The old aphorism about the 13th Floor Elevators was "three great chords - four great albums" - though, in fact, as every first-year garage guitarist knows, the primeval riff of "You're Gonna Miss Me" is actually four chords: E-D-A-G. But in any case, there truly is something primal about the three-chord blues progression. It's something about tension and release, the 'home' feeling of that tonic chord, who knows?
The other day Alejandro Escovedo's live version of the Stones' 'Sway' came up in the Shuffle, and got me thinking of some songs that start with a basic 1-4-5 and take it way beyond the primitive crunch of 'Wild Thing' or 'Louie Louie' (not that there's anything wrong with that), or the overplayed riffage of 'More Than a Feeling' or 'Sweet Home Alabama.' So I put together the attached playlists of songs that ride Three Chords to Glory -
A few of the songs add a little accent or twist into the progression, but by and large they're based around the basic trinity. For sure, that "home" feeling comes through in these and many other Pete Townshend and Lou Reed compositions, as well as their inheritors like the Doves. Meanwhile the progression is a natural vehicle for a "travelin'" vibe with everyone from Merle Haggard to Cornershop; and in the Loretta Lynn/Jack White track it almost feels like it's carrying the listeners heavenward. Or, like Booker T or the Commodores, you can just use it to ride a funky groove for a few minutes.
(Unfortunately it looks like 'Sway' isn't licensed into Rhapsody, probably due to Stones publishing issues. A few of the tracks were in Rhapsody but not I-tunes.)
In some ways, this playlist is a testament to The Power of the Riff - as these artsts take one of the most elementary building blocks of rock and find different ways to infuse it with a new power and a fresh approach. The form doesn’t always have to be ground-breaking, it's what you do with it...