Banjo Newsletter

June 2006: First Three-Chord Song 
By Murphy Henry

Hello, all you hard-working chord changers out there! Is your family sick of hearing Skip To My Lou, Polly Wolly Doodle, and Go Tell Aunt Rhody? If not, you've been slacking! One of my local students came in the other day and said, "I can't get Skip To My Lou out of my mind! I hear it all the time!" I said, "Good! That's the best thing that could be happening. Your brain is learning Skip To My Lou even when you're doing something else!" Having these songs go through your head day and night seems to be part of the learning process.

I remember when I was first listening to Gamble Rogers, the folksinger who changed my life. This was back in my University of Georgia days, back when I was a pre-med student with a 12-string guitar. I'd go hear Gamble every chance I got, which meant staying out late, skipping classes, buying a motorcycle, and eventually dropping out of college. (For a while. I can't recommend it, but I was, like, totally on the wrong path and Gamble was my wakeup call.) Anyhow, in my pre-banjo days, it was the words to the songs that stuck with me. So I had Gamble's songs going through my mind constantly. I clearly recall walking into church one Sunday morning singing (under my breath), "Don't give me no plastic saddle, boys, I like to feel that leather when I ride, when I ride, when I ride." (Quite a contrast to "Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling…") I tried to play Gamble's songs on the guitar, but, guess what? Most of them had too many chords! Nevertheless, I played what I could and faked the rest. It was great training-and great fun! But enough about me…

By now I assume that you diligent readers are having no trouble with the Big Three of two-chords songs. Perhaps you've even found others. Some of the bluegrass classics have only two chords: Katy Daley, Get in Line Brother, Where the Soul Never Dies, Ashes of Love, I Feel Like Traveling On. And Hank Williams's non-bluegrass classic, Jambalaya.

Since you've got the hang of working with two chords, let's bring in the C chord. We'll be using C in the first position (found in any beginning banjo instruction-you could probably Google it!) because it's good for strumming.

Doing songs with three chords doesn't change the process, it just gives you more chords to choose from. Remember, it's still a guessing game, a process of trial and error. Only now you've got an idea of how the game is played. Also, if you've been working with the other songs, your ear is developing. You're beginning to understand how to listen and what to listen for, even if you can't articulate what it is you're hearing. If someone were to ask you how you know when to change, you might say (as so many bluegrass players do), "I don't know. It just seems like the chord should change there."

In a three-chord song (key of G) when you hear a chord change--or what you think is a chord change--you've got two choices: C or D. (We're taking for granted that the first chord is G. But that's not always true. Stay tuned!) Now, there are "scads and oodadlins" of bluegrass songs that start in G and then go to C. It's a very common change. But I don't want you to be thinking of that as any kind of rule. Why not? Because then you'll just go by the rules and always try C first. I want you to work out the possibilities by yourself. So forget I even mentioned it. Erase this paragraph from your mind. Delete, delete, delete.

Our first three-chord song is one I think you'll know-You Are My Sunshine by Jimmy Davis, former governor of Louisiana, and Charles Mitchell. I trust we can print the words to the chorus without violating any copyright laws. (If prosecuted, we'll claim educational use!)

(You are my) sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy, when skies are grey
You'll never know dear, how much I love you
Please don't take my sunshine away.

You'll notice the first three words are in parentheses. Why is that? Right. Because they are pickup notes. When the song starts, you don't play on these. They come before the first beat of the song, the "down beat." How fast you sing these determines how fast the rest of the song goes.

So, as always, I want you to get your banjo out, and start singing and strumming. First, strum a G chord to get the pitch of the song in your head. Then sing the pickup notes and hit your G chord on the word "sun." (If you're having trouble finding and singing the pickup notes they are D, G, and A. Which are open 4th, open 3rd, and second fret on 3rd. The word "sun" is a B note, open 2nd.)

After that, you're on your own! If D doesn't sound right, try C. If C doesn't sound right, try D. If neither of those sounds right, go back to G. Maybe there wasn't a change there after all! Like many bluegrass songs, the verses in You Are My Sunshine have the same chord progression as the chorus. And look out for patterns. If the sounds are the same, likely the chord changes are the same, too. The changes are listed at the bottom of the column.

By the way, if you want to hear a funky instrumental version of this song check out the version J.D. Crowe cut with Jimmy Martin. Originally it was on the Big and Country Instrumentals album, which I think has been released on CD. It's also included in the Jimmy Martin boxed set. Of course, they did it in the key of D (using D tuners), and that's a whole nuther subject. (Hmmm, maybe we could talk about transposing sometime….just the chording part…hmmm.) Tom Adams also recorded the tune on his Right Hand Man CD.

With the C chord and You Are My Sunshine, you are now officially acquainted with the Three Main Chords of bluegrass: G, C, and D. With those three chords (and a capo!) you can play almost all of the bluegrass songs ever written! And that's not much of an exaggeration! (Exceptions include Rawhide, Salty Dog, Old Homeplace, any song with a minor in it, including Foggy Mountain Breakdown, and all the songs with an F like Little Maggie and Love Come Home.)

I'm going to be talking a lot about hearing chord changes at the camps I'll be doing this summer. I hope to see some of you there! "You are my banjo, my only banjo/You make me happy when skies are grey/You'll never know, dear, how much I love you/Please don't take my banjo away!"

Mid-West Banjo Camp, Lansing, MI, June 2-4
California Bluegrass Camp, Grass Valley, CA, June 11-14
Kaufman Kamp, Maryville, TN June 18-24
Common Ground, Westminster, MD, July 2-8

Chord changes: Start in G. Change to C on "happy." Back to G on "grey." Change to C again on "know." Back to G on "love." Change to D the last "sunshine."

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