By Wayne Erbsen
In my article Mandolin Chords, I showed you a number of two-finger chords you can play on the mandolin. 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 songs can be played with just three chords. These three chords form a little family called a “key.” We often give the chords in this family the numbers 1 4 and 5.
As you can see in the illustration below, in the key of A, the 1 is A, 4 is D and 5 is E.
Let’s take another example, the key of G. In the key of G, G is 1, C is 4 and D is 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, only the 1 and the 5 chords are normally used.
Select a song from the list 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:
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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
Hot Corn, Cold Corn
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’m Working On A Building
I’ve Always Been a Rambler
It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More
Jimmy Brown the Newsboy
Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho
Letter From My Darling
Lonesome Wind Blues
My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains
Old Gospel Ship
Old Joe Clark
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
Uncle JoeUncle JoeWalking in My Sleep
Waltz Across Texas
Wayworn Traveler, The
What Would You Give in Exchange?
Where the Soul Never Dies
Will You Be Satisfied That Way?
Will You Be Lonesome Too
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.