The Lightbulb Moment: One, Four, Five

Jam Session

“Hey, so we’re in G and it’s a one, four, five thing. Cool? Count it off.”

Here we go again…

Whether it’s a local blues jam, and evening hang at your friend’s garage-turned-music-room, or a gig where someone decides to deviate from the setlist, the notion of calling a “One, Four, Five” can leave us bass players a little high and dry. Yes, we’ve been told the chords to the song. No, we don’t know the order in which they are played. In other words, it’s like making plans to meet someone for coffee next Tuesday but not specifying a time or place to meet. We know that there’s a plan but we’re missing the important details. Oh no! How can we show up on time?

If you’re not familiar with this jam lingo, it’s an easy way for the bandleader to give a bit of direction for the song without having to spoon feed every chord change. With this bit of information, it then becomes the responsibility of the players to use their ears and musical intuition to determine the actual flow of the song. These “One, Four, Five” chords can appear in any order, meaning that this bandstand clue is rarely literal. The chords may follow the same order throughout the entirety of the song, they may change from the verse to the chorus, and they may not be totally accurate. It’s pretty common for the bandleader to forget about the chords to the bridge or neglect to mention that there’s a two-chord at the end of the verse. With all of these possible variations, we need to develop our musical “Spidey Sense” in order to figure out the song on the fly.

Depending on the setting, this “One, Four, Five” can refer to various standard progressions. If you’re playing blues, it will typically imply a classic twelve-bar form (“Sweet Home Chicago”) or an eight-bar form (“Key To The Highway”). With other genres, such as country, Americana, or Rock’n’roll, it’s important to think within the context of the melody. This is where ear training comes in handy. After learning hundreds of songs, you start to hear the relationship between the vocal melody and the implied harmony. Your job as the bass player is to follow along with the melody, make an educated guess about where the harmony is going to go, and hopefully lead the band to the correct chord. This is no easy task. It truly takes thousands of hours (and thousands of songs) to develop this intuitive “superpower” that is predicting harmony.

While it’s our responsibility to anticipate the chord changes (and arrive there at or before anyone else), we do get a bit of a consolation prize: we can get away with just playing the root. Woohoo! Mind you, this isn’t a free pass when it comes to harmony—it’s still important for us to hear the proper chord, especially when we want to create a more specific bass line or integrate fills. However, we are lucky in the sense that once we define the root, we can listen to how the other harmony players determine whether the chord is major or minor.

Within a jazzier musical setting, the same situation happens if someone calls out “two, five, one.” Sure, those may be the basic chords, but there’s a good chance that someone will attempt to throw in additional passing chords, a reharmonization or two, or even a series of “two, five, ones” that resolve to a different key.

Regardless of the genre you’re playing, the act of calling out “one, four, five” or “two, five, one” essentially becomes a musical test—it’s a way to feel out the competency of the other players. Some may sink, some may swim, and some may provide the boat. The more comfortable you are with hearing chord changes, anticipating where the melody is going to go, and knowing how to interact with the other players, the more successful you’ll be… regardless of what you’re told before you start playing.

Just for fun, here are some examples of songs that someone may call as a “one, four, five” on the bandstand. It does take a bit of listening and song-form know how to figure out the actual succession of chords. And, for added fun, some of these songs contain a mystery chord! As you work through the songs, try to anticipate what the next chord will be while listening to the melody; the more you train your ear to do this, the better you’ll get at it (aka practice). So, the next time you jam with someone who says “It’s just a one, four, five in G,” you’ll be familiar with any and all variations of these chords.

  • Gimme One Reason
  • Up On Cripple Creek
  • Twist and Shout
  • Act Naturally
  • Ring Of Fire
  • Bad Moon Rising
  • Honky Tonk Woman
  • Old Time Rock’n’Roll
  • Glory Days
  • Ain’t No Sunshine
  • Me and Bobby McGee

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!

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