12 April 2013


Some readers have asked for really basic pointers about playing our music, so here's what everyone should know about 'the three-chord trick'.

It is possible to accompany some songs – particularly blues, folk tunes and spirituals – by using only three chords. Of course, this is sometimes just a lazy way of keeping things simple. You blank out any subtle and transitional chords and stick with the three easiest chords. But the truth is that most members of your audience will hardly notice.

What are the three chords? They are the tonic, the dominant seventh and the sub-dominant – probably the first three chords beginners learn.

So in the Key of C, they would be

C (Major)
G (7th)
F (major)
A very basic 12-bar blues might well follow this pattern:
   C | C | C | C | F | F | C | C | G7 | G7 | C | C 

That pattern started with the Blues of the Deep South and eventually became the basis of rock’n’roll.

Here’s an example of the three-chord trick applied to a complete tune. This is Stephen Foster’s Way Down Upon the Swanee River: 

And here is 'Sing On', composed and recorded in the 1920s by the great New Orleans band leader Sam Morgan. It can be played perfectly well using only three chords. In the key of G, they are of course G, D7th and C.

And here's one from the wonderful website provided for us all by Lasse Collin:
Other examples of tunes that can be satisfactorily played with only three chords include Nearer, My God, to Thee, the old Mississippi gospel number Mary Wore a Golden Chain and Take My Hand, Precious Lord.