By Wayne Erbsen
In Basic Guitar Chords, I showed you a number of basic guitar chords. Armed with that knowledge, there are thousands of songs you can play simply by strumming the chord and singing, humming, or whistling the song.
Before you can do that, you will need to figure out which chords to play when.
The good news is that most bluegrass, folk, and country songs can be played with just three chords. These three chords form a little family called a “key.” We often give the chords in the same family the numbers 1, 4, and 5.
As you can see in the illustration, in the key of A, 1 = A, 4 = D and 5 = E.
Here’s another example, the key of G. As you can see below, in the key of G, G = 1, C = 4, and D = 5.
To make your task even easier, I’ve compiled the following list of bluegrass songs that only use only two chords.
Important fact: When a song has only two chords, normally only the 1 and the 5 chords are used.
Select a song from the list below that you’re familiar with. For the moment, let’s choose the well-known folk song “Down in the Valley.” Let’s play it in the key of D. That means the 1 chord is a D and the 5 chord is an A. Or if you prefer to do it in the key of G, the 1 chord is a G and the 5 chord is a D. Correct?
So strum your 1 chord, and begin singing or humming the melody as you strum down with your pick on the chord.
You already know what chords to use, the 1 and the 5. What you may not know is WHEN to change chords. The melody will tell you when to change chords. The melody needs to sound harmonious with the chord you are playing. If the melody clashes with the chord you are on, change to the other chord. Pretty soon, you’ll get used to what sounds good and what doesn’t.
Tip: Most bluegrass or folk type songs always start on the 1 chord. Somewhere in the middle or end of the verse, it will change to the 5 chord. On the very last word of the verse it will resolve back to the 1 chord.
So here is a list of of songs that only use two chords. You’ll find other 2-chord songs in my book, Easy 2-Chord Songs for Guitar.
Easy 2-chord songs
A Distant Land to Roam
Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down
Bring Me a Little Water Silvie
Dark Road’s A Hard Road To Travel
Did You Ever See the Devil Uncle Joe?
Dig a Hole in the Meadow
Don’t You Hear Jerusalem Moan?
Don’t Go Out Tonight
Down in the Valley
Driving Nails In My Coffin
Get On Your Knees and Pray
Go Tell Aunt Rhody
Hold To God’s Unchanging Hand
Home Among the Hills
Hop High Ladies
Hush Little Baby
I Just Think I’ll Go Away
I Am The Man, Thomas
I Dreamed I Searched Heaven for You
I’ll Go Stepping Too
I’ve Always Been a Rambler
Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho
Letter From My Darling
Lonesome Wind Blues
Old Gospel Ship
Peg and Awl
Pick a Bale of Cotton
Poor Old Dirt Farmer
Raleigh And Spencer
Standing in the Need of Prayer
Take Me Back to Tulsa
These Men Of God
Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down
Twilight is Falling
Walking in My Sleep
Waltz Across Texas
What Would You Give in Exchange?
Where the Soul Never Dies
Will You Be Satisfied That Way?
Will You Be Lonesome Too
Allow me to toot my own horn for a moment. After teaching guitar for 50 years, I’ve published three books for beginning guitar. Here’s more about them.
The most recent is the one that’s mentioned above, Easy Two-Chord Songs for Guitar. If you want to play the guitar, but don’t want to play a zillion chords, this is the book for you! The book includes helpful illustrations plus music, tab, and lyrics to 33 familiar bluegrass, old-time, folk and gospel songs, each with only TWO CHORDS. The book’s spiral binding allows it to lay flat while you play. It comes with an audio CD and a link to download or stream mp3s.
Painless Guitar – A Fun & Easy Guide for the Complete Beginner is for the total and absolute beginner. My co-author Ted Parrish and I call it “painless” because we have simplified learning the guitar down to its most basic level. Frankly, it doesn’t get much simpler than this. You’ll learn how to play the melody and chords to 31 folk, bluegrass, old time and gospel songs. You’ll have access to online audio files so you can hear how things are supposed to sound.
If you’re a little further along than a complete novice, I suggest Flatpicking Guitar for the Complete Ignoramus. This 80-page book takes the beginner on a musical adventure that includes more than 40 well-known flatpicking guitar tunes including Arkansas Traveler, Bury Me Beneath the Willow, House of the Rising Sun, In the Pines, Man of Constant Sorrow, Red River Valley, Wildwood Flower, and Will the Circle Be Unbroken. The book has a spiral binding and comes with an audio CD and a link to download or stream mp3s.
Wayne Erbsen has been teaching banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin since dinosaurs roamed the earth (really, about 50 years). Originally from California, he now makes his home in Asheville, North Carolina. He has written 30 songbooks and instruction books for banjo, fiddle, guitar and mandolin.