• How to play pretty ballads with just two chords

    in Playing songs

    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 —

    The following two tabs change content below.
    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!

    Attention: To learn more about this, I recommend our 500+ page course: The "Official Guide To Piano Playing." Click here for more information.




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    { 26 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Jermaine

    Slow ballad pattern in C major

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

    These will alternate back and forth while bass plays C major scale downward (with the added “5” bass right before the end):

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

    I know this looks hard but just explain your own way of taking this to a new key. It doesn’t have to be laid out like this. Just contribute! :)

    Reply

    2 Steve Harrison

    let me try this one

    ok, so in the key of F.

    The 1 chord is F major
    F + A + C

    The 5 chord is C major
    C + E + G

    But you said to invert it so the common note is on top so that would make C major E + G + C.

    These two chords alternate while the bass moves down F major scale.

    F E D C Bb A G (C) F

    instead of coming down from G to F, we add the 5-bass in there to give stronger pull back to F????

    How was that Jermaine

    Reply

    3 Jermaine

    Wow, we have a new teacher in the house! I’m officially retiring :-)

    Reply

    4 pirates86

    This is a very easy and fun progression! Thanks for explaining this in an easy but detailed way!

    Reply

    5 isthatagirlonthebass

    Great comment from Jermaine and Steve H. This helps me alot on bass learning the theory. Great lesson.

    Reply

    6 ak (w/o_the_47)

    I’ll try A-flat since Andrae and Fred Hammond (b4 his modulation) are both singing in Ab.

    Andrae’s key was actually a little “off key” (out of tune), i.e. btw Ab and A (or i’m I wrong)

    for Ab maj

    1-chord: Abmaj – (Ab+C+Eb)
    5-chord: Ebmaj – (Eb+G+Bb)

    5-chord 1st inversion : (G+Bb+Eb)

    Bass notes: Ab G F Eb Db C Bb (Eb) Ab

    Reply

    7 Carolyn

    E major

    1-chord=E maj E + G# + B
    5-chord inverted= B maj F# + D# + B

    E maj – E D# C# B A G# F# (B) E

    Reply

    8 Eresmas

    Hey Jermaine, don’t retire yet. At least read this one first.

    G MAJOR

    1 chord = G + B + D
    5 chord = D + F# + A

    Ist invertion of 5 chord gives us F# + A + D

    G major backwards = G F# E D C B A (D)G

    Reply

    9 Roland

    This is great! I tried this out and thought Billy Joel,Piano Man….hehe
    He plays exactly this…and in the key of C…right down to the last G note in the bass.

    Reply

    10 Roland

    ..with some minor adjustments at the end…prob. an F chord with the F bass..
    ..and Dm with the D bass?

    Reply

    11 Eresmas

    I tried to play it too and i sounds good and easy.

    Reply

    12 TRUMUSIC1SOUL aka BRIAN

    Bb MAJOR
    Bb-D-F

    F-A-C

    Bb-A-G-F-Eb-D-C-F

    SORRY SO LATE, HAVING A LITTLE TROUBLE WITH MY PHONELINES ON MY BLOCK…HAD TO COME TO CHURCH TO GET MY LESSONS DONE…THIS BE HOT
    THANKS TEACH…WE ALL CAN USE THIS!!!

    Reply

    13 Ralph

    when will there be a guitar video ?

    Reply

    14 Chris Johnson

    Wow Jermaine. I wish I knew about this article a while back. This is certainly a sound I’ve been looking for. I know I read about this in Pattern Paradise or Song Solidity but it just didn’t click at the time. But man. I played this in all 12 keys and I couldn’t stop! Now I just gotta figure why this works with only just two chords? But I can see where things might go from here.

    I think if I go back to either Pattern Paradise or Song Solidity and read up on Harmonizing melodies again it might make more sense after reading this article. I knew the 1 and the 5 chords could do a lot but until I actually played what I just played, I didn’t know those 2 chords could harmonize every tone of the scale… Hey..!!! I know I’ve heard that statement before! From you. :) If I remember correctly the 4 can too for the most part.

    I hear your voice in my head now talking about what the 2,3 and 6 do but I can’t remember.

    Now I’m starting to get it! Besides getting better at picking out those bass notes I think it’s time to revisit harmonizing after seeing what just these two chords can do. Crazy!

    You can read all you want but until you see it and hear it sometimes it just doesn’t kick in.

    Thanks again. You are truly a blessing. Don’t know where I’d be musically w/out you.

    Reply

    15 Chris Johnson

    Just answered my own question. These two chords work because they use all of the notes of the scale! I’ve heard or read that too!

    Ok. Now we’re getting somewhere. :) Man this is fun!

