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Three chords and the truth

One of rock music’s most legendary quotations is by one Harlan Howard, a songwriter who wrote many hits for country singers like Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash and Ray Charles, among many others. He said, “All you need to write a country song is three chords and the truth.”

music Updated: Jan 31, 2010 18:25 IST
Luke Kenny

One of rock music’s most legendary quotations is by one Harlan Howard, a songwriter who wrote many hits for country singers like Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash and Ray Charles, among many others. He said, “All you need to write a country song is three chords and the truth.” And very often, qualities to great songwriting have often been paraphrased as ‘…three chords and the truth’.



In fact, U2 fans will recall, on the album Rattle And Hum, when Bono does a live version of Bob Dylan’s

All along the watchtower...

, one of the lines he sings on it are, “

All I need is my red guitar, three chords and the truth…

,

and the results are magnificent to behold. In fact, ‘All along the watchtower...’ is one of the many hundreds of three chord songs that exist out there.

Lou Reed once said, “One chord is fine, two chords is pushing it, three chords, and you’re into jazz.” Hilarious, because Lou Reed himself went on to write many complex compositions in his lifetime, and still continues to do so. A lot of the early blues songs are all three chord songs, while some of them are two. There are no rules to writng three chord songs, as long as they are good and make you move in some way or the other.

Many variations
Early rock ‘n’ roll, which, as we know, was a graduation from the early blues itself, also featured many three chord variations, some of which are: Elvis Presley’s All shook up..., Chuck Berry’s Johnny be good...,The Beatles’ Long tall sally... and Love me do... and Little Richards’ Tutti frutti....

But that’s not all; the three chord phenomena has continued right upto contemporary times with artists like the Rolling Stones (It’s only rock ‘n’ roll...), Dire Straits (Walk of life...), Alanis Morissette (Hand in my pocket...), Nirvana (Terretorial pissings...), Michael Jackson (Black or white...) and Guns N’ Roses (Paradise city...), among many others going the three chord way.

Perfect education
Three chord songs are the perfect way to start a guitar education, a music education, as well as a songwriting education. And the mere rearranging of three basic chords like E, A and D can give rise to many songs in itself, with surprising results.

Now, I will go further to say that there are some two chord songs as well, and alarmingly, even one chord songs! But that’s for another time. I leave you now to seek out and learn to play, your own favorite three chord songs and write your own truths… if I may say so.