• # How to play pretty ballads with just two chords

Today’s post will be fun because I’m going to show some of my newbies how to play something you hear all the time.

From Mariah Carey to Fred Hammond and Andre Crouch, every artist has had their share of the slow “ballad” — and more specifically, the type that simple moves down the scale, note for note.

Here are some samples just so you know what I’m talking about…

Do you hear the similarities?

(Now, I’m not talking about all the details and melodies — I’m talking about the primary movements of the choruses of each song. They are all moving in a downward, stepwise motion, scale tone for scale tone — and that’s what I want to show you how to play today… with just TWO chords!)

And because I’ve limited this lesson to only two chords, it may not be suitable for my experienced readers. However, sit back and you just may pick up something here or there.

Can you guess the two chords I’m talking about?

If you even thought about the 1-chord and 5-chord, congratulations! (In fact, I did a lesson not too long ago that stressed playing songs with only the 1 and 5-chords. You can check it out here.)

And, of course, when I say “1” and “5-chord,” I’m grabbing those numbers straight from the major scale.

C major
C D E F G A B C
1 2 3 4 5 6 7

1 = C
5 = G

And to make it even simpler, we’ll only play major triads on those tones…

1-chord = C major (C + E + G)
5-chord = G major (G + B + D)

But as you know from past lessons, these chords are too far from each other so we’re going to invert (change the way) we play our second chord so that it connects to our first chord more smoothly.

Since these chords have a note in common (“G”), I want to play the common note with the same finger. But as you can see, one “G” is on top (C major triad) and one “G” is on the bottom (G major triad). So what I’ll do is invert my G major triad so that “G” is on top! Super simple!

5-chord (1st inversion) = G major (B + D + G)

So now we have G on top, just like we want it! That gives us two chords that are pretty close to each other:

1-chord = C major (C + E + G)
5-chord = G major (B + D + G)

What if I told you these EXACT two chords played this EXACT same way could allow you to play the ballads sampled at the top of this lesson? Would you be excited?

Well, first off…

I don’t want to mislead you. By no means will these two chords, alone, have you sounding like a seasoned professional. And you will have to learn them in the other keys because the samples above are not in C major. But you will have a clear understanding of how these slow ballads are created — what they’re made of… and that’s important!

And for these 3 songs included here, there are hundreds more that follow this same movement. It doesn’t even take a musician to hear the movements. Just listen to the three recordings above until you hear what I’m talking about. Yes, they are in different keys! Yes, the melodies are different! But that’s not what I’m talking about — I’m talking about the movement of the chords… how close they are… how the bass is moving. This is what you want to key in on.

But back to the two chords…

The first thing you want to do is get good at alternating between the two chords.

1-chord = C major (C + E + G)
5-chord = G major (B + D + G)

Now, play this in a nice, slow “ballad-style” rhythm (…all I’m doing is alternating between each chord and stopping after the 8th change).

[Set 1]
1-chord = C major (C + E + G)
5-chord = G major (B + D + G)

[Set 2]
1-chord = C major (C + E + G)
5-chord = G major (B + D + G)

[Set 3]
1-chord = C major (C + E + G)
5-chord = G major (B + D + G)

[Set 4]
1-chord = C major (C + E + G)
5-chord = G major (B + D + G)

*To make things easier, I’m calling each pair of chords a “set.” So, there are 4 sets for a total of 8 chords. Still following me?

Now, here’s the best part…

You know your C major scale, right?

Do you know it backwards?

C major (downward)
C B A G F E D C

Here’s the great news. All you’ll do is give each one of the chords above one of these bass notes in your left hand. This will pretty much be the pattern until the last chord. Don’t worry, I’ll show you what to do for the last chord when we get there.

So basically, your right hand is simply alternating between a C major and G major chord and your left hand is playing the C major scale backwards (or what we call moving in a “stepwise” motion).

*Play the chord with your right hand and play the single bass with your left hand.

[Set 1]
1-chord = C major (C + E + G) *** Bass: C
5-chord = G major (B + D + G) *** Bass: B

[Set 2]
1-chord = C major (C + E + G) *** Bass: A
5-chord = G major (B + D + G) *** Bass: G

[Set 3]
1-chord = C major (C + E + G) *** Bass: F
5-chord = G major (B + D + G) *** Bass: E

[Set 4]
1-chord = C major (C + E + G) *** Bass: D
5-chord = G major (B + D + G) ????????????????

Wow! You’re playing ballads and all you had to learn was two chords!

The last bass note is easy. We’re not quite ready to go back to “C” on our bass. We will, but we must play another bass note first.

I don’t have much time to talk about why this is, but the 5-chord will almost always take you back to your 1-chord. It has a very strong pull back to the 1-chord. It signals to our ears that we are returning back “home.” Even non-musicians hear a good 5-chord and know a song is either about to end or return back to the beginning.

And it’s no surprise that the very last chord is a 5-chord (B + D + G). All we have to do is play the 5-bass with it and this will complete one cycle of our ballad.

So here’s the entire ballad with the last chord on “G” bass:

*Play the chord with your right hand and play the single bass with your left hand.

[Set 1]
1-chord = C major (C + E + G) *** Bass: C
5-chord = G major (B + D + G) *** Bass: B

[Set 2]
1-chord = C major (C + E + G) *** Bass: A
5-chord = G major (B + D + G) *** Bass: G

[Set 3]
1-chord = C major (C + E + G) *** Bass: F
5-chord = G major (B + D + G) *** Bass: E

[Set 4]
1-chord = C major (C + E + G) *** Bass: D
5-chord = G major (B + D + G) *** Bass: G

*This takes us perfectly to the beginning, where we start all over with our C major (1-chord).

There you have it! A ballad with two chords..

In future lessons, I’ll show you how to spice up this ballad by adding “other” chords. Similar to prior lessons, you’ll see how a song is created from the most basic patterns and spiced up using other chords of the scale.

For now, enjoy playing this and let me know how you’re doing!

Exercise: Let’s learn this ballad in ALL 12 keys. Doing so will allow you to match up with the videos above since you’ll be playing your chords in the same key those songs are written in. I’ll start us off in C major. All we have to do is figure out the two chords that are needed, invert the second one, and list the scale backwards (which is what our left hand plays). Let’s go for it!

Until next time —

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#### Jermaine Griggs

Founder at HearandPlay.com
Hi, I'm Jermaine Griggs, founder of this site. We teach people how to express themselves through the language of music. Just as you talk and listen freely, music can be enjoyed and played in the same way... if you know the rules of the "language!" I started this site at 17 years old in August 2000 and more than a decade later, we've helped literally millions of musicians along the way. Enjoy!

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