    Reply

    16 Jermaine Griggs

    Hey Chris,

    Great comment once again and awesome insight and revelation you’ve arrived at.

    The 1 and 5 major chord work because if you analyze each bass they are working with, you’re getting very familiar chords:

    1 major / 1 bass = 1 major chord
    5 major / 7 bass = 5 major chord with 3rd tone as bass (1st inversion)
    1 major / 6 bass = 6 minor 7 chord
    5 major / 5 bass = 5 major chord
    1 major / 4 bass = 4 major 9 chord (but it’s missing the 3rd but still sounds major)
    5 major / 3 bass = 3 minor 7 chord
    1 major / 2 bass = 2 minor 11 (missing 3rd and 5th, you can add in there but it’s still fine as is for simplicity).
    5 major / 5 bass = 5 major chord

    So, although the concept of alternating between 1 and 5 is simple, there are real functional chords being created when you do that going down the scale.

    In C major:

    C major / C bass = C major
    G major / B bass = G major / B
    C major / A bass = A minor 7
    G major / G bass = G major
    C major / F bass = loose F major 9 chord (add “A” if you want)
    G major / E bass = E minor 7
    C major / D bass = loose D min 11 (add “F” and “A” if you want… “F” is more important than A though)
    G major / G bass = G major

    All the best,
    JG

    Reply

    17 Jermaine Griggs
    18 Chris Johnson

    Totally understand. Sweet! When I started playing those chords going down the scale, I was like Wow! That’s beautiful. That’s what I’m looking for. I felt the change of emotion in each chord that was played and yes the changes were very familiar to my ear.

    Thank you for shedding even more light on the subjec and the follow up links. Really appreciate it. You really do go that extra mile to help your students.

    I haven’t come across anyone… well I don’t want to slight my friend over at another popular website and you probably know who I am referring to. But no one gives feedback to their students like you do and you really need to be commended for it.

    Your timely and it’s almost uncanny how you can explain music in a way that most people can understand. Especially if they are truly passionate about learning how music is created.

    When I really have this stuff down (no reason why this shouldn’t happen sometime this year), I am going to replay a song in full. I’m thinking about something from Luther. Yes, Luther Vandross. I’m going to video tape it and you will be the first person who see’s it.

    Then you will truly see how much I have progressed!

    Take care Jermaine.. chat with you on the next blog!

    Chris

    Reply

    19 Chris Johnson

    Hey Jermaine,

    One more thing. Sorry if this should be posted in another blog but I was hoping you could still talk about it here. Unfortunately I do not have a PC, I moved to a Mac a year ago after a bad computer crash from a virus, so I haven’t been able to take advantage of Song Robot. I know for sure that will speed up my learning curve. I tried using Garage Band but it didn’t break out all the instruments like Song Robot does. Pretty useless how it does it. I don’t know if it’s something I’m doing wrong or that’s just how midi files import to Garage Band.

    My only other option is to purchase ‘Boot Camp’ I think it’s called which will allow me to run PC programs on my Mac. Seriously thinking about getting that so I can use ‘Song Robot’ and so I can use ‘Pitch’ again. I just gotta make sure that doesn’t make me more vulnerable to a virus that could somehow infect my Mac.

    But if you have anything to add about Garage Band that I may not be doing please do so.

    Thanks,
    Chris

    Reply

    20 Wallop Chantrakul

    Hey Jermaine,

    It is excellent. i have to learn and practice more and more.

    Thankyou so much

    Wallop

    Reply

    21 zachary

    man you are the bomb thanks

    Reply

    22 king solomon

    sir you are one of the best music teachers in the world, i am happy. the government should employe you to teach all music students in America and the rest of the world, congrats , your more than good., keep it up, bravo.

    Reply

    23 J Shani

    This is a great tutorial. I wish there was specific audio examples given, so could have an idea of the rhythm to use when playing.

    Reply

    24 mirna

    I could not hear the examples so I dont know how they sound but as I read I just noticed that you have five notes of the scale which are the 1-2-3-5-6. Isnt this the pentatonic scale? Thats why it sounds so good, because the pentatonic scale notes all sound good with the chords. Now I just wish someone would publish videos on plain piano accompaniment. Not gospel, not jazz, not blues, just plain songs, ballads, or popular songs, or christmas songs, whatever. All the videos I see seem to concentrate on one of these styles. I am almost where I want to be but need some ideas on comping. Thank you.

    Reply

    25 king solomon

    what a music teacher. congrats

    Reply

    26 Vicki

    Thanks, Jermaine. This is pretty.
    The video examples are missing from this post. “Doing so will allow you to match up with the videos above.”
    Since I have trouble with rhythms, examples would be VERY useful.

    Reply

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