Why have I never seen a list of the greatest guitar chords of all time? We are speaking of the great “whoooang,” the sweet rib-meat and godhammer of our rock & roll fantasies. Now is not the time to chatter about sinewy riffs made up of single notes, astral arpeggios or gentle folky strums. And I am not talking about the actual chords themselves, absent any context (you know, like, “Whoa, A-Minor, baby”). I am talking about moments when a guitarist just hits a big fat fucking chord.
So I decided to put together list of the 10 greatest guitar chords ever recorded. But first, some ground rules:
The chord must not be part of a riff. It must stand alone. There are plenty of utterly brilliant chords that are part of riffs, but that’s not what we are talking about here. For instance, the chord on the first downbeat of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is a chord qua chord, and suits our definition exceptionally well; but the similar and possibly superior chord that launches “I Can See for Miles” is clearly a part of the chord structure of the song, so it is not eligible. Get it?
Likewise, the chord must be a destination in and of itself. Perhaps you listen to the song just for that chord, and then move on. This is why, say, the chord that comes four seconds into The Ramones’ version of “Let’s Dance” (from their debut album) doesn’t qualify; it is a perfect chord in so very many ways, honestly one of the best chords of all time, but it is dependent on the song it's attached to.
Finally, to make this list, the chord must be played on a guitar. I was tempted to make an exception or two: “Didjerilayover” by Stuart Dempster is, essentially, one magnificent, resounding, world-ending/world-birthing chord, but it’s performed with, well, didgeridoos; and I have very warm and fuzzy feelings about Tony Conrad’s 27-minute violin drone on “The Side of Man and Womankind.” But I had to draw the line somewhere, so guitars only it is.
10. “A Hard Day's Night” (The Beatles, 1964)
If I want to describe the Great Chord concept to someone, this is the track I’ll point to. It’s a profoundly effective attention getter, with a harmonic resonance and purity that absolutely wraps around the listener. Unlike most of the examples we shall encounter here, it’s more or less a pure studio creation that requires multiple guitars to play properly, and any detailed discussion of this chord involves repeated use of the word “diatonic.” But I do not go to such places. Let’s just say that it sounds a little like Arto Lindsay being thrown down a flight of stairs (I mean that in a good way), and when looped or repeated — as The Residents did in 1977 on their startling “Beyond the Valley of a Day in the Life” — it’s profoundly hypnotic and unsettling.
9. “I Need You” (The Kinks, 1965)
Throughout 1964 and 1965, The Kinks invented and perfected the modern guitar riff, taking the sludge-roar of Bo Diddley’s barre chord technique and applying it to the repetitive riff mode that was common in contemporary jazz. Each time The Kinks recorded a new riff-driven song, they added something fresh: The two-note stutter of “You Really Got Me” became the four-chord slur of “All Day and All of the Night,” followed by the more complicated multipart Golem-stomp of “Til the End of the Day.” On “I Need You,” The Kinks reverted back to a two-chord tic (almost like an anxious, inverted “You Really Got Me”), but they added something bold and new: a single, whacked chord before the song kicked in, dissolving into uneasy, gnawing feedback. True, it’s not dissimilar to The Beatles' feedback dissolve at the front of (the slightly earlier) “I Feel Fine”; but whereas The Beatles' buzz and howl feels like pop art, when Dave Davies and The Kinks do it, it feels like pure lust.
8. “Nervous Breakdown” (Eddie Cochran, 1958)
It’s very likely that when The Kinks, The Beatles and The Troggs each chose to announce one (or more) of their tracks with some kind of “thwonnnng” or howl that had no relation to the actual chord progression of the song, they may have had the opening chop-chop of “Nervous Breakdown” somewhere in the back of their heads. With those two rushed strums, Cochran is wordlessly saying, “Mom, Pop and Mister School Teacher, pay fucking attention, or I will come back in a few years as Charles Whitman.”
7. “Gonna Dance All Night” (Hardrock Gunter, 1954)
Sometimes you find the future in the most unexpected places. On the surface, this is a pretty standard, hyper-tempo hillbilly swing tune of only passing distinction. But the first two seconds of the track are a miracle, as if a time traveler visited ol’ Hardrock in Sun Studios and played him 45s by The Creation and Jimi Hendrix. “Gonna Dance All Night” begins with a howl of feedback and distortion — played, I think, on a pedal steel guitar — that appears to be effected by an altered tape speed. It’s like absolutely nothing that had appeared before it, and nothing like it would surface again until Joe Meek’s sonic experiments at the dawn of the next decade.
6. “Jailbreak” (Thin Lizzy, 1976)
You’re in an old theater in an iffy part of town. It’s 9:14 on a weeknight. From your seat in the back of the orchestra, you eyeball the stage through a fish-blue haze of weed and tobacco smoke. A British band emerge from the wings, mirrored guitar scratch plates catching the red and blue stage lights. The band members take a quick glance at one another and downstroke on one rich, buzzing, loud and harmonically near-perfect chord. We are here. We have gotten your attention. Now we will make your dreams come true. It was a fairly common rock trope in the 1970s and ’80s: bands beginning the set (or a song) with a big blur of a guitar chord, before leaping into the air and landing on the downbeat of a riff. But no one ever did it better then Thin Lizzy on “Jailbreak.”
5. “Iron Man” (Black Sabbath, 1970)
The sound of the Lusitania being torpedoed and sunk, and a scene-changing moment in the story of the electric guitar.
4. “Who Are You” (Void, 1982)
True, it’s not so much a single chord as a warped, melodically destabilized, 25-second expression of disgust at the world of adulthood. I imagine this is the sound God made when he was told about the fire in the Apollo 1 spacecraft that killed three terrified astronauts on the launchpad at Cape Kennedy on Jan. 27, 1967. Alternately, it’s a little reminiscent of “Eruption” by Van Halen if you eliminated all the actual guitar-hero noodle-whangle-whingle parts and asked Thurston Moore to play it.
3. “Brando” (Scott Walker/Sunn O))), 2014)
Of all our selections, this is the only Great Chord that occurs after the song actually begins; but it truly is one of the greatest chords ever recorded. Sometimes, on a winter night in Southern California, when the canyons are eerily quiet except for the howl of the coyotes and the rumble of a far-off Subaru or two, you will hear the earth shake far away, perhaps under the flat streets of Sylmar; and it sounds just like this. It is exceptionally difficult to describe the sound of an earthquake, that blend of subsonic Vulcan knuckle-clench and trilling, high-end child-pissy fear; but the guitar chord 35 seconds into “Brando” evokes that sound perfectly.
2. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (The Who, 1971)
The first chord of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is a loving slap in the face, so simple but so adamant. It says, “Sit up, you lovely fuckers, I have just kicked Terry Riley’s door in and his blips and pulses will take over for the next 30 seconds, but I’ll be back.” When nothing is left of our little rock civilization but some Easter Island stones that look suspiciously like Pete Townshend, when the sky is the color of a new bruise and the water looks and tastes like iron, this chord will still be ringing, a reminder of a time when a car stereo, turned up to the volume of suffer, could make us smile.
1. “20th Century Boy” (T. Rex, 1973)
When we send interstellar spacecraft into worlds not yet imagined and we want to illustrate what a rock & roll guitar chord sounded like, this is the one we want to play. Low and loose and high and tight and slightly sloppy at the edges but firm in the middle, it can be played perfectly by a boy of 10 and entirely wrong by an expert. This brazen grunt-curl is a kick and a caress, it tells us about the age of Diddley and the age of Ramone and epochs yet to come. It is the Pet Sounds of guitar chords.