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:

Verse:

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

Chorus:

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:

V1:

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

C1:

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

Guitar player

Three chords is enough to write a song!

V2:

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

C2:

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

Bridge:

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

C3:

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.

CHORD SUBSTITUTION

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

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Songwriting Tip: Three Chord Groups

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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