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Three Chord - Trick

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Previous page: Chord Progressions - The Double Message of the I-IV change Next page: Chord Progressions - Major progressions with diatonic minor chords

By just knowing three chords, the I, IV and V7, you can play thousands of songs. Even songs with a more complex harmonic structure might be reduced to a three-chord progression with a result that is acceptable, given that they given that they are based on a major scale and have no modulations. These three chords are known as the Primary chords. For some more explanation, go to my Primary Chord lesson in my Theory series

You have already met the three-chord structure in the 12-bar blues, and the 12 bar blues is one of the progressions based on these three chords. In case you should have forgotten, the chords in the most popular guitar keys are:

C: C-F-G7
G: G-C-D7
D: D-G-A7
A: A-D-E7
E: E-A-B7
F: F-Bb-C7

Some typical three-chord song structures are:

Basic & Folk progression I-IV-V-I

One typical example is the well known hymn Amazing Grace, written by John Newton in the year 1779. It has a typical 16-bar AABA structure. I have put it in the key of C, where I=C, IV=F and V=G. Notice that the second line ends with a Half Close, and the last line with a Full close. For some more explanation on full and half close, go to the lesson on Authentic Cadence in my Music Theory series. The first and third line ends with a Plagal Cadence

C C F C
C C G G
C C F C
C G C C

I have chosen Amazing Grace partly because it is a well known tune, but also because you can find this very interesting article on the relation between Amazing Grace and pop songs Ger Tillekens: The amazing grace of "Never Ever" in Soundscapes on-line journal on media culture.

There are hundreds of songs more or less based on this progression. Try some countryish ballads, for instance Act Naturally as recorded by The Beatles. It is in G. The verse follows more or less this structure. At the end of the bridge, there is an A7-chord, which is a V of V chord in this context.

I-IV-V-I Rock progression

This is another classic. I often think of this as a progression where you climb to the top, and then jump down, for instance through the chords E-A-B-E. But the progression might have another character and direction. If you in the key of C and play the standard open fingering of the chords C-F-G-C, it sounds more like if you going up, then down below, before you climb to the root. And it might give a feeling of jumping down to the IV-chord below, and then climbing up towards the tonic.

A few examples of songs with this progression, are Twist and Shout (originally Isly Brothers, but made far more famous by the Beatles), Paul Simon Me and Julio Down in the Schoolyard (verse) and I am a Rock, Eddie Cochrane Summertime Blues.

Backing Track
These are more MIDI backing tracks of the progression above. They are in 8 keys and three tempos, but only in one tempo (120) this time. But instead I have made one track where each chord last one bar (4x1), and one with two bars of each chord (4x).
4x1 C D Eb E F G A Bb
4x2 C D Eb E F G A Bb

The progression can be reversed, giving the I-V-IV-I progression.

Backing Track
I-V-IV-I progression - 120
C D Eb E F G A Bb

I-IV-V-IV

There are many songs following this pattern. A few examples are Get Off Of My Cloud, La Bamba and Great Balls of Fire

Backing Track
I-IV-V-IV progression - 120
C D Eb E F G A Bb

I-V-IV-V

One example is The Beatles' Baby's In Black

Backing Track
I-V-IV-V progression - 120
C D Eb E F G A Bb

Another look at the Blues-ending - V-IV-I-(V)

Three songbooks with just these chords

These three songbooks are collections of songs that you can play using only the three primary chords.

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