Three chords to rule them all!
Three chords in your song!
Use these three chords to rock and roll —
You almost can't go wrong!
Yes! The legend is true.
If you crack open the nut at the heart of rock and roll,
three major chords will pop out.
These chords are called major not because of how incredibly important they are, but because they have big (major) thirds, unlike some other chords which have small (minor) thirds.
All chords are named after their root note, the root being the note that inspires the whole chord into existence. The roots of these chords are the first, fourth, and fifth notes of the major scale, and so these three chords are named one, four, and five.
The one chord is historically called the tonic chord. A tonic is something that cures just about anything that ails you, and the tonic chord has more goodness than any other chord.
If we were going to give one a new name today, we would probably call it the home chord.
The five chord also has a historical name that reflects its dominant role in musical narrative. The five chord is called the dominant chord.
The four chord is one step below the dominant, hence it's the subdominant chord. You can tell that the people who made up these names didn't think much of the four chord! Indeed, the music of 200 years ago was all about the fight between one and five, while four barely made an appearance. Not so in today's rock music, which is as much about hanging out as it is about fighting. Four is totally cool with hanging out, but is handy in a fight as well, and in the rock era four has finally assumed its rightful place on the fretboard.
Now, if you flip through a rock songbook, you could see hundreds of chords. In light of that vast universe of chords, you might think we're going overboard by spending all this much time on just three chords. But in fact almost all of those other chords unfold from these three. So it's not a waste of time if you spend a few weeks getting to know these chords intimately.
Of course, to actually play one, four, and five, you have to decide first what key you are playing in. In the key of C, one is C, four is F, and five is G.
In the key of D, one, four, and five are D, G, and A.
In A: A, D, and E.
In G: G, C, and D.
In E: E, A, and B.
In F: F, B♭, and C.
Note: It's okay if you have to look up these chord names while you're learning, but you should aim to know the one, four, and five chords in every key without even stopping to think. Like you know the names of your best friends, your favorite beers, and the street you live on.
Tuesday is Beastly Fundamentals Day.