Sometimes it's easy for me to find out the chords in a song (by ear and try), but if the songs is complicated, I can't figure out the chords. Existing software and platforms also cannot find the correct chords. Some software suggest multiple similar chords for each measure (bar).

If I want to play on keyboard/guitar (and sing along), do I have to use the same exact chords as original song? or I can use similar chords?


3 Answers 3


If I want to play on keyboard/guitar (and sing along), do I have to use the same exact chords as original song? or I can use similar chords?


In fact, no one is going to stop you! It's not necessary to play the exact same chords as the original song; however, stray too far from the original, and you might have some issues. Your audience might not recognize the song if you don't play chords that are similar enough in quality or function, for one, and it is good to be able to accurately transcribe by ear, but for the purpose of making music, it is not a problem to play chords that may not be exact matches for the original harmonies and voicings. Especially if you play guitar or keyboard to accompany in a sing-along manner, often a quick approximation of the harmony of a piece will be sufficient to make great music.

In double fact, there may not even be a set of "exact" chords for the song you're playing. If you're playing a piano song on guitar, chances are your guitar chords are not note-for-note transcriptions of the piano chords. Does the original have a different bass note than what you are playing? Are the notes in a slightly different order? Is there a note being left out of or added to the chord that you are playing, or vice versa? All covers require some small deviations from their originals, and things like voicing changes due to instrument ergonomics are practical and necessary in many cases.

Additionally, chord labels can be quite subjective. You might hear that chord as an Em7, I might hear it as G6. Or the upper structure of a Cmaj9 chord. Or just plain old G. Try to make the decision between chords on the basis of what serves the music best, not on what is the most objectively accurate to the original.

Chord substitutions are another concept to be aware of and play around with. Is that A7 chord getting boring, or perhaps you're just not that good at playing it? Try subbing in a C# half-diminished 7th in its place. It may work, it may not. There are lots of types of chord substitutions (some more drastic than others), and though they can serve different musical purposes, they are all entirely acceptable for use in cover music.

"Some software suggest multiple similar chords for each measure (bar)."

The problem with those programs is that they do not follow a very human approach to playing/identifying the chords to a song. The software identifies notes being sounded, and looks at them as an addition problem. C + E + A = Am, as the logic goes. Human listeners take things within context, though, and make determinations about how to understand the music based on factors outside of simply the summation of the detected frequencies. A rapidly changing melody might cause a computer to state that the chord quality is changing rapidly with suspensions and added notes, but to a human listener, this is clearly not a useful analysis of the music.

Take "Hey Jude" in F major as an example, and examine the line "Take a sad song..." from its chorus. Chord identification software would hear the notes C, E, G, and F, then decide upon a chord name that explicitly puts an F in the chord, like Cadd11 or Fmaj9(no3)/C. A musician hearing the song correctly identifies that the F frequency comes from a melody note, not included in the harmony, and therefore sensibly labels this chord as C. The issues with software analysis get more and more potent as the music being analyzed gets more and more complicated. Online resources, even though submitted by real human beings, are prone to errors and/or useless chord labels for songs as well.

I would be wary of the mindset that all songs have one exact correct set of chords. It is a great exercise to attempt to get as close as possible to what you hear in the recording, but under close enough examination, there is no such thing as a perfect transcription.

  • Thanks for comprehensive answer. It was very helpful.
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 3:37
  • 1
    On occasions, I've played with bands that play the 'wrong' chords in some songs. It really rankled, they were too set in their ways and wouldn't /couldn't change. Going with the flow was difficult. Ever been there?
    – Tim
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 8:31
  • @Tim it depends whether the "wrong" chord is a preference i.e. "we've re-arranged this part because we like the way it sounds" vs. i.e. indolence "this is close enough, don't be so fussy". The former can result in some interesting, emotional, and refreshing performances, the latter attitude is irritating beyond anything... If you have such disrespect for and indifference to the sounds you are making, why be a musician in the first place??
    – Some_Guy
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 16:26
  • @Some_Guy - in one of the jazz ands I play in, we're re-harmonising songs for fun, but rarely expect anyone else to busk those versions. No I'm talking about those who maybe don't listen too well, or glean inaccurate stuff off the 'net, or as you say, 'it's close enough'. I've left bands for just that sort of thing. 'We've played it that way for 30 yrs' Yes, wrong! Sometimes I think 'musician' may be a misnomer...
    – Tim
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 16:31
  • @Tim I'm often surprised that things like this absolute abomination get good ratings on UG tabs.ultimate-guitar.com/tab/willie-nelson/… Who are these people playing an Em7 thinking "oh yes, that sounds wonderful there!" lol. E7? sure! G#ø? Not the original but works well harmonically. An Em7 though? Yuck!
    – Some_Guy
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 16:52

There is no Song Police that will jail or fine you for changing the song.

The audience will listen and some might judge, but really, if everyone enjoys what you're doing, nobody is gonna complain if you used an Am instead of an Am9, if you're at home playing for friends and family.

But if you're getting into a place where you are presenting yourself professionally, playing in a wedding band or the like, fidelity to the work is part of the gig, and figuring out what that chord is, or at least a closer approximation like Am7, will make you sound closer and keep the crowd in the right mood.

And, there are certainly covers where the song's structure changes to serve the capabilities and style of the musicians. Richard Thompson has a wonderful fingerpicked folk song in an alternate tuning named "1952 Vincent Black Lightning", which was covered by Sean Rowe in a simpler, starker and I believe standard-tuned version which I find just as compelling.

So, play what you hear and play what you can.

  • There may not be a Song Police, but you could be convicted in the Court of Public Opinion. Like José Feliciano when he performed the Star Spangled Banner at the 1968 World Series.
    – Barmar
    Commented Feb 26, 2021 at 15:26

Only if you want people to sing/play along

If you don't need people to join in, you can do anything you like to the song. Bruce Springsteen took the words of Born in the USA and produced this radically different version. Good luck finding the familiar chords in there!

If you want people to sing along though, at the very least you need the tune to stay the same - and it's going to be harder to do that if the backing is unfamiliar.

And the ultimate case is if you want to play the same song in a group with other people. Everyone else will know the "normal" version, and you need to fit in. If you're in a band then you can all legitimately decide on a different version together, of course, but then you're not expecting strangers to join in.

  • and to get even more complex, even if you're playing with other people, sometimes certain changes to the chords still work well with each other. If you have enough of a theoretical basis, you can consciously make choices to play alternative chords that nevertheless blend well with your friends playing the "basic" chords. (for example, if I'm jamming on an acoustic with a buddy on a song and I know they're about to play a D "cowboy chord", perhaps I might want to play an Am7 or Bm7 or something (depending on the musical context of course). You wouldn't play, say, a C, or a Dm though.
    – Some_Guy
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 16:31

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