How To Play Three Chord Songs On Guitar

By: Mike Hayes

Sooner or later you are going to take your guitar along to a casual sing-a-long type jam and hope that someone will start singing in the only key you know.

Or perhaps you'll be playing along, converting the chords you know, quite well until someone pulls the plug out by saying, "Do it in A flat". This is followed by an embarrasing five minutes while you struggle to find chord changes in this unfamiliar tonality.

It happens to everyone, so read through to the chart at the end of this article and let a little light in.

There are twelve major keys. Each one has a minor key closely associated with it - this is called the relative minor.

Each key (major or minor) has the same basic relationships.

Any melody or chord progression can be played in all twelve keys. this was not always so. Earlier European music systems utilized modes that did not have this quality.

The introduction of the piano around 1720 helped consolidate this "one Key relationship transposable to twelve different levels" as the system best suited to the needs of Central European musicians.

The name given to it is:-

The diatonic system or tonal system

The name simply refers to the fact that all notes and chords constantly resolve back to one Key point - the tonal centre or footnote of the scale.

There is a key for every note, but 99% of folk or song accompaniment on guitar takes place in six of these -

C, D, E, F, G or A.

In each of these keys there are three chords which will almost invaribly be used. In the Key of C the most likely chords you will encounter are :-

C F G7

In order, these chords are called in musical terminology -

C - the tonic, F - the subdominant, G7- the dominant

In the diatonic scale


the TONIC is the chord built on the 1st degree (C)

the SUBDOMINANT is the chord built on the 4th degree (F)

the DOMINANT is the chord built on the 5th degree (G7)

A simple way to find the three principle chords of any Key is to begin counting a specific number up from the tonic of the Key chord.

e.g., In the key of C the tonic is the C chord.

Then by counting up four full notes from the tonic chord, C D, E then F you arrive at the subdominant of the C Key.

To find the dominant simply move up to the next scale note (G), or count five full notes up from the tonic chord.

C, D, E, F then G

Dominant chords are usually sevenths - so now you know the whereabouts of the three main chords in the Key of C.

Of course these three chords are not necessarily the only chords used in songs but merely serve as guidelines in finding all the chords of a tune. However thousands of folk songs and pop tunes are playable with these three.

Here is a chart of the 3 main chords in each Key.

Tonic (key) - Subdominant - Dominant

Tonic - C, Subdominant - F, Dominant - G7

Tonic - F, Subdominant - Bb, Dominant - C7

Tonic - Bb, Subdominant - Eb, Dominant - F7

Tonic - Eb, Subdominant - Ab, Dominant - Bb7

Tonic - Ab, Subdominant - Db, Dominant - Eb7

Tonic - Db, Subdominant - Gb, Dominant - Ab7

Tonic - Gb, Subdominant - Cb (or B), Dominant - Db7

Tonic - B, Subdominant - E , Dominant - F#7

Tonic - E, Subdominant - A, Dominant - B7

Tonic - A , Subdominant - D, Dominant - E7

Tonic - D, Subdominant - G, Dominant - A7

Tonic - G, Subdominant - C, Dominant - D7

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