The Art of Three Chords & a Melody

This song kills me. There are three chords. Used in almost exactly the same way as 17,178 songs before it. Except for one thing: this song is using the chords not to be the song, but to be the harmonic structure for the guitar and vocal melody. The melody is the song, and the three chords merely provide the base for that. As Bach said over 300 years ago, music is melody.

I give you…the best use of three chords the world has ever seen (possibly an exaggeration, except that it’s not):

Melody. Sometimes (by which I mean all the times), sitting back and writing a more inspired melody, will give you a song hundreds of times better than trying to add a new augmented chord, or a face-melting solo, or even (the world is about to end right here) adding more delay. All the other parts of the song…the chords, the harmonies, the structure, the arrangement, the orchestration, the contrapuntal sections, even the keys and scales themselves…realize themselves in that melody.

Oh, and if that song sounds familiar to you, it’s because: ‘Oh, Big Gulps, huh? Alright! … Well, see ya later!’


P.S. Alright, I just can’t handle it if you’ve never seen that clip:

86 thoughts on “The Art of Three Chords & a Melody

  1. I don’t always get Karl’s wit — downside to being of “mature age.” :-) I often tease my 30ish sons and daughter-in-laws that they have a “different” sense of humor that I don’t always get. But it’s all good. Anyway that song by the Primitives seemed to have a melody I could have written in 3rd grade. So I thought about songs with great melodies. First one that came to mind was “Since I fell for you” sung by Lenny Welch. Some great twists and turns with bluesy notes.

  2. I totally agree. I think sometimes musicians in general and guitarists in particular try to hard to come up with some innovative chord progression or arrangement when actually great songs rarely have either. Melody and lyrics that connect with people are what make a song great; not jazz chords, sub-dominants, or even (gasp!) great guitar tone. :)

  3. Almost none of the songs that I would call really great are very complex at all.

    Three chords and the truth…er…melody…I like truth better.

    • True… Sometimes, when you make things complicated, it just doesn’t sound great. Sound so complex that others just don’t wanna listen to it.

      Simple is sometimes the best way to go! By the way- how’s your Timmy?

        • Sweet! Glad you like it…do you know how to run it on 12v? I’m curious bc I don’t…

          You know I recently got a Visual Sound Axel Grease Analog Delay…sounds amazing! Have you tried it?

          • Yeah, you just have to get a power supply that will put out 12v. I think the Voodoo Labs PP2+ does it.

            Haven’t tried the Axel Grease. Like to though.

          • I had the Axle Grease for an admittedly short amount of time–so my perspective may be limited–and I’m relatively new to delay.

            Anyway, I liked the tones of it–it was way easy to self-oscillate–I wasn’t used to that with my *gasp* Belcat Delay so I found myself going back and forth between dialing in long repeats and “this is getting loud”–right around 2 o’clock–though it was still cool. I’ve heard people complain about quality but I don’t know really know what their problem was. I had an online argument about it that I regret starting–the only thing I thought that was slightly off was how easy the knobs turned. People complain about the tiny screws, but who used batteries anymore? (I say as I recently switched over to PSU’s :D).

            Anyway, I dig the sounds you get out of it, but decided not having tap-tempo wasn’t worth the stress. If I had enough money or a big enough board, I probably would have kept it for swells like Karl does (it’s digital but analog-sounding), or that nice chunky rhythm you can get with about 300ms and repeats at 11 or 12 o’clock (maybe I don’t know how to use delay, but I found myself immediately dialing that in on my Nova as well–and because the ms were so low, it was actually easier to do with the Axle Grease–as far as tapping in the rhythm goes). Anyway, long-winded answer to a question you didn’t ask (of me lol). But I think if you are wanting a non-tap tempo delay that sounds good w/the perk of self-oscillation, admittedly I haven’t tried them all (like a CC), but the VS is hard to beat. Plus runs off a One Spot–unlike the Nova.

  4. This song kind of reminds me of “Pink Tux to the Prom” by Relient K, which makes sense, given it’s 80’s feel. And I enjoyed the Big Gulp clip, but I didn’t quite catch the connection.

    To my shame I’ve watched Dumb and Dumber in portions (repeatedly) on TBS, but never all the way through.

    *hides behind latest distracting must-have guitar gear*

  5. heyyy sooo who wants to help me out..nmext purchase custom 52 relic tele by king bee guitars ORR a gibson es 335 both guitars im going to swap out pickups with the best prob lollar 52 for tele and idk for 335 what ya think i can only afford one(for now)_ though maybe ya guys have some experience with teles and 335 let me hear it!

  6. Totally with you Karl – doing the three chords and a melody thing is one of the reasons I like Tom Petty so much. Solid.

    FInally found an Echo Park at the right price per your suggestion. Anxious to try it out Sunday morning!

