You may think that one chord songs would be easy to write. And they are if you want to write a bad song. However, if you prefer to write a good song, then you have to put in more effort than just strumming a minor 7 chord.
I break down the vocal melody, song structure and other characteristics of 3 great one-chord songs. I have sheet music with guitar tab for the 3 songs along with some insightful notes to help you write a great one-chord song.
Melody analysis of 3 popular one chord songs
So there are plenty of articles that list examples of well known one-chord songs. Some of the songs or performers mentioned are unknown to me. I chose to analyze three songs that I know and love:
Get Up, Stand Up by Bob Marley (Cm)
Spanish Moon by Little Feat (C#m7)
Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone by The Temptations (B♭m7)
My guess was that there must be something interesting going on with the vocal melody. I figured it was going to be melodies with a lot of notes and large interval jumps. I was kind of wrong. There are some intervals jumps in the vocals of a perfect 4th, but the melodies are not as complex as I thought.
The Bob Marley tune seemed to have the most interesting example of a melody over a single chord. But what all the songs have is featuring the different notes of the one chord in different measures or sections. If you do not know your intervals, then read my Music Intervals article first.
Get Up, Stand Up (Bob Marley)
So this is the only song of the three I chose that has a bridge section. The song starts with a decent intro then goes right into the chorus. The overall song structure is:
Chorus > Verse1 > Chorus > Verse2 > Chorus > Bridge > Chorus
The chord being played is a C minor triad and Bob Marley sings each section except for the bridge. The bridge is sung by Peter Tosh (I think).
I created a pentatonic shape for the scale and added the major 2nd D because it is a featured note in all 3 sections, especially the chorus. The ♭7 (B♭) is used often before the root note C, but the Cm triad sounds better than a Cm7 chord.
By the way, some of the sheet music I found online had a key signature of B♭/G minor which would make the song C Dorian. I only transcribed the vocal melody and the only note in the melody, that is not in the C minor pentatonic scale, is the major 2nd – no major or minor 6th. I left the key signature as B♭ but I think it should be E♭/C minor.
Here is the pentatonic scale shape I used while transcribing with the major 2nd/9th (D) added:
My transcription shows the same vocal melody for the four repeated phrases in the chorus. It’s pretty basic but there is a motif/phrase that repeats in the other sections.
All the notes of the chorus are ♭7-1, 9-♭3, ♭7-1-♭3-1-1.
That’s rather basic but it sounds good. plus it’s a classic Marley tune. The major 2nd going to the flat 3rd is interesting, but Bob ends on the Root note C each time he sings “right”. So he is using the root note as the point of resolution.
I listened to a Youtube video for transcribing Get Up, Stand Up, so listen to the song as you play the notes.
Here is where Bob adds some variety to the vocal melody though it is still only using the minor pentatonic with the additional D note. You can see how measures 1 & 5 are focusing on the perfect 5th of the C minor triad.
Measure 7 has the same notes as the chorus over “Get Up Stand Up” just with the D and E♭ doubled. You’ll see that in the bridge as well.
This section is sung by Peter Tosh and he uses a flurry of C notes then goes down a perfect 4th to G in the 2nd measure.
He is basically singing a C minor arpeggio in the 5th measure over “You can fool some people sometimes…”. And then measure 7 is a repeat of measure 7 in the verse. The final 5 notes of measure 8 are a variation of the chorus “stand up for your right” but with the high G note and F added instead.
By the way, I had a hard time transcribing this section. A couple of the measures seem off when it comes to the note values, specifically measures 1 and 2 – sorry about that. It was hard keeping up with Peter’s fast rapping syllables.
So various chord tones are emphasized in the different measures in each section using the root note as the tonic center or point of resolve. Looks like that is a simple and effective approach. Try using the 1, ♭3 and 5 as tonal centers in various measures and sections, but always come back to the root note as the overall tonic center.
Spanish Moon (Little Feat)
This song is sung by Lowell George of Little Feat and it appears he is using notes of the C# blues scale over a C#m7 chord. It’s not easy hitting the ♭5 for the average singer. He also throws in the minor 6th so it’s definitely C# natural minor overall with the ♭5 giving a blues feel.
