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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.

music Updated: Nov 21, 2011 15:49 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. His quote was, ‘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 goes, “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 exists 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 wrote many complex compositions and still continues to do so. A lot of the early blues songs are all three-chord numbers, some of them even two. There are no rules to writing three-chord songs as long as they are good and make you move in some way or the other.

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 goode, The Beatles’ Long tall Sally and Love me do, Little Richards Tutti frutti and many others.

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

Such songs are the perfect way to start a guitar, music and songwriting education. And let me tell you that 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 favourite three-chord songs and write your own truths… if I may say so.

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