  7. Great timing on this – I seem to be going through a “revelation period” of noticing my favorite songs are (at max!) 5 chords. Some of my fav’s are U2’s 2-chord beauts (with the occasional 3rd)

  8. Oh, by the way, I think an example of a band who does three-chord tunes in the wrong way is Social Distortion. That has been my long complaint about them. It seems as though, even though their songs kind of have a slight melody usually, it centers far too much around the power chords.

    Sure, they have sold a trillion more records than I have ever sold, but it’s something that has always stuck out to me when I hear their songs.

    Check out the song “Molly’s Lips” by Nirvana. TWO chords the entire song, but really good use of melody! Granted, most people don’t know this, but it’s actually a cover. But I think Nirvana’s version is way better.

    “All apologies” is also three chords the whole song, too, but lots of melody. Come to think of it, Nirvana has a ton of these great simple songs.

  9. also whats your guys opinion on this…matchless hc-30 or chieftan
    some type of Reinhardt
    or a kingsley..
    i only use clean channels then use Ods like rockbox BP and love pedal looking to get some more
    im really loving the kingsleys? i think they might have a lead over matchless…wat do you guys think…karl u have had alot what ya thinking

  10. Sam–haha Truer words were never spoken. :)

    Rhoy–ya, totally! It does have a bit of a Ramones flavor to it.

    Craig–sounds good! Lots of gear. :)

    Randy–I like that melody, too. Great example!

    I think sometimes what seems simplistic or childish to musicians, are sometimes the exact things that will reach 90% of folks out there. The melody may be a little childish, but it’s fun and you have a tough time getting it out of your head. :)

    Dan W–awesome comment. Agree completely. Except on the tone thing… 😉 Just kidding. You are, unfortunately, right. hehe

    KennyG–ah!! That would’ve been a way better title for this post!!

    Brandon–great way to put it!

    And any normal polarity 12 volt adapter will do…I think the Timmy can run up to 18 volts, so an 18 volt adapter will work also. Increases headroom and sag the higher you go. And as Kenny mentioned, the easiest way is with the PP2+.

    Caleb–ya…with all the great new delays out and coming out, it’s harder and harder to justify keeping one without tap tempo.

    Patrick–unless it’s a ’60’s 335, I’d go with the custom made guitar.

    Nate–ya, good call! Tom Petty’s a master at that. And hope the Echo Park works out great tomorrow!

    David–totally! Bad and MLK…2 and 3 chord goodness. :)

    David–great call on Nirvana. Ya, they’re great at that.

    And yes, it is very possible to do 3 chords poorly. hehehe

    Patrick–all great amps, and I’m sure you’d be happy with any of them. All I can tell you is my personal experience. And that is that after years of owning and testing many, many amps, Matchless has stopped me dead in my tracks for a year and a half now. Haven’t really even thought about another amp. No matter what register, the depth and weight to each note on an HC30 is spectacular. And their responsiveness is incredible. I’ve never heard an EL84 amp be able to go from chime to blues with just pickup selection and pick attack.

    As for Chieftain or HC30, the Chieftain will give you more clean headroom and a more Marshall-voiced drive. The HC30 will be more Voxy and will break up earlier. So it just depends on what you’re looking for. :)

    • Karl,

      Yes, plenty of gear. A few highlights.

      65, Xits, Vintage Marshall amp.

      Deusenberg, Fender Custom Shop, Fender guitars

      Cornish, JHS, Line 6. effects.

      Most importantly some really good folks. The release show was really good.

      • How do you like the Deusenbergs compared to the Fenders? If I had to choose a new guitar, I would go with a PRS or a Deusenberg. When I tried them out, they were amazing! Until then, I will remain content with my knock-off Fender strat! haha

        • Brandon,

          The friend of mine who has a couple is a lefty so I’ve never played one. Although I couldn’t tell you what he played on what tracks, I’m sure they’re all over the CD I linked to. Personally, I’m not that jazzed about the looks, but they are certainly getting popular. I’d go PRS,High end Fender, or something like a Melancon.

    • Karl – loved the Echo Park this week. Glad I had a back up battery as my 9v died during the sermon. Fortunately didn’t need the EP at the end of the service and was able put in a new one between services.

      Used the dotted eighth and the swell settings. Love the tap tempo. Need advice on what to use to power the EP. WWW advice ranges from “use only the Line 6 EP adaptor” to “use batteries only” to “don’t use a daisy chain setup” and beyond. Any advice on best powering source that will sound decent without the price being through the roof?

      • Awesome!! So cool.

        On powering it, the one’s I’ve owned and have played have been very noisy off of any type of daisy chain adapter, but okay with either their own power supply, or off of the Voodoo PP2+. Which surprised me, because a lot of folks say they ‘only’ work quietly off their own adapters or batteries. But for me, the PP2+ powered it silently just fine.

        Do you already use one for the rest of your pedals? If not, it might be the cheaper route just to get a Line 6 wal-wart adapter.

        • Nate,

          MY EP is really sensitive to being on a shared power supply, so I tend to use 9v most of the time. It depends on the venue.


