The First 50 Chords

Products featured here are selected for review by ANDREW EALES

Hal Leonard’s First 50 series has been a popular success, offering bumper collections which each include 50 very simplified arrangements of songs ranging from jazz standards to West End hits, TV favourites and more.

I often advise players to adapt such “easy piano” arrangements to include authentic rhythms by ear, and amplify what is on the page by turning to the chord symbols. Happily, such symbols are included throughout the First 50 series, although for beginners approaching this material they, too, may seem a foreign language.

Wouldn’t it be good if there was a simple primer introducing all the basic chords in a logical sequence, linked to their use in well-known songs?

Well now there is. Written by Alistair Watson and joining this growing songbook series, First 50 Chords You Should Play on Piano recently landed from Hal Leonard, and could well prove to be more than just a useful supplement to the songbooks in the series…

The Simple Concept…

The First 50 Chords You Should Play on Piano is in its own words:

“One-of-a-kind collection of accessible, must-know piano chords and progressions used in famous pop, rock, hip-hop, R&B, gospel, blues, and folk tunes…
If you’re new to the piano, you’re probably eager to learn some chords to play along with your favourite songs. This book provides easy-to-read notation, chord symbols, tips, and a systematic selection of popular hits in their recorded keys to get you playing great music faster than ever before.”

The 64-page book has white paper and, in contrast to the song collections in the series, is staple bound. The glossy cover is as inviting as the blurb printed on it, and I was immediately impressed by the clear layout and pristine presentation when the review copy landed.

The bulk of the book is taken up by single-page introductions to each of the First 50 Chords themselves, but preceding this content the reader will find an Introduction which very elegantly explains how to sit at the piano, basic hand positions and the types of chords that follow (major, minor and so on).

There’s also a two-page spread covering The Basics of Reading Piano Chords, which outlines such basics as how to find the notes, the musical alphabet, the stave and written pitches in each of the treble and bass clefs. Interestingly, there’s absolutely nothing here or elsewhere in the book about note values, rhythm or time signatures.

Before the first chord appears (can you guess what it will be?) the player is also introduced to the idea of finger numbers, and given an explanation of how the chords will be presented throughout the rest of the book.

The First 50 Chords?

So what are the first 50 chords?

Nice try, but you’ll have to buy the book for a full answer! But if you guessed that the first is the C major triad, you got that right.

At this point I should mention a small quibble: the book doesn’t include an index to quickly find chords, which might have been useful as a reference for learners wanting to look up those they encounter elsewhere in the First 50 series.

However, the chords are helpfully and progressively organised in the following chapters:

  • Major Chords (White Keys)
  • Minor Chords (White Keys)
  • Major Chords (White and Black Keys)
  • Minor Chords (White and Black Keys)
  • Dominant Seventh Chords
  • Major Seventh Chords
  • Diminished Seventh Chords
  • Suspended Fourth Chords
  • Minor Seventh Chords

The list shows that 50 chords can actually take you a long way (insert joke about Status Quo here?) and to illustrate how the book manages that journey, here’s a representative sample page from the publisher’s website:

There’s plenty to consider here. Dominating the presentation, the keyboard charts include both RH and LH fingering suggestions. Notice that treble and bass clef staves are also used to present the chord and its inversions (called “slash chords” in the book, following pop terminology), the only actual use of notation in the book.

At the bottom of the page we find the song excerpt (in this case the first 8 bars of the Bryan Adams chestnut, Summer of ’69) which uses the newly introduced chord alongside those previously introduced in the book. You’ll notice at this point that the lyrics are shown, but not the melody line.

Also of some interest, the song is (perhaps confusingly) in D major, but the concept of musical key is not discussed in the book, even when dominant seventh chords are later dropped into the mix. It perhaps should have been, so that players can begin to form a recognition and understanding of how chords actually relate to one another. Teachers might want to supplement the material by explaining simple progressions, noting for example that the above song uses I – V – I – V.

It is a particularly nice touch that the songs are all in the keys of the best-known recordings, and as a proof of concept I successfully played along to the original Bryan Adams track, merging snuggly into his band. In fact, I continued playing along after the eight bars, working out the rest for myself as I suspect many will. However, this did involve using chords which had not been introduced in the First 50 up to this point…

Watson explains,

“Each new chord comes with a popular-song excerpt, allowing you to apply what you’ve learned straight away. Every song progresses systematically, featuring both the chord you’ve just learned and those previously encountered. These chords are all as you hear them on famous recordings, so you’ll enjoy being able to play along in no time!”

It’s probably now becoming clear that, if used and supplemented intelligently, The First 50 Chords could serve as a basic beginner tutor book, albeit one with a very different flavour to those reviewed in my popular article Which Adult Piano Method.

As a systematic approach to learning how to play from chord symbols, the book has much to commend it to older beginners who want to learn pop music, and to teachers and more advanced players who want to expand their knowledge to move beyond the arrangements found in pop songbooks.

But is this enough on its own?

Although the book provides an inspiring musical context for trying out each new chord introduced, it doesn’t explain how to actually play them in a musically convincing way. This observation isn’t intended to be a criticism, but rather an important clarification. So allow me to explain.

When using any method book, my first consideration is to identify any shortcomings that I will need to compensate for in lessons. In this case, I anticipate two crucial practical skills that I will need to focus on when using the material with students, and they are voicing and vamping.

The first of these will be an immediate priority, because the book only shows chords in their closed positions, which is rarely how a player will actually want to use them in a song. Learning how to distribute and balance these notes between the hands is a key skill that needs to be addressed quite early on.

And secondly, while it is great that the book includes a wide range of songs from different decades and genres, playing them effectively will demand a good grasp of their grooves. Learning to vamp using the given chord patterns is likely to be the key that unlocks real enjoyment of the material, but many learners particularly struggle at this point.

I am sure that some will be adept at putting this all together by ear, using their own knowledge and love of the songs as a foundation for their learning. For the majority, however, I suspect that professional support will be needed in order to really bring the songs to life.

Notwithstanding my caveats about how to make best use of this material in practice, I really have no doubt that in the right hands the First 50 Chords will prove to be a powerful learning resource, and I strongly recommend you take a look at it for yourself.

Closing Thoughts

First 50 Chords You Should Play on Piano is an easy book to get excited about, and while there are other books around which introduce the basics of playing from chord notation, few come close to this one for its logical layout and ease of use.

The simplicity of the book is perhaps its most striking attribute, but the included song excerpts are also a boon, giving the player a starting point for applying their knowledge as they advance through the book.

I believe that the book deserves, and will most likely find, significant popularity. I am sent plenty of educational material to evaluate on Pianodao; this particular book is a real “keeper”, and one which I anticipate making lots of use of for years to come.

And quite apart from my enthusiasm about its significant wider educational value, let’s not miss the most obvious point here: for those exploring the eye-catching and understandably popular First 50 series, the First 50 Chords is a genuinely brilliant and essential companion!

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based in Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.