The Three-Chord Pattern that Defines Countless Songs
What is a "Three-Chorder"?
This is part of the "VERY Basic Guitar subset of our "How To Folk" articles. In an effort to "jump start" your enjoyment of Folk music and your ability to join in, no matter what instrument you play, we are providing some very basic notes about guitar chords.
Note: - This part of the Folkarama page, which is dedicated to helping beginners "get into" Folk music and join Folk communities as easily as possible, with simple articles and links to resources that provide hands-on instruction in traditional acoustic instruments.
Folkarama, in turn, contains many references to more extensive articles and resources in Paul Race's CreekDontRise.com site, as well as other related pages.
In a true "three-chorder," the chords are mathematically related. Using G, D, and A7 as examples:
So D is to G as A is to D. When you learn more chords, like E and C, you'll see that those relationships continue throughout the scale. G is to C as D is to G as A is to D as E is to A, and so on.
For now, we'll ignore the other chords and just concentrate on the E, A, D, G, and C chords.
A "three-chorder" is any song that uses any three ajacent chords on that list, with the "middle" chord being the tonic (the key of the song). So:
The following diagram illustrates these relationships among several popular root-position open guitar chords.
To see an expanded version of this chart, showing the major chords and keys between F and B7, click here.
At first, many students find these chords arbitrary, like memorizing the "I before E except after C" rule. But the truth, the relationships among chords like those in our example above are determined by physics. You can pretend this stuff doesn't matter, of course, but it does explain why a lot of music depends on three-chord structures (even if the pieces use other chords).
It also explains how experienced musicians can follow along on so many songs just by knowing what key a song is in.
Or how quickly many musicians can transpose (change the key a song is in).
Let's say you generally play a three-chorder in D. But the songleader would rather play in G. The three chords you're used to using a D, A7, and G, but - once you've really got ahold of this concept - you should be able to jump to using G, D7, and C without hesitation. Or A, E7, and D, for that matter. The relationships among each of those three-chord "clusters" is exactly the same.
When is a Three-Chord Song Not a "Three-Chorder"? Some songs that use three chords are not "3-chorders" in the sense most musicians use. A song in the key of D that uses, say, D, C7, and A7 would not be. The chords are not adjacent.
In fact a song like "If I were a Carpenter" that uses the chords D, C, and G, is not - technically a three-chorder, because the song is in the key of D and the middle chord of that grouping is G.
More Information about Chord Relationships - If you want to learn more about, say the relationships among chords we haven't discussed here, and even different kinds of chords we haven't got to yet, you can probably find what you need in Creekdontrise.com's articles on the Circle of Fifths.
Why Do Three-Chorders "Work"?
You probably don't have to know this next part right now. If you've learned all you need to know for now, save this page and come back to it later.
If you eventually want to compose or arrange songs, you're going to learn it one way or another, though.
If the song's melody never strays from the major scale of the tonic key, all the notes you need to harmonize it are embedded somewhere in those three chords.
Back to our D chord, the D major scale contains these notes: D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#.
The chords that traditional players use depend on which of those notes are the important notes of each measure (you don't have to harmonize every note, just the ones that are held for a bit or otherwise stressed).
The following chart illustrates this.
You'll notice that some notes are included in two different chords, but some only appear in one chord. If a song in D includes a held G or B note, a G chord will cover it. But if the song holds a D note, you can play a D or a G chord. If the song holds an A, you can play a D or an A7. And so on.
Of course there are other notes and other chords. A song that never strays from the D scale may still use chords that are outside of the three-chord format. And songs that use notes that stray from the D scale (say by using a C natural or a G#) often depend on chords and chord progressions that are outside the "three-chord" format. That's fine.
But once you really understand "three-chorders," you'll never need chord charts for 80% or more of the traditional or tradition-inspired music you'll encounter in Folk, Bluegrass, our Country circles (and even a lot of Pop).
ConclusionYou'll eventually notice that even songs that have many other chords make use of the relationships we've described. For example, in the key of D, the strongest transition between chords is from A7 to D. If you play a song in D, but stop on an A7 (or A major), people will practically beg you to "resolve" to a D. And even composers who use a multitude of chords count on that principle when they're composing the last line of a tune. If the song ends in D, you can almost bet on the next to the last chord being an A7.
In case you wondered, the second strongest transition in the key of D is from D to G. And you can make it even stronger by changing the D to a D7 before you change chords.
In other words, internalizing the principles of 3-chorders will help you play along with and even write songs that are far more complex than the ones we discuss or list in our "3-Chord Songs" articles. With each basic principle you internalize you're laying the foundation for greater things.
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