Bert Weedon

“If you play more than two chords, you’re showing off.”

Woody Guthrie

Back in the good old days when TV was black and white, records were mono and you could buy a Mars Bar, a Kit Kat and the latest Dickie Valentine single and still get change from a ‘ten bob note’ young men with a sense of destiny were teaching themselves to play the guitar. Everyone was doing it. Those who knew about these things said the guitar was an iconic symbol of the rise of the teenager.

By 1956 the days of tuxedoed band leaders, crisply coiffured crooners and lady singers wearing ‘sticky out’ bras and enough petticoat silk to equip a platoon of parachutists were fast disappearing. Instead our radios and televisions were being taken over by tartan shirted, guitar strumming ravers all bashing out the latest craze – Skiffle – and as everyone knew it didn’t take much to join them. The role model was Lonnie Donegan and the guru was Bert Weedon who in his ‘teach yourself tutor’ promised that you could learn to play the guitar in a day. No needs for lessons, complicated scales, reading the ‘dots’ or musical theory. You could buy yourself a guitar on Monday (£15 cash or 6/11d a week for 52 weeks), teach yourself to play on Tuesday, form a band on Wednesday, play your first ‘gig’ on Thursday, cut a record on Friday, see it go into the Top Ten on Saturday – and on Sunday? Well, then you top the bill on ITV’s most popular show “Sunday Night at the London Palladium” of course.

The secret behind all this instant fame was the “Three Chord Trick”. All you needed to learn was just 3 chords – and you did that by copying the chord diagrams in Bert Weedon’s teach yourself tutor.1 With these you could strum alone with most folk, country, rock ‘n’ roll and blues songs, 97% of the skiffle repertoire and virtually everything recorded by Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran or any other teen idol whose name ended with a ‘Y’ – as in ‘Billy’, ‘Tommy’, ‘Ricky’ or Ray. Throw in a 4th chord – a minor – and you could add doo-wop and most teen ballads to the list. After just 24 hours of finger busting persistence the entire teen music scene was yours to play.

three chords and the truth

“If it has more than three chords, it’s jazz.”

Lou Reed

For reasons that probably only musicologists will ever fully understand the south western suburbs of London, Richmond, Twickenham and St Margarets included, were bursting at the seams with starry-eyed teenagers learning guitar. Local music shops couldn’t believe their luck. The proliferation of radio and recorded music had really put a dent into the sale of sheet music, pianos and music shop profits. Now the kids were queuing up to buy cheap Spanish guitars and all the stuff that went with them – plectrums, guitar straps, tutors and capo d’astros that allowed you to change key without the bother of learning any more chords. You could even buy a mechanical gizmo with buttons that strapped onto the neck of your guitar and made the chord shapes for you. To entertain these new youthful strummers clubs and coffee bars were opening featuring guitars, guitar groups and the music that went with it.

Arthur Chisnall’s Jazz Club on Eel Pie Island started off in 1956 with jazz bands like Ken Colyer and Kenny Ball (3/- for members, 4/- for guests) but by the early 60’s had moved on to feature skiffle groups and then rhythm and blues bands. The club was famous for its sprung dance floor which trampolined under the weight of audiences frantically bopping along to new guitar bands like the Who, the Manish Boys with their lead singer David Bowie, the Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones. The Stones – fully committed 3 chord trickers – had started playing together at the Ealing Blues Club in a small basement opposite Ealing Broadway Station and later headlined at the Crawdaddy Club in Richmond a.k.a the Station Hotel.

Sadly the “Three Chord Trick” seems to have been passed over by today’s guitar students. Directed by music teachers and lessons and grades and exams blah blah they know how to play the dots for “Cavatina” and can probably tell you how seventh chords are built from the diatonic scale and what notes make up a diminished triad inversion but can they get a sprung dance floor packed with frantic ravers trampolining up and down with a rocking version of "Johnny B Good? No. Not even if you gave them a cherry red Stratocaster and turned up the amplifier to 11!

Of course technique and theory are important – but are they essential? Some would say probably not.

“I don’t read music. I don’t write it. So I wander around on the guitar until something starts to present itself.”

James Taylor

“I’m glad there are a lot of guitar players pursuing technique as diligently as they possibly can, because it leaves this whole other area open to people like me.”

Richard Thompson.

“If you don’t know the blues… there’s no point in picking up the guitar and playing rock and roll or any other form of popular music.”

Keith Richards

“Those three chords were part of my life – G, F, Bb – yeh, it is, it is, and I can’t help noticing it.”

Ray Davies

“You know, people said I only knew three chords when I knew five.”

Leonard Cohen

“Rock and roll is taking those same old three chords and making them sound new again”

Jimi Hendrix

1 THE THREE CHORD TRICK- The first chord is the tonic chord. The next is the dominant chord, and the third chord is the subdominant. In the Key of C for example, the 3 chords are C, F and G (or G7 if you want to be really jazzy!) In the Key of E they are E, A and B. Buddy Holly made a career and 50 odd songs out of the Key of A and the chords A, D and E. Not bad for a bloke with glasses?

— from Martyn Day