Piano players typically use sheet music to learn a song, while guitar players just need to look up the chords in a chord chart like those from Ultimate Guitar. Right? Well, not exactly. In fact, as a professional musician, I work from chord charts much more often than sheet music. And in fact, chord charts are more rewarding than sheet music because I can make creative choices and craft my own arrangements. It’s both easier AND more fun. Who wouldn’t want that?
Does that mean only professional pianists should use chord charts? Once again—a resounding no! Chord charts are a perfect tool for pianists of ALL levels, from beginner to advanced. Now, you may have heard claims such as “Learn 500 Songs in 5 Days,” and while that is definitely an exaggeration (to put it mildly), it IS true that you can start reading simple chord charts at any stage of your piano journey and unlock a world of songs.
A chord chart is, essentially, “spark notes” for a song, providing essential information on structure and harmony. Some (such as Ultimate Guitar) include lyrics, but don’t have detail on timing… you need to listen to the song to determine when exactly to switch chords. Other charts (such as those in iReal Pro) show you the harmonic rhythm in more detail, but there are no lyrics. A lead sheet includes the notated melody in addition to chords. My recommendation is to build your own chart, so you can customize it with exactly the type of information you need, including additional notes on styles and more. (This is for songs you really want to perfect. To just play along with some tunes, use whatever works best!)
How to start using chord charts…
In a nutshell, here’s the process. Identify the song structure, figure out the chords in each section (Google is your friend here, although I encourage you to check multiple sources), plan your voice leading, make a few choices on style, and voila! If you are a beginner, you can ignore any 7th, add2, sus or otherwise fancy chords, just start with triads. And if the key is unfamiliar to you, you could put the chords in a more familiar key, such as C, F, or G. Our free Harmony Handbook will help you find the most common chords in every key. And to help you get started, I have included a list below of 20 popular songs that only use a few chords.
If you want to learn more, check out my course Playing from Chord Charts, where I’ll talk you through this process from start to finish, including my unique method for creating professional-sounding voice leading in your own arrangements (without the use of sheet music)! In addition, my course Popular Accompaniment Styles has tons of style options you can use when playing from chord charts. And if you aren’t even sure what we mean by Triads or Key Signatures, take a look at those courses first, then come on back and dive in to one of your favorite songs with a customized chord chart!
20 Songs with Four Chords or Less
|I Won’t Back Down||Tom Petty||G||Em,D,G,C|
|In The Air Tonight||Phil Collins||Dm||Dm,C,Bb,Am|
|Cry Love||John Hiatt||C||C,G,Am,F|
|Get Lucky||Daft Punk||Bm||Bm,D,F#m,E|
|Feel It Still||Portugal the Man||C#m||C#m,E,F#,A|
|No Woman No Cry||Bob Marley||C||C,G,Am,F|
|With or Without You||U2||D||D,A,Bm,F|
|Pumped Up Kicks||Foster the People||Eb||Fm,Ab,Eb,Bb|
|Dragostea Din Tei||O-Zone||Am||Am,F,C,G|
|Don’t Stop||Fleetwood Mac||E||E,D,A,B|
|Do It Again||Steely Dan||Gm||Gm,Cm,Dm,Eb|
|Send Me On My Way||Rusted Root||C||C,F,Am,G|
|An Evening I Will Not Forget||Dermot Kennedy||Am||C,G,Am,F|
|Quite Miss Home||James Arthur||Gm||Gm,Eb,Bb,F|