3 chord songs to Train your Ears

In a previous blog located here:

Learn to Hear Chord Changes

I stated that playing along with recordings is one of the best things you can do to train your ears to spontaneously react and hear chord changes.  Many times a student doesn’t know where to begin with ear training and if they start with a song that has too many chords it gets frustrating fast.  This is why it is so important to start with the simple and build up to more complex structures.

So with that said, I’ve decided to compile a list of songs that contain two to three chords maximum.  I’m listing the chords the song contains, the first chord listed gives you the key.  I’m listing the name of the person who recorded it in the given key next to the song.  All you have to do is type the song title and artist in YouTube and you will find the referenced recording.

Training your ears with three chord songs

Your task is to put on the recording and try to play along by guessing where in the song you switch between the three chords. Not always, but most of the time, you’ll start and end on the “key” chord.  So, if it’s in the key of G, then you start and end on a G.  You’ll find out later that there are exceptions to this, but for this list I tried not to make it more complicated.  Your choices are always one of the three chords listed and no more. With the exception of Shady Grove that’s in a minor key, you don’t even have to worry about minor chords.

These particular recordings were chosen not because I believed they represent the best recordings but because out of the choices available on YouTube they were in easier keys or at slower paces than some of the more famous versions.  In other words, they were picked with the beginner in mind.  I also picked some versions because they had lyrics, even if the song is traditionally played as an instrumental now (Grandfather’s Clock is an example of this).  It’s generally easier for the beginner to follow a song with words.  I strongly recommend on songs with lyrics getting to the point you can hum the tune without the music playing, this requires lots and lots of listening.

I made sure to list the artist with the key because if you only know the song title it’s not enough.  Why? Many recordings are strange keys or keys the beginner doesn’t already know how to play in.  The only keys represented in this list are Dminor, G,A,E and C.  E is possibly the least familiar for the beginner; however, I don’t believe it will prove too difficult provided a little practice.

Spending time with this list is like putting water on your ears and watching them grow.  Your hearing abilities will increase the more time and effort you put into playing along with these songs.

Three chord songlist

  • Shady Grove (Dminor and C) David Grisman/Jerry Garcia version
  • Fireball Mail (A and E) Roy Acuff
  • Tom Dooley (A, D and E) Doc Watson version, Kingston Trio is in E (E,A,B)
  • When The Saints Go Marching In (C,F and G)   
  • Grandfather’s Clock (A,D,E)  Mac Wiseman version
  • Lonesome Road Blues (G,C,D)  Earl Scruggs (Foggy Mt Banjo)
  • Nine Pound Hammer (G,C,D) Flatt and Scruggs or Merle Travis
  • Dark Hollow (C,F,G) Larry Sparks & Ralph Stanley
  • John Henry (G and D)  Bill Monroe
  • Will The Circle Be Unbroken (G,C,D) Ralph Stanley; this one is in the key of A on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Album that’s so famous, so you are looking at A,D and E if you use that recording.
  • All The Good Times are Past and Gone (A,D,E) Flatt and Scruggs (This song is in 3/4 Time Signature)
  • In The Pines (E,A,B) Both Bill Monroe and The Louvin Brothers recorded in the key of E
  • Blue Moon of Kentucky (G,C,D) Alan Jackson version.
  • I Saw the Light (A,D, E) by Hank Williams
  • Blueridge Cabin Home (A,D,E) Country Gentlemen
  • I Wonder Where you are tonight (D,G,A) Hank Snow
  • Little Cabin Home on the Hill (A,D,E) Tony Rice
  • White Dove (E,A,B) The Stanley Brothers
  • Are you Missing Me (G,C,D) Jim & Jesse (Jim & Jesse Story version, older one is not to standard pitch)

Closing thoughts on hearing chord changes

ALWAYS keep in mind, you are learning via Error Correction here.  Expect to make errors; however, expect fewer errors six months from now.  The only way you learn to train your ears is by doing it over and over until the sound of a chord is just like seeing the color red….you INSTANTLY recognize it.

This method, while frustrating at times, is in my opinion, the exact way you want to learn to hear chords because you are hearing them in context and you are learning to hear them Instantly.  When you are jamming or playing you don’t have much time to think, so you want your recognition to get to the point it’s instantaneous.

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I’m here to help you on the Banjo Journey!

Jody Written by:

Professional Musician of 27 years. I've played Banjo and Acoustic Guitar on the stages of Carnegie Hall, The Grand Ole Opry, and The Ryman Auditorium. I've also played in six different countries.


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