          I actually like the wall wart idea.

  11. So I have a question about running pedals at 12v:

    Besides sucking more power (not a bad thing), what does the 12v do to your sound?

    Oh and by the way- I went to GC and tried out a whole bunch of really nice tube amps from Fender, Vox, and Marshall! Sounded a whole lot better than that 600! I think there had to have been something broken in that thing…haha! At least I got to return it though!

    • More clean headroom! and you may find that the electronic components in analogue drive pedals are happier running at 12v. I would rather 12v than 18v, 18v seemed to make my overdrives a bit ‘spiky’ and ‘harsh’, 12v seems to be a bit more like taking a blanket off of your sound.

  12. I’m feeling pretty old because I had that Primitives album on cassette. I don’t know why they remixed it in 95 because the whammy bar guitar melody is kinda horrendous. I like that we have wikipedia now to inform us that none of the original members did any of the overdubs on the 95 mix. :)

  13. wow. that was a trip down memory lane. Reminds me of the sound track to “So I married an Axe Murderer..” (the greatest Mike Myers film of all time, go find it right now if you haven’t seen it).
    Other similar bands from the same era include the Jesus and Mary chain, the La’s and Fine Young Cannibals.
    I’m also remembering the hiddeous clothes I used to wear in the 90’s that I thought were cool. Is anyone brave enough to post some incrimating shots of themselves? Karl, I have a feeling you may have a few awesome photos hidden away somewhere if your fashion sense matched your guitar tone taste in any way!

  14. Craig–awesome. Man, those Duesenberg’s (or Duesy’s or whatever you’re supposed to call them if you’re cool now) are really getting popular.

    Brandon–it’s an increase in headroom and sag. So, less fizz, and more clean headroom. It sounds good with some pedals, and not so good with others. And still others sound better at 18v, and others not so much. I really like it with Tim’s, most Fulltone’s, and the Hermida stuff. Also, check with the manufacturer before trying it on pedals you’re not sure about.

    James–my thoughts exactly. :)

    Thad–‘There’s some more people who need a ride.’ ‘Pick ’em up!’

    Dan–or really? haha Is the video I posted the original or remix? And yes, it appears I am too lazy to look it up. haha

    Mark–‘Head! Move!’ hehehe

    Dan & Mark–I’ll look for pics if you guys will. haha

    • Karl,

      They are the guitar de jour in certain circles. Personally, I lean toward guitars that are less flashy. They sure seem to sound good, and this is the longest I’ve see my friend stick with one type since I’ve known him. I’m pretty sure he’s also playing an Elliot, which I’ve also heard nice things about.

    • I’ve heard some really good things about the Elliot. Josh at JHS had one in the shop and it really sounded incredible and covers a lot of sonic ground.

    • The Classic Vibe Strat came home yesterday, spent a few minutes with it this morning plugged straight into the amp and it sounds pretty darn nice. I’ll probably start with the current weakest link and replace the pots soon, before I decide what to do about pickups. All in all I’m pretty stoked, too bad my next couple of worship Sundays are acoustic.

  15. I keep trying to find opportunities to use my strat but generally use my Carvin AE185 which can do both acoustic and electric. It is a compromise though.

    Saw this ad for Matchless DC30 Dang those things are expensive. Would be nice to rent one, if that can be done, just to see what it’s like.

    Has anyone tried to use Jesus Saves ( Tim Hughes, Jeremy Camp ) in your worship service? Doing that this week. It has an odd pause in the beat when he sings “Jesus Saves” in the verse. I thought I had it nailed but my band and drummer said “hold it buddy.” Tim Hughes demos his song here:

    He actually mentions a “time change” in the bridge of the song but that isn’t causing me any problems.

    • We do that one pretty often actually. Is the pause you’re talking about just in the vocal part (“…Jesus [pause] Saves”)?

    • I have no problem switching between my Taylor and an Electric if need be. I just want a chance to fire up the new guitar in real life. We just did that last Sunday, but I can’t remember if the vocals did the pause or not.

    • I’m going over it in my head and I don’t think we do the pause really either. We just kind of stretch the Jesus to fill in the space.

  16. Yes it’s that “pause” when he sings Jesus Saves. I can do that fine, but it’s tending to throw me off the drum beat as we sing the next line. So I’m doing “Mercy Triumphs” a hair too soon. More Practice. Audacity ( free software ) will do a click track, but would like to find some half-way realistic drum tracks online.
    Peace has come
    C G
    Jesus saves
    C G
    Mercy triumphs at the cross
    C Em
    Love has come to rescue us
    C G
    Jesus saves

  17. Pretty sure it’s originally by Jeremy Camp–we do that song and also “We Give you Glory (or Glory)”–which has a great IV – IVm change in it. With Jesus Saves, we also don’t do the pause (I’m pretty sure). Or we may, but I just follow the drummer.

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