The live version, which may be the version of the album Waiting For Columbus, starts out with beats from a Conga or similar instrument. Then it goes into a nice grooving bassline followed by keys and horns. The structure of the song is:
Verse1 > Verse2 > Chorus > Verse3 > Chorus
I tested out a C#m7 chord at the 4t fret and it’s dead-on accurate. Here is a C# Blues scale in the C voicing and listen to the song Spanish Moon on Youtube:
Measures 1 thru 3 and 7 are all the root and perfect 5th, then in measures 4 & 5, he sings the perfect 4th. You hear the ♭3 and major 2nd in the 6th bar and the perfect 4th, ♭3 and ♭5 in the 8th bar. Measure 9 is where you hear the ♭6 and the last three measures are chord tones with an occasional 4 and ♭5.
The chorus is all chord tones with the exception of the ♭5 in the 3rd measure.
So here is another one chord song using a minor chord – m7 as opposed to the minor triad in the Marley tune.
Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone (The Temptations)
This song also uses a minor chord: B♭m7. The intro for this song is unbelievably great! So instrumentation and a killer groove definitely help with a one-chord song. It’s no surprise this song made it onto the charts.
The melody for the vocals is all from the B♭ minor pentatonic scale and the structure of the song is:
Verse1 > Chorus > Verse2 > Chorus > Verse3 > Chorus
Check out this great video of the Temptations performing Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone. Here is a B♭ minor pentatonic scale I used:
I only transcribed the vocal melody for the 1st verse and the first occurrence of the chorus. The verse melody is all chord tones (B♭-D♭-F-A♭) with an occasional E♭ thrown in. The most common melodic phrase is ♭7 > 1 > ♭3.
Once again you have a lot of ♭7-1-♭3 but measure 3 is all the perfect 4th E♭. Then you have a nice jump in the 5th measure from F to B♭. By the way, it looks like I’m missing the 8th measure. I think it’s a rest bar without any vocals, that’s why I forgot to add it.
Other one chord songs
Chain of Fools by Aretha Franklin is mentioned as a one-chord song but the sheet music I saw had the chords Cm, Cm7, and C7. One tonality but 3 different chords. The minor triad and m7 are fine together, but the C7 is a different sound. The verses have a strong call-and-response vibe.
Thank You Falettime Be Mice Elf Agin by Sly & The Family Stone has killer bass and rhythm throughout the song. The sheet music shows both an Em7 & E7#9 chord. I would count that as a one-chord song because the Em7 is a lesser version of the E7#9 – it’s just missing the G#. Think of it as a chord partial.
Other songs you may want to look into are:
Willie Dixon: Spoonful
Bo Diddley: Who Do You Love
Sonny and Cher: The Beat Goes On
The Guess Who: American Woman
John Lee Hooker: I’m in the Mood & Smokestack Lightning
CCR: Run Through the Jungle
I looked at Run Through the Jungle and the vocal melody was less than impressive. With Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley & Lightning Hopkins, I’m willing to bet a lot of blues tunes that are one chord songs.
Okay, so you want to write a one-chord song. I would suggest using a minor triad, minor 7 or 7#9 as your jam chord. And use the root of the chord as your resolution note in your vocal melody. Then use the other chord tones and notes from the minor scales (Dorian, natural, pentatonic, blues) to add variety in different measures and sections of the song.
It would also help to have other instruments laying down a funky groove. Backup vocals would probably help as well. Oh, and don’t forget – you still need some really interesting lyrics. Try the call and response technique to add variety as well.
Here are the key takeaways:
- Use a min, m7 or 7#9 chord.
- Have other instruments laying down a great intro and overall rhythmic groove.
- Repeat and vary a key vocal rhythmic motif. Think of a “motif” as a lick or riff that repeats in some way.
- Try different voicings for your one chord.
- Try adding background vocals, large melody jumps, and don’t forget great lyrics.
- Use the root of the chord as your back home note – the resolution.
I hope you succeed in at least having fun writing a song with the limitation of a single chord.