You could call it the magical mystery chord. The opening clang of the Beatles' 1964 hit, "A Hard Day's Night," is one of the most famous and distinctive sounds in rock and roll history, and yet for a long time no one could quite figure out what it was.
In this fascinating clip from the CBC radio show, Randy's Vinyl Tap, the legendary Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive guitarist Randy Bachman unravels the mystery. The segment (which comes to us via singer-songwriter Mick Dalla-Vee) is from a special live performance, "Guitarology 101," taped in front of an audience at the Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto back in January, 2010. As journalist Matthew McAndrew wrote, "the two-and-a-half hour event was as much an educational experience as it was a rock'n'roll concert."
One highlight of the show was Bachman's telling of his visit the previous year with Giles Martin, son of Beatles' producer George Martin, at Abbey Road Studios. The younger Martin, who is now the official custodian of all the Beatles' recordings, told Bachman he could listen to anything he wanted from the massive archive--anything at all.
Bachman chose to hear each track from the opening of "A Hard Day's Night." As it turns out, the sound is actually a combination of chords played simultaneously by George Harrison and John Lennon, along with a bass note by Paul McCartney. Bachman breaks it all down in an entertaining way in the audio clip above.
You can read about some of the earlier theories on The Beatles Bible and Wikipedia, and hear a fascinating account of one scholar's mathematical analysis of the component sounds of the chord from a few years ago at NPR.
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- The Shaggs were a band formed by Dot, Betty, and Helen in 1968 on the insistence of their father, Austin Wiggin, who believed that his mother foresaw the band's rise to stardom. The band's only studio album, Philosophy of the World, was released in 1969. They are famously, nay legendarily, bad musicians.
- The Sex Pistols fired their original bassist, Glen Matlock, for being too focused on the music and not on the attitude. His replacement, Sid Vicious, was widely (but mostly inaccurately) believed to be unable to play a single note of music.
- That was supposedly how the Sex Pistols' manager Malcolm Mc Laren spun it, in order to play up the tensions for media publicity. Matlock and Johnny Rotten were increasingly falling out with each other, and Matlock eventually quit to join The Rich Kids.
- The Ramones have almost never played a song with more than three or four chords, and often played with as few as two chords.
- Henry Rollins once decried this trope when telling stories of how fans reacted toBlack Flag's more experimental material, including people who compared songs that had guitar solos and were longer than 1:30 to "Free Bird".
- The Clash, early. Later on, by London Calling they had moved onto to everything from rockabilly to ska to reggae. By Sandinista!! they also moved to hip-hop and dub.
- KISS followed the formula like glue.In fact much of their stage show was to cover up the fact that they didn't even play their three chords well (they got better).
- The original lineup of The Misfits. The majority of their songs sound like they were recorded in a public bathroom.
- The Germs' music was full of this in general, but the biggest example would be their debut single: The a-side, "Forming", was recorded to two track in a garage and features an odd stereo mix where the vocals are in the left speaker and every other instrument is only in the right. The b-side, "Sex Boy", is a live performance recorded on cassette from the audience; glass breaking and people having conversations or shouting can be heard more clearly than the music.
- On one occasion (seen in this video), Mick Jones appeared as a guest guitarist with Ian Dury and the Blockheads (Dury himself had been an early punk solo act) and before they started playing was informed, "We've got four chords in this song, Michael."
- The Adverts went so far as to name their debut single "One Chord Wonders" (although the song had at least four chords).
- The New York Dollslived this. They were forced to start writing their own songs from early on, as all their attempts at cover versions sounded unacceptably inept even to them.
- British punk band Crass stuck strongly by simple chord progressions and generally didn't even care much for melody.
- Woody Guthrie has been quoted as saying, "If you play more than two chords, you're showing off."
- Even before going electric, Dylan faced criticism from some in the folk community for shifting from protest songs to a more surreal, impressionistic type of lyricism on his Another Side of Bob Dylan album. One critic, Irwin Silber, accused him of having "somehow lost touch with the people". Dylan, in his turn, wrote "Maggie's Farm" on Bringing It All Back Home as a Take That! towards these very same people, and later wrote ''Music/NashvilleSkyline'' as an attempt to distance himself from them once and for all.
- Tom Lehrer parodied this in "The Folk Song Army," which in one version proclaims a united front against "poverty, war and injustice, and chords that are too hard to play."
- Mark Arm of Mudhoney told a story in the film "Hype!" about being approached by Bruce Pavitt and John Poneman from the Sub Pop label and being told specifically to only use five chords but no more than three in their first single, "Touch Me I'm Sick".
