“What? I just need to know three chords to play a song?”
“Actually, you can play ‘Frere Jacques’ with just one chord. There are many songs with only two chords. I have identified at least thirty of these.”
I tell my ukulele students that 80% of all songs use only 20% of all chords. I apply the 80-20 rule to many situations, often to help with management of expectations.
So far I have collected over 60 songs that use only C, F, and G or G7 chords. My list of three chord songs that use three other chords, such as Riptide (Am, G, C), is nearly as long. This is wonderful news for beginners.
Google “three chord songs” and you will get many web pages listing and discussing the magic of three chord songs. Few go into as much interesting detail as the article in Ukulele Magazine, which goes into some music theory.
The I-IV-V relationship is the strongest and most typical of three chord songs. This translates to the major chords built on the first, fourth, and fifth notes in a major scale. For C major, they are C, F, and G. The fifth can be changed to a V7 or G7 chord in this case to add tension, so that the resolution back to the I or C is ever so final (a release of tension).
Venture a little further, by adding the one-finger chord of Am, you get many songs with the four chords of C, Am, F, and G, such as Beatles’ “Let It Be.”
The other good news is that many of these songs use the same chord progression (order of chords) throughout the entire song. For instance, the verses of “Bad Moon Rising” follow C-G-F-C in every line. Some songs follow the same chord progression in the verses and choruses. The order of the three chords Am-G-C repeat throughout the song “Riptide“.
Such predictable patterns make it easier to memorise and learn songs. If you find it too high or too low to sing in the chords given in a song, you can always transpose to a more comfortable key. For instance, C-F-G7 in “Charlie on the MTA” is not as comfortable for me as A-D-E7. I keep adjusting the “Circle of Fifths” pictured above until I find the chords that make it easier for me to sing the song.
After giving the “Transpose to Compose” workshop to intermediate ukulele players at the Ukulele Melee in Hamilton, MA in April 2018, I plan to offer this workshop as a series of related workshops for beginning to intermediate players in Boston in October.