom E string open. If you can't manage barreing all five strings, just concentrate on the A, D, and G. If you strum that, it should sound urgent and unresolved; the open E string adds breadth to the chord, and makes it sound fuller. To turn E11 back into E, finger the D, G, and B strings at the ninth fret (see Figure 1) — this means you're playing an open A shape. I find it easiest to play using the first and third fingers as barres at the seventh and ninth.

To turn this into a two chord figure, just lift that third finger. You can do a reasonable impression of Led Zeppelin's 'Whole Lotta Love' (see also Album Analysis) using this shape. Should you wish to.

If you want a more modern example of two chord patterns, try this:

"I made a break,
D             C
I run out yesterday,
    D                  C
I tried to find my
D             C
mountain hideaway"
    D                               G

which comes from 'Is There Something I Should Know?' (how to write better lyrics, methinks) by Duran Duran.

That example, because it resolves to G at the end, introduces the idea of combining the alternating two chords with another progression, say the three chord trick. 'So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star' by The Byrds (and more recently Patti Smith and Tom Petty): that rocks back and forth between G and A before bursting into D/E/A/D for the choruses.

Remember the 'Batman Theme'? "Dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada Batman!" it went, from A to G and back again, via the semitone inbetween. But then it went up a fourth (or five frets) to D/D flat/C, and then up again (two more frets) to E/E flat/D. You should recognise this as a Three Chord Trick.

This shows that you can translate the two chord riff into a different context, and use it to alter the way you interpret other song structures.


So far, I've only been using majors. But what if you try different chords? Turn the higher of the two into the minor: play four beats each of Am and G on the offbeat, and you have the basic chord progression of most reggae songs.

If you use E-shape barre chords for that Am/G, you should be able to pick out an ascending melody line from within the chords, which starts at the seventh fret on the D string, goes to the fourth on the G, fifth on the G, third on the B, fifth on the B, third on the E, then fifth on the E. Play one note per chord change. There are other lines that can be heard in this simple progression, but it's up to you to find them...

Figure 2

But instead of playing a straight minor, why not make it a minor 7th (see Figure 2)? Turning a chord into a minor seventh makes it sound less forceful and attacking than its equivalent major, and less depressing than a proper minor. Dave A Eurythmic Stewart used one:

"Give me two strong arms
G                       Am7
to protect myself"
          G                    Am7

which is roughly how 'Right By Your Side' goes all the way through the verses.

Minor sevenths sound open and unresolved, very Phil Collins, as you'll discover if you play any of his recent singles.

Back to major chords: you can use a minor seventh to take the place of the ordinary major, but only if you resolve it back to the major chord below — Am7 to Gm7 just doesn't sound right, while Am7 to G does. But there are other chords which work in both places.

Figure 3

Try Figure 3, for a ninth chord — nice, huh? Just sound those four inside strings, and you can play that shape anywhere on the neck; then experiment with leaving the two Es ringing, though that doesn't work in every position.

But what if we make it a little more... Slip the pinky on the B string up one fret. This chord is C7+9, also known as C augmented 9th. It was our guitar Chord Of The Month back in our first issue and it's still my favourite. Yah funky, and you can argue with Js Brown and Hendrix if you disagree.

What we've been doing with these fine examples of chordal esoterica is substituting them for the original majors. This technique of exchanging one chord for another is known as (you'll love this) Chord Substitution. And although I've only painted the tip of this particular iceberg, you should be able to deduce that altering chords and song structures to your own ends is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Ignore what you perceive to be 'The Rules', just make it up as you go along. I know I do.

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

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Making Music - Aug 1986


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