If I put my fingers here
And if I say I love you dear
And if I play the same three chords
Will you just yawn and say
It's all been done
- Burzum, a solo project of Varg Vikernes and one of the founders of the genre, is a prime example. His production values are comparable to those of pre-Perestroika Russian rock music. Vikernes's personal reminiscing on the recording of Burzum's fourth album, "Filosofem", gives a good idea of the sort of aesthetic he was going for: when recording the vocals (which are all tortured, indecipherable screams in any case) he asked the technician in the studio for the worst mic they had, and didn't even use an amplifier for the guitar parts, instead plugging his guitar into the speaker from a boombox.
- "Transilvanian Hunger" by Darkthrone. The album's production values are extremely poor, the guitar work very simplistic (there are about three or four unique riffs in the whole album), the drums nearly inaudible, vocals incomprehensible, and the bass.... well, yeah. And yet it's heralded by some as a masterpiece of sinister, cold, and dark Black Metal.
- Note that there is an entire subgenre of avant-garde or progressive black metal bands that heavily subvert this trope... which naturally leads genre purists to declare They Changed It, Now It Sucks.
- For that matter, the "outlaw" Country Music movement of the 1960s and 1970s spearheaded by the likes of Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. This style relied on a cut-and-dried songwriting, simple yet effective production and playing, and unadorned, rugged vocals (especially in Willie's case). Like Cash, these artists (and other similar ones) relied on little more than guitar, bass and drums.
"There was no stipulation that we wouldn't have any synths, but the statement 'No synths' was printed on the album sleeves because of peoples' lack of intellect in the ears department. Many people couldn't hear the difference between a multitracked guitar and a synthesizer. We would spend four days multi-layering a guitar solo and then some imbecile from the record company would come in and say, 'I like that synth!'".
Freddie Mercury: This shitty guitar never plays the chords I want it to play. It only knows three chords but let's see what happens. and into "Crazy Little Thing Called Love"
"Actually, we did find a fourth chord. It's in a song near the middle of the album. Listen"
*Plays a couple of chords*
"It's not those"
*Plays another chord*
"Not that one either"
*Goes through about five chords*
"It's not any of those either."
- There was even an advert for a "Best Of" album at one point, that had something like the following voice over:
"Twenty-five years. Eighteen albums. Fourteen tours. Nine number ones. Three chords."
- Peter "Grubby" Stubbs introduced them: "They can only play three chords, but gee, they play them well!"
- Lou Reed's 1975 Metal Machine Music in particular is an example of this type, being a double-LP consisting entirely of about 75 minutes of guitar feedback, with no deliberate instrumentation of any kind. In the sleeve notes for the album, Reed claimed to be taking Three Chords and the Truth to its logical conclusion. Reed would later state "I was really serious about it at the time. I was also really stoned." Some people returned the album thinking there had been a manufacturing mistake. He also once quipped: "One chord is fine. Two chords is pushing it. Three chords and you're into jazz." Aside from the aforementioned Metal Machine Music example, however, this is pure Hypocritical Humour.
- Also Russian rock music in general falls under this trope (more in the 80s, less now). Both bardic traditions and lack of adequate equipment contributed to this.
- Ditto for Polish bardic music unless there is a piano accompaniament.
Crow: "Chord, chord, chord, chord, chord, other chord."
- Not to mention the drumming. Phil Rudd is famed among drummers for his simple, solid grooves. It helps that many learn to play AC/DC songs when they start playing.
Devon: Man, we need a roadie. Other bands have roadies.
Oz: Well, other bands know more than three chords. Your professional bands can play up to six, sometimes seven, completely different chords.
Devon: That's just, like, fruity jazz bands.
Real rock and roll is about cheap electrical guitars
And maps to secret places that serve underage kids in bars
Quit the bitching on your blog
and stop pretending art is hard
just limit yourself to three chords
and DO NOT PRACTICE DAILY
- His brother (and band-mate), David Fair, wrote what may be the essential essay on this concept with "How To Play The Guitar".
Doesn't that sound familiar?
Doesn't that hit too close to home?
Doesn't that make you shiver,
The way that things have gone?
Doesn't that seem peculiar,
'Cause everyone wants a little more?
Something I do remember,
To never go this far
Thats all it takes to be a star.
- And before that in comedian Rob Paravonian's "Pachelbel Rant" in which he shows how some pop songs follow the pattern of Pachelbel's Canon in D. It should be noted that in both his routine and Axis's, some of the songs are key-shifted; what's being parodied is the chord progression, which does remain the same.