You probably already know how much you can accomplish with three chords.
Simple three chord song forms are the root of the blues, country, folk, and rock & roll. So you can literally play thousands of songs even with a very small chord vocabulary.
The real trick, though, is to learn to recognize the sound of those three chords. Not necessarily to be able to name each chord when you hear it. That’s pitch recognition, which is a useful skill. But to understand music the way good musicians do, you want to learn to hear relationships. There are chord patterns that show up again and again in music, and while different songs may have variations of them the basic formulas don’t change much within a given style. When you know what to listen for, you might be surprised how quickly you start to hear these patterns.
The three primary chords in any key are the 1, 4, and 5.
The numbers come from the position of each chord’s root note in the major scale that defines the key. For example, a C major scale contains the following notes:
C D E F G A B C
If we number these notes 1 through 8, we find that C is note 1, F is note 4, and G is note 5. I’d bet you can quickly think of a few songs that you can play with C, F, and G. Right off the top of my head:
Twist & Shout
You Never Can Tell
Blowin’ In The Wind
There are literally hundreds more, and when we include other keys the numbers increase exponentially.
In the other “guitar-friendly” keys of A, D, E, and G, the same formula gives us the following:
A: A, D, E
D: D, G, A
E: E, A, B (or B7 for the barre-challenged)
G: G, C, D
Needless to say, the relative absence of pesky barre chords makes this a comfortable basic vocabulary for beginners and rudimentary players. Add a capo into the mix and you have multiple options for playing in all 12 major keys!
The 1, 4, and 5 are the primary chords because they encapsulate in a nutshell the way that all chords work together.
Essentially, harmony is like gravity. When we string chords together, we hear a play of tension and release that creates an almost gravitational sense of “pull”. Strum the following sequence:
G – D – G
You should feel a sense of resolution from D back to G. The G chord is the 1 chord, the musical home. The D is the 5 chord, and creates tension that points us home.
Now add a C, the 4:
G – C – D – G
Notice how the C gives us a sense of stepping away from G, but not too far. It creates a lift, a small movement, but doesn’t create the level of tension and need to resolve that the D does.
Every song that uses 1, 4, and 5 chords in any order plays with this sense of movement, tension, and release.
In a 12-bar blues, the lyrical form often underscores this basic model by repeating the opening line when the music moves to the 4 chord in the second line and then offering the resolution in the last line coming off the 5. For example, listen to “Sweet Home Chicago“:
Come (1) on, (4) baby don’t you wanna (1) go?
Come (4) on, baby don’t you wanna (1) go?
Back to that (5) same old place, (4) sweet home (1) Chicago
In this case, the 5 (E) doesn’t resolve immediately but “walks” down from E to the 4 chord D, delaying the resolution for another bar before returning home to A.
Here are three classic country songs that all follow the same chord structure in three different keys:
Good Hearted Woman (Waylon Jennings) – in D
He Stopped Loving Her Today (George Jones) – in G
I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink (Merle Haggard) – in A
In “Nashville Number System” notation, the chords would be indicated like this:
1 1 4 4
5 5 1 1
Each number represents one measure of whatever chord corresponds to that tone of the major scale. For example, “Good Hearted Woman” would be:
G G C C
D D G G
If you’ve ever taken a music theory class, you may have learned the same basic concept but used Roman numerals. The numbers don’t name the chords, but in a Nashville chart the key is indicated at the top of the page and the musician uses their knowledge of key signatures to determine the specific chords.
One big advantage to this method is that you learn listen for relationships first.
A naturally intuitive player may not even the names of the notes or even the chords. Intuitive players make a direct connection between the musical pattern they hear and the physical pattern on the instrument. Most players use a combination of intuition and knowledge, which is why studying theory is so useful. The information tells you what you’re hearing so you can classify it, and gives you a way to fill in the gaps in what you can’t follow by ear.
As you begin to listen for these chord patterns, you’ll probably find that you can start to recognize them at least some of the time. Start with blues, traditional folk, or classic country first, because so many songs will follow exactly the same “map”. Start out by listening. See if you can determine how many bars each section contains, then try to identify when the chords change. If you listen for tension and release, you should be able to find the 1 chord fairly easily. Once you can do that, start listening for the 4 and 5 based on how much tension you hear. Then look up the chords and see how you did.
The more you do this exercise, the better you’ll get at it. One day you may find yourself following the chords to a song without having to think about it! It’s a great skill to have, and well worth taking the time to develop.