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1 October 2017


Everyone who is learning to play jazz should know about 'the three-chord trick'.

What are the three chords? They are the tonic, the dominant seventh and the sub-dominant – the very three chords beginners need to learn first. They are almost certainly the chords you will most frequently use in your career.

It is possible to accompany some songs – particularly blues, folk tunes and spirituals – by using only the 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.

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: 

One of the most exciting tunes that requires only three chords is Dallas Rag. It is amazing to find what a great band such as Tuba Skinny can do with simple three-chord material. Click on this video to see what I mean:

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 Pass Me Not O Gentle Saviour,  Mama InezNearer My God to Thee, the old Mississippi gospel number Mary Wore a Golden Chain and Take My Hand, Precious Lord.


The book 'Playing Traditional Jazz' by Pops Coffee is available from Amazon.