The Music Lab: Are You Using The ‘Songwriter Chord’?

Do you want to write contemporary songs without losing the classic feel of great songs?

A few years ago I was in the studio cutting new demos in Nashville, TN. I grabbed a guitar and started sharing my latest song to a group of A-list session players. Halfway through my intro, the guitar player in the group said, “oh, the songwriter chord.”

Never before had I heard it called that, but I knew exactly what he was saying. My mind started recalling singer-songwriters who had used that 2-note chord voicing. Songs like “Blackbird” by Paul McCartney and “Fast Car” By Tracy Chapman. Those are wonderful classic songs of yesteryear for sure. I also recalled more recent tunes like James Bay singing “Hold Back The River” and “Not Over You” by Gavin Degraw.

I realized these two-fingered major and minor 10th chords have been tapped for some mega hits over the course of recorded music history. (See diagram.)

It got me thinking –why was this simple chord voicing so popular with great writers? As I focused on uncovering the answer over the next few months, I realized a few important reasons I was drawn to it. And, I wondered why so many writers haven’t used this voicing since it’s so effective!

Why this simple chord voicing packs so much punch…

Mood Versatility

The Songwriter Chord paints a multitude of emotions –wistfulness, regret, joy, hope. It can put you in a cry-your-heart-out or party-all-night mood. However, it does so with an underlying sense of power. Its simple, broke-down, raw emotive quality creates instant vibe. And, it rarely succumbs to the pitfalls of cheese as some of its chord brothers and sisters have, like a Maj7th chord.

Take a listen to these five songs. You’ll travel through a wide range of emotions, tempos, genres, and decades…

  Songs Using The Two-fingered “Songwriter Chord” Voicing
“Black Bird”- The Beatles
“Fast Car” – Tracey chapman
“Hold Back The River” – James Bay
“California Gurls” – Katy Perry
“Not Over You” – Gavin Degraw

Maybe you’re writing music for radio? Check. Or, maybe for an indie genre or audience, so you need to break new ground? Check. Or, you’d like to create a moody or atmospheric piece of music for a TV or movie soundtrack? Just mix in some cathedral-style reverb and the “songwriter chord” provides magic.

Arrangement Tool

Since this chord voicing only consist of two notes, it lays perfectly into record productions with stripped down verses and big choruses. That’s a huge segment of music, right? Use the simple 10th chord in your verses, and then, move to fuller voicings or power chords in your choruses. Instant dynamics. You can finger pick it on electric or acoustic guitar. With a little string muting, strum away on a loud raunchy chorus. You can also play it on piano/synth based tracks as well. Reference the Gavin Degraw tune “Not Over You” mentioned above.

The Freedom To Create

Perhaps the biggest reason I’m attracted to this songwriter chord voicing is its openness. It allows me to weave a melody in and around its two-note configuration without feeling boxed in. That gives me a since of melodic freedom, because it doesn’t fill in all the blanks for me. The “Songwriter Chord” gives me space to create. Whereas, big block chords often pull the writer into certain melodic shapes when walking through a progression. When I’m writing a melody, I want to feel free to go where the muse is tugging, rather than where the chords are pushing me.

To summarize, the two-fingered 10th voicing is a great way to sound contemporary in a variety of  genres and emotions without losing the connection to timeless classic music. I’ll drop a few guitar chord illustrations below. If these shapes are new to you, my recommendation is to jump in immediately and give your new “tool” a try. Be warned, however! You may spend the next couple of hours composing your latest song.

Until next time, write on! 

~ CM


Clay Mills is a six-time No.1 hitmaker and multi-Grammy nominated songwriter/producer. His songs have been recorded by major artists in country, pop, rock, dance, bluegrass, and gospel. His voice and songs have found their way into national ad campaigns and movie soundtracks.  He co-founded, the world’s leading songwriter education site, with fellow hit writer Marty Dodson. Clay is as passionate about teaching songwriting as he is about writing himself.

Photo by Tommaso Pecchioli on Unsplash

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