Woody Guthrie once said, “Anyone who uses more than three chords is just showing off.” A dude like C.C. Deville of Poison might disagree, but Woody is hardly alone in his contempt for flashy guitar playing. Many of the greatest songwriters in history value the guitar solo so little that it now mostly resides in the memories of forty-somethings who reminisce about wilder times when music was the stuff of mullets and Metallica cassettes.
I’m reminded of a story from the late eighties where Billy Gibbon of ZZ Top jokingly asked Eddie Van Halen if he had found that fourth chord yet. Wait, Eddie Van Halen? The ever-loving master of riffs, runs and countless other unfathomable guitar tricks?
Yes. That Eddie Van Halen.
Even Van Halen would first get our blood flowing with fist-pumping riffs and backbone drums before he would beat us over the head with some insane guitar solo that reached far into the depths of complex ranges and scales. Because at its core, every genre of music and every brilliant musician understands that simplicity and feeling are the beating heart of a song. Beneath it all are a few warm chords and a four-four rhythm that allows our minds to grab onto something. The great honky-tonk legend, Roger Miller, was once asked why he didn’t play all that fancy stuff way up the neck like some other guitarists do. “Because all the money is right down here,” Miller replied, pointing to the first three frets of his guitar.
In a past life, when I was the guitarist for a rock band, someone once told me that music is the silence between notes. That’s just a pithy way to say that the raw power of music hides within communicating emotions with simplicity and directness. What attracts us to Van Halen or Woody Guthrie is not thrashing instruments violently or some theatrical stage presence. It’s the simple chords and lyrics of a well-written song that flow in rhythm and beg our souls to sing along.