All I got is a red guitar, 3 chords and the truth.
– Bono, “All Along the Watchtower”
When I first started learning to play guitar, I was discouraged that I only knew three chords – C, D and G.
Until I realized that I could play most of John Cougar Mellencamp’s repertoire.
John Cougar Mellencamp is the ultimate Americana singer. With his T-shirt, denim clothing, cowboy boots and acoustic guitar, he bridged the gap between country and rock and roll during the 1980s. His songs are instantly recognizable, from the epic ballad “Jack and Diane” to the somewhat-patriotic “Small Town” and “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” – an amazing feat, considering that most of his songs use the same three chords.
First, a quick music theory lesson. All chords have names based on where they exist relative to the scale in which one is playing. If you’re playing in the key of C, for example, the C chord is a I chord, because it’s the first note of the C scale. An F chord is a IV chord, because it’s the fourth note of the C scale (C-D-E-F).
Okay, that’s all you need to know to play most John Cougar Mellencamp songs. Let’s play, shall we?
I IV V I IV V
They like to get you in a compromising position
A classic I-IV-V chord progression. On the next two songs, he mixes it up, playing a I-V-IV structure:
Jack & Diane
I V IV V
A little ditty bout Jack and Diane
I V IV V
I was born in a small town
In “Pink Houses,” most of the verses are played on the I chord; in the chorus, he adds a IV chord, and then a V chord:
I IV I
But ain't that A-merica, for you and me
I IV I
Ain't that A-merica, somethin' to see
I IV V
Ain't that A-merica, home of the free
On “Check It Out” he starts with the IV chord, then moves to the I chord. No V chord around:
A million poets, screamin' out their words
To a world full of people just livin' to be heard
Another big hit, “Hurts So Good,” adds a minor chord before resolving to the IV:
I V vi (minor chord) IV
When I was a young boy, said put away those young boy ways
Save for a few variations, the I-IV-V (or I-V-IV) structure seems to account for a majority of Mellencamp’s hit songs. He rarely uses a minor key as the base for his songs; that’s what makes “Rain on the Scarecrow” such a unique song (and one of his better ones, IMHO). I noticed that his later hits – after he ditched the “Cougar” in his name – the chords became a little more complicated (“Paper in Fire,” “Get a Leg Up”). But most of the hits – see above.
I do not aim to demean his songwriting; what is remarkable is how much he can do with three simple chords. And the songs aren’t easy to play; “Small Town” is in the key of B, a rarity in pop music. In spite of this repetitive chord structure, John Mellencamp’s songs have a good melody, and the I-IV-V structure is familiar to all, having been in many early rock ‘n’ roll standards. Which makes it easy to impress people when you’re playing guitar.