Write A Song : Three Chord Groups and Chord Substitution

Guitar player

Three chords is enough to write a song!

Once you understand how three chord groups work, the order you play the chords in a group is up to you. You could play C, G, F, C.

Or C, F, G7, C,

Or F, C, G7, C, Any order you like is fine, note that even though here we started with the F chord, the key is still C, not F.

To write a song using a three chord group in a verse/chorus type song, establish a pattern for your verse and a pattern for your chorus. A quick example using the key of G three chord group group:


C, D7, G, G,
C, D7, G, G,
C, D7, G, G,
C, D7, G, G,


D7, C, D7, C, D7, C, D7, G

It’s common to add a 2 minor to the 3 chord group. The 2nd note in the C Major scale is D so the 2 minor is D minor.

Play C, Dm, F, G

Another common chord to add is the 6 minor. In C that’s A minor.

So you could play C, G, Am, F, G7, C, G7, C.

To be sure you grasp the concept let’s try an example in another key, the key of E.

Ascending the E Major Scale we have:

E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D# and E again, up an octave.

1-4-5dom7 = E, A, B7.

The 2 minor and 6 minor in the key of E are F#m and C#m.

To apply this to songwriting you might choose a chord progression for your verses and alter it for your choruses, climbs or bridge sections, play 4 beats per letter:


E, A, B7, E – E, A, B7, B7
E, A, B7, E – E, A, B7, E


A, B7, A, B7, A, B7, E, B7

Guitar player

Three chords is enough to write a song!


E, A, B7, E – E, A, B7, B7
E, A, B7, E – E, A, B7, E


A, B7, A, B7, A, B7, E, B7


C#m, B7, A, A, C #m, F#m, A, B7


A, B7, A, B7, A, B7, E, E

Thinking in terms of chord progressions brings order where there once was chaos.

Now for something far more advanced.


There are thousands of chords but, according to the acknowledged authority on the subject, Ted Greene, the author of Chord Chemistry, every chord can be grouped into one of three basic categories: major, minor or 7th. If you understand that then you can start experimenting with simple chord substitution (pursue this subject very far and it gets much more complex).

The rule: Any chord in a category can be subbed for another in the same category provided it sounds good to the ear. Does the sub serve the song? Does it support the melody?

Majors, major 7ths, major 9ths, major 13ths, etc. are in the Major category.

Minors, minor 7ths etc. are in the Minor category.

7ths, 9ths, 11ths, 13ths, etc. are in the 7th category.

Extended and altered chords are grouped by their root classification. In other words, generally, the first alteration to appear dominates. A B7+5 (B seventh sharp five means to raise the 5th a half step so the F# becomes a G note). But because the 7th appears first B7+5 would be classified as a 7th type. Ted groups augmented 5th chords as 7th types also.

So if you write a basic progression: C, F, C, F, G7

You could rewrite it: Cmaj7, Fmaj7, Cmaj7, Fmaj7, Gdom9th.

Another variation: Cmaj7, Fmaj7, Cmaj7, Fmaj9, GAug5

Or perhaps you have a basic D, Em, A7, D (4 beats each)

Perhaps jazz it up: D, Em7, Em9, A7, A13, D (play 4 beats on the D chords and only 2 beats on each of the Em category and A category chords)

But Em7 is a 7th type, correct? How can it sub for Em?

No. Em7 is a minor type because the minor appears before the 7th, and can indeed sub for Em.

Subs are extremely useful in certain songs in certain spots but it can easily be overdone. Get far beyond something like subbing a 9th for a 7th, which almost always works, and it tends to impart a jazzy flavor that may or may not serve the song. You won’t likely have much use for substitution in a classic rock song like Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train,” that pretty much is what it is. But most ballads in any genre can benefit as well as many uptempo pop, jazz, country swing and…well, let’s not set limits, you never know where just a single substitution might improve an arrangement. Hmmm…”I’m goin’ off the rails on a Jazzy Train?” I like it.

And remember, you only need three chords to write a hit. So if you use 5 or 6 chords obviously it will be a #1, lol.

Here is a post on the minor three chord groups.

We’re barely scratching the surface here. If you want to learn very basic open chord progressions and simple rhythms get my book Guitar Shop. If you want to learn more complicated chords, extended chords, how non-root bass notes work and learn all the chord substitution rules, get Ted’s bookbill watson