GUITAR 101: Seven or Eight Chords and the Truth

Gary Talley

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Years ago, songwriting legend Harlan Howard made the famous statement, “Country music is three chords and the truth.” That used to be pretty accurate, but even when he said that, he was generalizing. A lot of great songs by Harlan, Hank Williams, Hank Cochran and even Willie had only three chords. But a three-chord song in country music is now the exception instead of the rule.

Gary TalleyYears ago, songwriting legend Harlan Howard made the famous statement, “Country music is three chords and the truth.” That used to be pretty accurate, but even when he said that, he was generalizing. A lot of great songs by Harlan, Hank Williams, Hank Cochran and even Willie had only three chords. But a three-chord song in country music is now the exception instead of the rule.

I teach a class every September called “Analyzing the Hits” for NSAI at their “Songposium.” In that class, we talk a lot about the chords and chord progressions, because it’s directly applicable to the guitar. Most people who write call the guitar their primary instrument. What we see every year is that even artists who considered traditional-leaning, like Alan Jackson and George Strait, typically use more chords than your standard majors, minors and sevenths.

In this article, we’ll glance at a few of the songs currently on the country charts. Let’s start with “Everybody” by Keith Urban. The song is in the key of D. The verses repeat a four-bar chord pattern: D, Dma7 (major seven), D, Dma7, G, G6, G, G6. Each chord gets two beats except, the Dma7’s and G6’s are “pushed.” That means they’re hit on the upbeat (1&2 AND). If you did this with just a plain D to an ordinary G, it would sound a lot less interesting. Finger-wise the Dma7 looks like this: XX0222 (from big “E” to little “e.”) You just bar the first three strings at the second fret. The G6 chord is just a G chord with the little “e” (first string) open. The bridge features a Cadd9 (X32033) followed by our well-known “connector” chord G/B (X20033) leading us down to an A minor chord. This Cadd9-G/B-A minor progression is very common. You should know it.

OK, now let’s look at “Watching Airplanes,” recorded by Gary Allan and written by Jim Beavers and Jonathan Singleton. The song starts out in F#. When you hear a country, rock or pop song in this key, the guitar player often tunes down a half-step so he/she can play open chords. It is not because he doesn’t know how to play an F# bar chord; it’s because open chords sound better than bar chords for this kind of music. So the fingering in those beginning chords is G (3×0033) to Cadd9 (x32033). Nobody plays a regular C anymore. Hardly. The Cadd9 sounds cooler. There’s also a quick Csus4 (X3556X). The last chord before the chorus is an Fsus2 (XX3011).  Know that one? A four-string F with an open G string. Then the song changes keys for the chorus ! Very clever.

OK, next song: “I Saw God Today,” written by Monty Criswell, Rodney Clawson and Wade Kirby and sung by George Strait. Good ol’ traditional George. Key of D. First chord in intro and verse: Dsus2.

Another “color” chord. Sounds a little different. It’s a D chord with an open little “e” string (XX0230). These little suckers are everywhere. They are more common in contemporary music than a D. The verse has a cool little G chord lick that goes from a G (3X0033) to Gma7 (3X0032) to G6 (3X0030).

Next: “So Small” written by Carrie Underwood, Luke Laird and Hillary Lindsey. Key of E flat. Put your capo on the first fret. Pretend you’re in the key of D. Why? You want open chords. A pop-style ballad with lots of nice chordality. Harlan Howard would be shocked. Don’t have space here for all the cool stuff, but one little progression stands out: in the pre-chorus, right when she says “Don’t run out on your” something or other, there’s this: two beats of a G chord (3X0033) followed by two beats of A/G. That’s 3X222X. An A chord with a G bass note. I love that sound. (And remember, sound is what it’s all about. Not numbers, not notes, not names of stuff. Sound.) Followed by a Gsus2. 3X0233. Then the chorus: G followed by B min, which is a cool sound in itself.

Finally: “Online” by Brad Paisley. I picked this one just for the intro (G F), C. The G and the F get two beats each. The C gets four beats (one bar). In the number system, this is a one to a flat7 to a four chord. This same chord progression (in different keys and tempos) is in “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Amy,” “Satisfaction,” “Gloria,” “Can’t You See.” I could go on. These are all old songs. It’s an old chord progression. And still a good one. It will last forever. I have to stop here for now. Until next time!

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