Mike Moxcey ©2005

Playing Songs with Chords

Let’s start playing some songs right now. If your instrument is in tune and if you know two particular chords on it, we can get started. If you don’t know how to tune or what the chords are, you can look HERE.

If you don’t have chords on your instrument, skip the stuff about chords but read all the stuff about rhythm.

If you’re familiar with the song Shortnin Bread, you can play it. If you only know one chord, you can still play the song because the second chord isn’t actually required.

Let’s assume you know the C chord. If you don’t, play the chord you do know.

Form it on your instrument. If you have a guitar, mandolin, ukulele, or banjo, you will have to fret chords with your left hand (assuming the average position most folks take). A dobro player will have to put her bar at the correct fret. An autoharpist must press the correct button.

Now strum across all the strings with your right hand. See if it sounds good. If it doesn’t, then you probably aren’t pressing correctly or aren’t correctly positioned. Fret fingers should be just behind the fret and should not be touching any other strings. This seems impossible at first, but you get better quickly. For now, try to make the chord sound as cleanly as possible.

Strum across the strings for each beat which is marked by a chord name (C) or a slash (/) in the following song. Sing the words to yourself. At least say them in your head and see if you can keep on the correct rhythm. There will be two strums on the word “bread.”

Shortnin’ Bread

C       /      /    /      /   /     /   /
Mama’s little baby loves shortnin’ shortnin’.

/       /      /    /      /   /    /   /
Mama’s little baby loves shortnin bread.

 C      /      /     /     /   /     /   /
Mama’s little baby loves shortnin’ shortnin’.

 /      /      /    /      /   /    /   /
Mama’s little baby loves shortnin bread.


Don’t change the rhythm—the evenness—of the song to match the strums you will inevitably miss. Just skip that one and be ready to hit the next.

Maintaining the rhythm means keeping the song flowing. If you cannot keep time at all, then get a metronome and practice with it. However, if you can sing songs in time, then you can play them. The trick is to sing them in time and make sure your instrument keeps up. Don’t do it the other way around and stop singing when you miss a beat.

Rhythm is more important than hitting the correct note or chord.
It is better to hit the wrong note at the right time than to hit the right note at the wrong time.

Here are some more words to Shortnin Bread. I’ve added an extra chord near the end to help you practice changing chords. If that’s too hard at first (it will be), then don’t do it. Just play the song all in one chord until it feels comfortable.
    C    /      /  /   /      /  /  /
1.Three little babies laying in bed

 /   /   /     /     G      /    C   /
two was sick and the other most dead.

 C    /      /  /    /  /    /         /
Went to the doctor, doctor said, “You got to

  /    /     /       /     G   /   C   /
feed those children some shortnin bread."
2. When those children sick in bed
    heard that talk about shortnin' bread
    they got up well and dance and sing
    skipping round they cut the Pigeon Wing.

3. So put on the skillet, put on the lead.
    Mama's gonna make some shortnin' bread.
    That ain't all she's gonna do,
    mama's gonna make some coffee, too.

4. I slipped in the kitchen, raised up the lid,
    and stole me a mess of that shortnin' bread.
    Winked at the pretty gal and I said,
    "Baby how'd you like some shortnin' bread?"

5. Well they caught me with the skillet and they caught me with the lid
    and they caught me with the gal making shortnin' bread.
    Six months for the skillet, six for the lid,
    now I'm doing time for eating shortnin' bread.

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