Creating a 3-Chord Song on Spire Studio

By D I Hughes, Spire Contributor | November 21, 2018

 

Recording a 3 Chord Song

One of the best things about blues, folk, rock and roll, and all of their contemporary counterparts, is that some of the very best songs ever written or recorded in these styles are incredibly simple. And just because a song is simple in format, that doesn’t mean it’s not smart, ear-catching, meaningful, or relevant.

The three-chord song has been revered by fans and musicians alike for almost a century (possibly more). Status Quo did it; Muddy Waters did it; Canned Heat Did it; Tom Petty did it; Bob Dylan did it; Lynyrd Skynyrd did it; Creedence Clearwater Revival did it—the list goes on.

That said, if you’re a time-strapped bedroom jammer or home recording enthusiast with a few basic musical skills under your belt, a passion for songwriting, and an interest in laying down a few solid tracks, it is possible to write and immortalize a meaningful, ear-grabbing three-chord song with relative ease.

But before we delve deeper, let’s take a brief look at some of the world’s greatest ever three-chord songs to get those creative juices flowing.

Iconic three-chord song examples

This icon of a rock song from The Troggs is based solely around an A/D/E chord progression—but it's one of the most ear-inspiring, catchy, and recognizable arrangements in the world. Many beginner guitar players cut their teeth with this song due to its accessibility, but its groove-sodden feel and hummable melody are sensational, a fine example of a three-chord masterpiece.

From the get-go, the gruff, cyclical chord progression on “Bad Moon Rising” crawls under your skin and burrows its way deep into your brain, and the song’s seamless strut between verse chorus and bridge make it a perfectly formed three-chord rock and roll arrangement. This tune is very much defined by John Fogerty’s urgent lyrics and unique vocal approach, showcasing how the right melody can drive a song with an elegant mix of three simple chords (and some awesome guitar licks and rhythm work, of course).

Love it or hate it (I love it), this particular three-chord arrangement is hypnotic and oozes charisma. The verses here create hooks that are just as powerful as those in the chorus, and the layers of intricate instrumentation offer up something new every time you listen to the song. What this demonstrates is that will a simple three-chord canvas, you can really focus on experimenting sonically and creating clever musical lines to make your track unique, rather than focusing on adding complexity to the core arrangement—and when you do it right, the results are incredible.

Building a three-chord song

Using my Spire Studio setup, I wrote, arranged and recorded a three-chord song for my two-year-old son, Sidney, with the entire processes taking a little over two hours from start to finish. This is the basic recording of the guitar and lead vocal.

To help you build your very own three-chord song with ease, here’s an explanation of the process behind the recording.

The original chords

As my son loves “Everyday” by Buddy Holly, I used the verse chords from the song as a blueprint for my arrangement—that said, the chords I use in the song are D, G and A in a major (happy) key.

The intro

Using the exact same progression as Buddy Holly’s, I changed the rhythm and used basic fingerpicking techniques to add a personal stamp to the arrangement and introduce the song softly, giving myself the scope to build the song up to the chorus.

For inspiration, here are definitive ways of starting your songs and getting them off the ground.

The verses and chorus

I played the three chords on loop, strumming them fully rather than finger picking to build momentum, humming out my melody and scribing down my lyrics in the process. Once I had written the lyrics and melody for the chorus (the chords are the same here as for the verse), I went back to the beginning of the song. I played back from the intro through to the chorus, making sure to build the song dynamically so that the chorus builds to a crescendo.

The middle 8

To give the song a depth, using my three-chord blueprint, I switched the chords around, playing around with strumming pattern alterations until I landed on something that fit well. I then built a new melody and a few simply lyrics around the part. The chords here are G, D, G, D, A.

The ending

In a similar vein to middle 8, I used a chord switch moves back and forth between G and D, creating a vocal hook to round off the song, a hook in which I repeatedly sing “Sleepy Head” which is the title of the song.

For ideas on how to take your listeners on a musical journey, explore these nine songwriting tips.

The recording techniques

Above is the finished product. Take the time to compare this to the basic recording (or foundations) above, using this track as a reference when reading these tips.

Warming the vocals

As this song is essentially a lullaby for my son, I wanted it to sound as warm and soothing as possible. To achieve this, I double tracked my lead vocals throughout the song, singing over the parts with the same melody and panning the tracks left and right, respectively. After doing this, the vocals sounded fuller, warmer, and more inviting; I then added an extra vocal track to add basic harmonies, using trial and error to discover which approach served the song best.

sleepyhead-8track-spire-ipad

Defining the verses

To build the verses, I added my bass part after the initial fingerpicked intro while playing a simple shaker part which I set back in the mix. For the choruses, I ensured I played my guitar part slightly louder than the rest of the parts while playing just the root notes on the bass to make them more driving and defined.

The mix

Using my Spire app’s Vixual Mixer, I placed the song on loop, listening carefully with headphones, playing with the panning and volumes of each track until I found the perfect balance between each part.

To achieve the sound I was looking for, I placed the acoustic guitar part in the very center of the mix, moving everything else around it, with the vocals pushed up to make them more prominent. By placing your masterpiece in progress on loop and letting your creative instincts guide you, it’s possible to get the mix of your dreams within a matter of 10 minutes.

Visual representation of my final mix
Visual representation of my final mix

Improvising

The best thing about simple, effective three-chord songs is the scope to play around and improvise with ease. In this particular song, I felt that the intros to the verses needed a little something to hook people’s ears.

By leaving one empty track I allowed for a little experimentation. I placed the intro on a loop, at first playing around with guitar lines, but it quickly became apparent that a lead guitar line didn’t have the impact I was looking for. So, using the Spire Studio’s built-in microphone with an ample amount of Acoustic Room Shaper reverb added to the track, and I hummed and whistled.

I discovered a basic whistling pattern that fit perfectly. I quickly laid it down, found space on a neighbouring track to doubletrack the part, played it back, blended it into the final mix and just like that, my song was complete.

I addition to the mix itself, for warmth and consistency, I used the Acoustic Room Shaper for every single track, experimenting with the levels and controls to ensure a fine balance for each part using my ears as a guide while the song was on loop.

Once I finished, I gave my song a title, converted it into a high-quality .m4a file and had it pressed onto a 7-inch vinyl as a gift for my son.

As mentioned, this entire process took a little over two hours and using a simple three-chord structure as well as a few tried and tested home recording techniques, I created three minutes (give or take a little) of music that mean the world to me—something my son can cherish forever (hopefully, he loves it now, anyway.)

And that my friends, is the power of the three-chord song.