All I got is a red guitar, three chords and the truth.
– Bono, “All Along the Watchtower”
(co-opted from songwriter Harlan Howard)
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 many of John Cougar Mellencamp’s songs.
Johnny Cougar John Cougar John Cougar Mellencamp John 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 and 1990s. 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 many 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?
“Authority Song” is a classic I-IV-V chord progression.
D (I) G (IV) A (V) D (I) G (IV) A (V) I fight authority, au-thority always wins
On the next two songs, he mixes it up, playing a I-V-IV structure:
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:
G (I) C (IV) G (I) But ain't that A-merica, for you and me G (I) C (IV) G (I) Ain't that A-merica, somethin' to see G (I) C (IV) D (V) Ain't that A-merica, home of the free
‘Jack & Diane’
A (I) E (V) D (IV) E (V) A little ditty bout Jack and Di-ane
B (I) F# (V) E (IV) F# (V) I was born in a small town
‘Check It Out’
Here Mellencamp starts with the IV chord, then moves to the I chord. There’s no V chord around:
C (IV) G (I) A million young poets, screamin' out their words C (IV) G (I) To a world full of people just livin' to be heard
‘Hurts So Good’
Another big hit, “Hurts So Good,” adds a minor chord before resolving to the IV:
A (I) E (V) F#m (vi) D (IV) When I was a young boy, said put away those young boy ways
Of course, none of the songs are that simple. On every song Mellencamp will throw in a ii chord, a VII chord or a vii chord that will make playing the entire song a little more difficult. “But I thought all I needed was three chords,” you say. Even at their most basic levels, without the curve balls, the songs are in different keys, right?
Well, that’s what a capo is for. If you know G, C and D, you can play most of the songs above.
- “Check It Out” and “Pink Houses” are in G. You’re good to go.
- “Jack & Diane” and “Hurts So Good” are in A, but you just need to put the capo on the second fret and play your G, C and D chords (learn E minor, a very simple chord, for “Hurts So Good.”)
- “Small Town” is in the difficult key of B, but if you don’t mind it sounding a little high, just move the capo up to the fourth fret and play your chords to play in the same key as Mellencamp.
Save for a few variations, the I-IV-V (or I-V-IV) structure seems to account for many of Mellencamp’s hit songs. Early in his career, he rarely used a minor key as the root. That’s what makes “Rain on the Scarecrow” such a unique song (and one of his better ones, IMHO). On 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 John Mellencamp’s 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, 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. The chord structure goes all the way back to Johann Sebastian Bach, who used it in The Well-Tempered Clavier Book II, Prelude in C Major. According to Wikipedia, there are tens of thousands of songs written with I, IV and V chords, including most country, blues, and early rock and roll songs.
And that motif makes it easy to impress people when you’re playing guitar.