Tips for Figuring Out Chords

By Wayne Erbsen

Shindig. To people in western North Carolina where I live, “Shindig” is short for Shindig on the Green, which is an outdoor bluegrass music festival held on the courthouse steps in Asheville, North Carolina. The Shindig is a unique summer festival, drawing regional bluegrass and old-time musicians who just want to get together to pick and socialize and strut their musical stuff on stage. For the musicians, it’s not a paid gig, just a big music party with a large audience. Only the house band, The Stoney Creek Boys, get paid.

On Labor Day, I attended the last Shindig of the season with my band of 12 students, which we call the Log Cabin Band. After our part of the show was over, I noticed ex-Bluegrass Boy Ralph Lewis sitting behind the stage, so I sat and chatted with Ralph about his days as a member of Bill Monroe’s band in the 1970s. When Ralph became distracted and began talking with one his fans, I drifted off and started hanging out with several local fiddlers. We soon struck up the tune North Carolina Breakdown, which was composed by Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith.

Before we launched into the next tune, I noticed a woman standing expectantly next to us with her guitar in its case, so I told her to break it out and play with us. She hurriedly got out her guitar, and then I spotted trouble. She began nervously thumbing through her notebook, desperately looking for the chords to the tune were about to play, Whiskey Before Breakfast. I think she found them, but by then we were playing the tune hell-bent-for-leather, and she couldn’t turn the pages fast enough to keep up. Balancing her notebook on her guitar while trying to follow the many chord changes wasn’t working.

The other two fiddlers soon disbursed into the crowd, and I was left standing there with the guitarist. Since she knew I was a teacher, she asked me for advice on following fiddle tunes on the guitar. Here’s what I told her.

Backing up fiddle tunes is always a fun, yet challenging thing to do. Like California, western North Carolina is a musically diverse place, so the fiddlers you’re likely to find often play any number of styles and play an almost infinite number of tunes. The thought of carrying around a notebook with chord changes to all the possible tunes you might be called on to accompany would be a daunting task, at best.

Instead of the notebook approach, it’s best to just figure out what chords go where. In any jam session situation, you’ll need to know the key the next tune or song will be in. The problem is that if you ask the key before each and every tune, you’ll become highly annoying and people will want to run you out of town on a rail! Instead of always asking the key of each tune, lay back, observe, and the key will usually “reveal” itself. If you’re a closet picker who is venturing out to one of your first jams, you can only hope that there’s another experienced guitar player to follow. Sit where you can see their chording hand, and when they put a capo on their instrument, you do the same. Watch them like a hawk, and play the chords they do.

When learning to accompany fiddle tunes, it’s important to be able to recognize the form or structure of a particular fiddle tune. The most common old-time fiddle tunes have two parts, and each part is repeated before going on to the next part. Some tunes, like Pike County Breakdown, only have one part, so you’re in luck there. A few of the older fiddle tunes might have three, four, or even five parts, but those are rare, so don’t freak out (yet) about that because you may never run into those kinds of tunes.

Bluegrass songs have a structure all their own, distinct from fiddle tunes. The most common bluegrass song is built on a verse/chorus pattern. Bluegrass songs will start with a solo or break, where the instrumentalist will normally play the verse. Then the lead singer will sing the verse followed by the chorus. Your biggest unknown will be whether the chorus has the same chord progression as the verse, or whether it will have a set of chords all its own.

When you’re trying to figure out the chords to a song or tune, the melody will be your guide to unravel the mystery of the chord progression. The melody normally harmonizes and sounds good with certain chords. When the chord you’re on clashes with the melody, that means you’re on the wrong chord. Quickly switch to another one that you think will harmonize with the melody.

TIP #1: It’s usually wise to stay on a chord until it’s painfully obvious you’re on the wrong chord. Since most bluegrass songs only have three chords (eg. G, C, and D), you have a 50/50 chance of landing on the right chord just by the luck of the draw.

TIP #2: The melody of most bluegrass songs contains a fair amount of repetition. For example, in many songs the melody of the first and third lines are identical. Thus you don’t have to continually reinvent the wheel. Just fall back on the chords you already figured out.

With practice and experience and more than a little determination, you’ll get a handle on playing chords behind bluegrass and old-time tunes. Have fun and good luck.