Songwriting Tip: Three Chord Groups


Knowing a few chords on guitar or piano is a good thing but some roughs I’ve reviewed here reveal that some newbie songwriters aren’t sure how to use them together. Sometimes chords are used that don’t support the melody or several chords are used that inadvertently introduce a new key in a spot where that shouldn’t happen.

Hopefully this post will reduce that confusion slightly, but in the larger sense, it’s aimed at introducing the abecedarian songwriter to the concept that there is a right way and wrong way to use chords, thus fueling the desire for further exploration of the principles.

Huh, abecedarian… pretty good word, eh? It means neophyte or beginner. Use it to replace a cuss word: “Listen, you abecedarian…” : )

As in most endeavors, there are rules. Rules can be broken but songwriters who don’t know the rules in the first place tend to break them in a bad way, in a way that detracts rather than enhances.

So here is a rule of sorts: Inject a sense of order in the writing process by employing a chord progression, which is several chords played in sequence that sound good together and firmly establish a key. There are many chord progressions that are accepted in music theory as “standards” and are used over and over, the simplest being the three chord group.

Many hit songs are written using only a three chord group, some with as few as two of the three chords in a group.

The easiest three chord groups to play on guitar are:

1. E, A, B7th
2. G, C, D7th
3. A, D, E 7th
4. C, F, G7th
5. D, G, A 7th

All of those can be played on guitar using open chords (chords that contain unfretted notes). The first chord in the three chord sequence is the tonic chord a.k.a. root chord. The second is the dominant chord, the third is the sub dominant or sub dominant seventh.

A three chord group is based on the major scale. Choose the 1st, 4th and 5th notes of a major scale and those notes name the three chord group for that scale with that 1st (the root note) naming the key. Also add a dominant 7th (7th) to the final chord (although the 7th is sometimes omitted).

For example, the notes in a C Major scale are:

C, D, E, F, G, A, B, (and back to C, up one octave in pitch from the original C).

The 1st, 4th and 5th notes of the C Major Scale, counting from C are C, F, G. So in the key of C, (C because the first note, the root note, is C) the 3 chord group is C, F, G. In the Nashville number system they’d be referred to as 1-4-5.

Click here to read the rest of this post, including how to use a three chord group to write a song and how to employ the principal of chord substitution.

Or you can skip the free stuff and go straight to the books this post is drawn from, 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