by Clay Mills
Jan 14, 2024
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at workshops or songwriting classes and had students come up to me and say something like, you know, I wish I had taken more music theory when I was younger. Or, I wish I’d taken piano lessons or guitar lessons; I can only play a few chords and I feel like it’s holding me back.
Fortunately for all of us, songwriting has never been about how much you know. It’s always been about writing your truth and getting the most out of what you do know. And I’m going to prove it to you today as we break the code on one chord songs.
One chord songs have been around for a long, long time – going back to “Chain of Fools” by Aretha Franklin, or some of those early rock and soul classics, on to a couple of years ago in country music, where you have “A Neon Light” by Blake Shelton. So let’s take a look at three songs from three different genres, and break them down.
1. “Who Do You Love” – Bo Diddley
Let’s go in chronological order. This was an old classic from the R&B rock days, and this is genuinely a one chord song. There’s a couple of things that’s happening that you’ll notice on all the songs I’ll play today. For a one chord song to work, there generally has to be a groove. It has to be a tempo. There’s very few one chord songs that are ballads – that’s hard to pull off.
You’ll also notice that these songs like to have contrast with rhythm and melody between the verse and chorus. Since we don’t have a lot of chords, you’re going to find that your melody and rhythm become very, very important because you don’t have a lot of other things to work with.
So you’ll notice in this verse, it’s very choppy and rhythmic. And then when they go to the chorus, they stretch out the notes a little bit and go to that bluesy note. There’s a very strong contrast between the rhythm of the verse and the longer notes in the chorus, and that gives you a release between the two sections.
2. “Get The Party Started” – P!nk
In this song, you’ll notice that even though there’s one chord, it’s very rhythmic and syncopated once again. But when we get to the chorus, that note is held out to give some difference and contrast from that rhythmic verse. You’ve got to have that tempo and contrast.
The other thing about one chord songs is that the lyrics have to be interesting. You’re going to cover a lot of ground, generally, in songs that have one chord because you don’t have the luxury of making chord changes. The only tools you have at your disposal are melody and lyric, so you’re really going to have to create movement with those elements.
3. “A Neon Light” – Blake Shelton
This song was a #1 hit for Blake Shelton, and the writers chose to go into writing this song as a one chord song. They chose to do it with a guitar riff, and built the entire song around that – which keeps going all the way through the song.
So this song is in D – just one chord. Once again, the verse is super rhythmic and syncopated. When they get to the pre-chorus, they have to change the rhythm to keep it going. And in the chorus, they hold those notes out really long – this is getting to be a theme. And you’ll notice a lot of these songs have a little tension in the chorus. It’s all just a way to keep the song moving forward. This song isn’t real uptempo, but they kept it driving by having that riff go all the way through.
The Bottom Line
As you can see, it’s not about how many chords you know. There are a lot of ways to make a song interesting. You can do it with rhythm, contrast, melodic tension, etc. You can pick up many techniques like these in Mastering Melody Writing.
The bottom line: if you’re only using one chord, you’ve got to utilize all your other tools expertly to make your song interesting.
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