Play Less, Sound Better - With Only One Chord

What should you play when you're accompanying a vocalist/soloist and you're given the chords only?

How to create an accompaniment for your composition/song?

Answers to these questions require some experience in music, but in this article I'll give you one easy method that (60% of the time) works every time: The Sus2 Method.

Intro: Traditional Chords

Let's start with a chord progression, a very common I-V-vi-IV, which in C would be C - G - Am - F.

A beginner piano player would play it like this, using the root positions for all chords:
The beginner way of playing chords

A beginner guitarist might play this using the default shapes:
The default C - G - Am - F on guitar

These don't sound very interesting. The piano line is very mechanical and jumpy, and I'm not a big fan of the default guitar voicings for C and G.

A more advanced piano player would play something like this:
A more advanced way of playing subsequent chords

Here they are using different inversions of the chords to keep the movement minimal. They are also using symmetrical lines: as the bass goes up, the highest note goes down. This sounds more melodic and interesting than parallel movement.

This is still a bit boring, and playing like this requires experience in chord progression theory and inversions. We need something simpler!

The Sus2 Method

Take the sus2 chord of the tonic (Csus2 in this case), and play it over all the chords, moving only the bass note.
The Sus2 Method of playing C - G - Am - F

This creates new types of chords and voicings with each of the bass notes. The best thing about this method is that it works for all the scale notes, and not just the major but natural minor also!

Don't believe me? Let's check every combo.
Every note in C major/natural minor combined with a Csus2 chord

You'll get some delicious add9/add11/addWhatever sounds. For some extra flavor, try adding a B in there also. The cluster B - C - D works particularly well for the chords with an asterisk in the image above.

How about the guitar? The sus2 shape is easy on the high strings with a barre on e and b. Our C - G - Am - F would go like this:
The Sus2 Method on guitar: C - G - Am - F

As a guitarist, your life will be extra easy if you're playing in the key of A as you can use the open e and b as part of the sus2 chord. Every chord with just two fingers on frets, max!
Playing the guitar in A major. Can it be any easier?

Additional Tips

As with any tips use your own judgment when applying this method. Experiment and try what works and what doesn't. If you play the same sus2 shape all the time it will become boring. Mix it up with

  • rhythmic variation: syncopate or stretch chord changes, use upbeats
  • arpeggio: play notes one by one in a pattern, works especially well with guitar
  • mix in traditional chords, maybe three chords with a sus2, then a "normal" chord
To finish off, see me playing a chord progression with only the The Sus2 Method:


Recreated: Justin Timberlake's Justified - 3 Loops

We're back to recreating tracks but this time it's going to be a little different. I'll recreate three tracks from Justified (2002) by Justin Timberlake.

Why three tracks and not one full track? Well, Justified is packed with great tracks because it was mainly produced by the successful hip-hop/R&B producer duo Chad Hugo & Pharrell Williams a.k.a. The Neptunes. Other tracks featured more personnel but the ones I'm focusing on were written by Timberlake with The Neptunes and produced by the latter.

A lot of the tracks on Justified are also heavily loop-based so getting the loop down gives you like 80-90% of the whole track.

1. Señorita

We'll start with the first track from the album, Señorita. As the name implies it's somewhat latin style influenced. Tempo is 98 and the key is E♭ minor.
The main loop of Señorita

Listen to my recreation:

The main element is a jazzy electric piano riff. It starts on the dominant B♭7 with a descending melody from flat 9 (C♭). It resolves on a E♭m9 but quickly transitions into A♭13 just by changing the bass note. The ending chord G♭13 features a F♭ which brings some more excitement into the harmony progression.

The bass is where this gets interesting since it flips around the whole chord analysis. It's a sub bass sine-like sound in a supporting role, but the note choices are peculiar. During the B♭ chord the bass plays D♭ to E♭ which is the tonic. During the E♭m the bass plays B♭. This is all flipped around, what the hell? Further, while the keys play the 13 chords the bass shifts these a whole tone up, B♭ and A♭.

You could analyze the chords based on the bass notes but that would be unnecessary. Let's just take it as it is because ultimately it sounds great. This is one of those examples in music where it looks weird on paper but works fine in practice. I'd wager that if you mirrored the keys exactly in the bass the loop wouldn't work as well. The end result has a forward momentum because of this intentional harmonic mismatch. You want to hear it resolve but it never gets there.

The drums play a beat which accents the final G♭13 with an open hihat. There also a couple of different shakers doing 16ths and a cowbell with triangle doing straight quarters. The hand clap joins in on the quarters from time to time. The percussion emphasis on quarters contrasts nicely with the other elements which are more rhythmically diverse.

2. Rock Your Body

The sixth track on the album, Rock Your Body, was a huge hit. This disco-funk style track was originally intended for Michael Jackson (along with some other tracks on Justified) which you can imagine by listening to the chorus. Tempo is 101 and the key is E minor.
The main loop of Rock Your Body

Here's my recreation:

There's a stabbing electic guitar or clav type sound playing the main chord progression G11 (F/G) - A11 (G/A) - Em. Note again the usage of non-scale notes (F) which makes it more interesting and provides forward momentum.

Supporting the stab is a piano+synth pad combo playing a sparser version of the chords. The synth pad has a longer attack so you'll hear it fade in on the longer notes.

A bell type sound is used as a transition between the bars 1-2 and 3-4 which is a nice little hook.

The bass lick brings to mind CHIC's Good Times or Queen's Another One Bites The Dust because of the similar 3-hits-on-quarters rhythm on the first bar.

The drums are played disco style, with some open hihats on offbeats and having some snare hits with the bass drum. Otherwise the bass drum is following the rhythm motif from the bass.

When you get past the somewhat exotic 11 chords this is a fairly simple loop overall. And it works.

3. Let's Take A Ride

There are more popular tracks on Justified I could have recreated but I chose Let's Take A Ride because it's one of my favorites. This R&B track plays at 90 BPM and its key is B♭ minor, I guess.
The main loop of Let's Take A Ride. Synth and Pad play during the chorus.

Here's the verse loop:

And the chorus loop with additional elements:

The main element is an acoustic guitar pattern played over 4 chords. For each chord the root is played with the third and seventh, with the 9 thrown in there as a melodic effect. There's a two bar pattern of minor 9 chord followed by major 9 chord one semitone up. Bars 1-2 start on F and bars 3-4 start a fourth up on B♭. Note again the usage of flat second (C♭).

The guitar is sweetened up with a phaser effect and some additional effects to widen/beef the sound.

The drums play a syncopated 16th beat with claps doubling the "rimmy" snare sound. There a reverb effect on the last snare/clap hit as a fill. A couple of shakers are again added to the mix.

The bass is a sub bass type sound and it doubles some of the bass drum hits. On bar 3 there's an interesting break in the bass drum which leaves room for a nice sub bass fill. The actual notes here were quite difficult to determine, I had to resort to the spectrogram on this one.

The verse loop is simply the guitar, bass and drums. In the chorus we have two additional elements.

First we have a short synth playing mainly B♭ which creates nice harmonies with the chords. It switches to a C on the B♭m chord. I love this hook, it sounds so great.

Then we also have a vintage sounding synth pad playing longer notes, staying strongly rooted on B♭. I really like the B♭5 on C♭maj9 harmony which results in a sharp 11.

Closing words

There you have it, 3 tracks deconstructed and recreated (or at least partially). I hope you enjoyed this and let me know if you have any suggestions for future recreations.