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Two Chords

Monday, 14 October 2013

Does a song really need more than two chords?

I get why it might need more than one chord, but I am not even entirely convinced of that.

 There are plenty of one chord songs that work--Fleetwood Mac's "World Turning" (for the most part) is just one chord.  So is the BoDean's "Ballad Of Jenny Rae" and Hot Tuna's "99 Year Blues."  Those are the ones I can think of off the top of my head.  There are a ton more.

The reason I don't fight too hard for the one chord version is because it operates on a tension that doesn't always work for me.  A one-chord song does not resolve-- it hangs in place and makes the listener wait for a shift that never comes, so it ends up becoming kind of a jitter-causing thing for me. Sometimes a one-chord song just bores me.

But the two chord song?  Well, it's got the built-in back and forth that can go on and on and on forever.  It's built for jamming, built for soloing and built for storytelling.  Consider two classics of the genre--the Velvet Underground's "Heroin" and the Grateful Dead's "Fire On The Mountain."

"Heroin," built on just a D and a G chord, moves slowly for most of the song, picking individual notes in the chords, allowing Lou Reed to characterize a heroin addiction using all kinds of effective metaphors ("Heroin/It's my wife and it's my life), but the song also does something very clever--it uses the same two chords during the sped-up parts of the song ("When I'm rushing on my run/And I feel just like Jesus' son"). "Heroin" doesn't follow the standard verse-chorus structure, but because the two parts move at such different speeds, using the same chords feels very different, especially because the "melody" that Reed "screams" over the fast part isn't so much a melody as a 2-note wail, each note reflecting the chord beneath it.

"Fire On The Mountain" uses two chords, B and A, in a very different way.  As one might suspect from a Grateful Dead song, the movement between the chords creates a groove, in this case a kind of reggae-influenced groove, with a lot of freedom in the ways the chords are picked and the choice of their shapes and the drums that go wherever they want to while maintaining a beat that keeps chugging along.  In Jerry Garcia's hands, a two-chord song is an opportunity to explore the boundaries of the guitar, and even in the opening lead signature, he moves between different patterns and keys (I think).

What "Fire" does that keeps it so interesting is to make the melody of the chorus so different from the verse even though the chords and rhythm never change.  And because the song doesn't have anywhere to get to (I can see Billy cringing now), a solo or a jam can go on as long at it remains interesting.

Lest one think that drug-influenced music is the only use for this simple pattern, remind yourself that, but for a few brief transitions, "Tighten Up" by Archie Bell and the Drells is a two-chorder, as is Eddie Money's "Baby, Hold On."  If you took all of these songs and listened to them together, I think that you would arrive at the following continuum:

HYPNOTIC VIBE--------------------->GROOVE

And if you think about it, those are not the kinds of feelings one can accomplish in a pattern with a whole lot of busy chords and a chorus different from the verse.

So here's to the two chord song, the lifesaver of nascent garage bands everywhere, but also the basis of great jazz, funk, reggae, and all kinds of world beats.  Actually, one of my very favorites is "Cold Rain and Snow," which I first encountered by way of the Grateful Dead but eventually tracked back to one of its sources, a solo banjo performance with vocal by Obray Ramsey.  It's an incredible kind of story song, with implied violence, and when you play it, you don't necessarily follow a pattern, you just kind of get a feeling when the chords are supposed to change.  That's enough for me.

If you are the commenting type, I'd love to hear what some of your 2-chord favs are.  


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