Newsletter Issue 3: Chord Families, Part 1

Please close your books...And now, it’s time for a Heartwood Headscratcher(TM)!

What do these four recordings have in common:

“Wild Thing” by The Troggs
“Twist and Shout” by The Beatles
“La Bamba” by Los Lobos
“Always With Me, Always With You” by Joe Satriani

A) Each has been banned by radio stations for having obscene lyrics.
B) They’re the four songs most likely to inspire people who shouldn’t be drinking or dancing to do both.
C) Joe who?
D) Each features the most common chord progression in popular music: I – IV – V.

A) Incorrect! You’re thinking of “Louie Louie,” which was banned after the F.B.I. concluded that Jack Ely’s almost completely unintelligible singing was lewd. The song proved to be an auditory Rorschach test—the actual lyrics are tamer than a guide dog.
B) Incorrect! No one listens to Joe Satriani anymore except guitar geeks like me and you.
C) Ok, maybe it’s just me.
D) Correct! Which leads us to this week’s tip…

If you’ve been playing guitar a while, you’ve probably noticed that certain chords seem to go together. For instance, if you’re playing a song in the key of G, chances are you’re going to encounter C, D, and Em too. That’s because those chords belong in the chord family of the key of G.

And there are three chords within any family that really stick together: The I, IV, and V chords. Think of them as inseparable siblings. Just to get you started hearing these chord relationships, play an A, D, and E chord, one after the other. Now play G, C, and D. Now try D, G, and A. Hear a similarity? You just played a I – IV – V progression in three different keys.

Knowing your chord families is really helpful. “But Rob,” I hear you saying, “I had a hard enough time remembering names at my own family reunion in St. Louis last summer. Why should I press my luck with someone else’s family?”

I hear you. I frequently have to count back when someone asks my age. But because popular songs are often comprised just of chords in a single chord family, knowing this stuff makes it much easier to figure out songs by ear, compose your own music, and change songs to other keys. And it’s really not that hard to learn the basics.

One more parallel between chord families and real families: both are often enjoyed most in small doses, so I’ll wait ‘til next week to give you a good overview of how the whole system works.

Comments 18

  1. HI Rob,

    You are providing a GREAT service. Too much information is hard to digest. Your newsletter is just enough to enjoy and use. Please continue the good work.

    I am currently in New Zealand, sailing around the world on my sailboat. Wish I was in Seattle just so I could take lessons from you.



  2. A very simple lesson, yet one worth learning, especially for beginning players. With those three chords in many different families, you can play thousands of songs. RE: Louie, Louie: After many years of playing, I learned that LL’s progression is I,IV,V minor,IV,I! A true lightbulb moment!

  3. Thanks for this tip. I’m a novice guitar player and need all the help I can get. I’m trying to figure out a couple of songs on my own. I’m going to apply this info. This is sort of like learning a new language!

  4. It was abit brief to be honest but the newsletter is proving to be pretty usefull and handy, It’s a good read and you definately should carry on writing them. Just try and make them abit longer please 🙂 thanks

  5. Thanks for your feedback, Carva. I’m trying to figure out what the proper balance is going to be–I want the newsletter to be substantial, but not overwhelming.

    There’ll be plenty in next week’s newsletter, that’s for certain.

  6. Thanks Rob,

    once again you rock! Your newsletter is actually the only one I really read and enjoy. Just the right ammount of information. Love you tone too!

    Keep up the good work

    One of your followers from Quebec!


  7. Rob,

    Thanks for the information.

    I am a novice and I agree that the cords go together however what is the best way for one to know and learn the cord families?


  8. Hi Rob…i just found your site…and thank you for all wonderful info you are providing for free here…i just starting playing and i can use all the help i can get….blessings to ya….

  9. I am a guitar teacher and have a question for you. What do you do with a student who doesn’t want to learn strumming techniques and scales? This student just wants to play songs he likes during a lesson. What would you do? I would appreciate your expert advice.
    Thank you,

  10. Just found your sight. Really great. How do I find your previous news letters? I’d like to build a file on your witty and simplified/critical info. I’ve been playing for over 30 yrs. However, the day I think I know it all, I’ll sell my Fender Jaguar – Vintage 1962. Thanks.

  11. Hi, Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge (and gift) with us! Your newsletter style is such that one can become more confident learning each new concept – bridging the formerly incomprehensibe with success. You are an amazing teacher! Too bad I am on the east coast or I’d be in your front row.

  12. I’ve recently started plaing the guitar in church, along with the piano. The problem is that I need to Capo up to play in an easier key (chord family). Is there an easy way to identify what fret to capo to to yeild say a key of C or G that matches the key sinature that the piano is playing in. Do you no af maybe a chart or list that is available?

    You help would be greatly appreciated.



    1. Ken, I’ve seen a chart like that, but can’t remember where.

      If you know the notes on the 6th and 5th strings, or have a fretboard diagram with all the notes written on it, you can use that. To use chord shapes in the key of G, find the key you want to play in on the sixth string (key of D would be 10-th fret, for example). That’s going to be the root note of your G chord. Where would the capo need to go to play a G chord on that 10th fret? Capo 7. Now you’re playing in the key of D, using G chord shapes.

      Use the same process on the 5th string to find C chord shapes.

      Sorry this is so quick! It’s kind of a complicated process…


  13. #1 this lesson was awesome and has made easier for me to form songs from simple chords 🙂
    #2 joe satriani is one of my biggest inspirations, i’m a guitar geek too

    1. Post

      Hi Johnpaule,

      To transpose means to change a piece of music into a different key, but to preserve the relationship between the notes so that everything sounds basically the same as the old key, just a little higher- or lower-pitched. You can transpose guitar music easily by scooting a capo around on your fretboard, playing open chords in various places on the neck.

      Hope this helps,


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