There is something in music that imbues even the most simple things with a special power. Often, our favorite music feels so out of reach, imbued as it is with this special something, so often instilled by our own selves, our love and adoration for this music and these songs in particular.
However, so, so many classic tracks that we hold up to be pinnacles of what makes music as powerful as it is might be said to be three chord songs. Guitar icons like Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Jack White, each of the Beatles, Slash, all have expressed predilections for simplicity as a mission statement, whether in their words or expressed simply through their music.
Lou Reed famously said: ‘One chord is fine, two chords is pushing it, and three chords is jazz.’ While exaggerating perhaps a little, this is an MO that he did more or less firmly stick to throughout his career. The Velvet Underground track ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’ is built almost entirely on two chords rocking back and forth into each other, as is the 7 minute dirge ‘Heroin’, not to mention countless other tracks.
This harmonic simplicity doesn’t take anything away from the sheer potency of these songs, and in fact in more instances than not bolsters it. The same is very much true in much American country music and folk music more generally, simplicity being preferred as a vehicle for the ‘truth’ and emotion in the vocals of a song.
The following songs will have been almost entirely composed with just three chords, the seams all laid bare for your perusing. There will be a range of three chord songs for your choosing so don’t feel any pressure to learn all of them; take from them what you will and what you feel speaks to you the most.
1. ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ by Lynyrd Skynyrd
This is a classic rock track, firmly hung on the classic rock wall of fame, remembered throughout the annals of popular music history. Even those uninterested in this type of music usually will be familiar with this track, so synonymous as it has become with home coming and returning.
If the title of the track wasn’t clear enough, this is a southern American band, proud dearly of their home state Alabama. Upon release it was a big hit, many others clearly as enthusiastic, and the stereotypical hip swinging hard rock in full fashion on the air waves.
Lead guitarist, Ed King, claimed to have dreamed the chords and the solos of the song, though there is decidedly not too much to dream about on or about this track, aside from home of course.
- D – 1 bar
- C – 1 bar
- G – 2 bars
A three chord song written firmly in a country rock style, this song isn’t terribly difficult to pick up, and many of the finer details will be accrued with repeated practise, the chords cycling through in this order for the entire duration of the track. This kind of simplicity has rendered the track a write of passage of sorts for aspiring guitarists, for it is so often prescribed in the early stages of learning the instrument by well meaning guitar tutors.
2. ‘Bad Moon Rising’ by Creedence Clearwater Revival
Right here we have another three chord song, no less humungous despite so scant a roster of chord changes. This track falls very much under the same category as the previous track, ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, coming from a time when a sincere male country boy could dominate the air waves with, as Willie Nelson says, ‘three chords and the truth’.
As far as classic rock bands and songs go, they don’t come much more classic than Creedence Clearwater Revival, whose heralding of this title has been confirmed in their being so popular among beginners and professionals alike. At the time of its release, in 1969, it peaked and topped both the US and UK popular charts, so widespread a hit it was.
The song has even inspired several popular cover versions, which you might even be more familiar with than the original. This is surely only a testament to the majesty and universality of the song. This is the same for many songs of this variety, especially three chord songs.
The various gaps left by the compositional simplicities only encourage other artists to place more of themselves and their own ideas within the bounds of the already established musical structure. And so its popularity has continued undimmed, handed as it is on to prospective new guitarists, to carry on the flame.
- D – 1 bar
- A – 1/2 bar
- G – 1/2 bar
This simple, three chord song, with its bouncy rhythms and catchy hooks is perfect for any guitarist on the musicianship spectrum:
Whether you are just starting and seeking to learn more varied rhythms in your songs; whether you are a long time fan of the band and are now finally getting round to learning their tunes on the guitar; whether you intend to sing along or accompany another who has taken up the microphone, or you’re simply happy just playing along to the wonderful original all the way back from 1969(!); or whether you’re a gigging professional who, as a fan of their music, is looking to reinvent it for yourself, whether blatantly as a cover or more subtly as a reworking that does honour and respect to the original while imbibing it with something of yourself.
3. ‘Ring of Fire’ by Johnny Cash
This one is a true classic that has utterly transcended itself, snow balling to become far more than the sum of its parts. This song ought to be instantly recognisable to anyone using their ears, so ubiquitous it is in popular culture, so synonymous with the idea of love not quite working out the way it ought to.
This three chord song came to life in 1963, the climactic result of a series of song writing sessions between June Carter Cash (Johnny Cash’s second wife) and underrated country legend Merle Kilgore. They originally assembled for the fun of it, though ended up becoming the primary song writing team behind June’s sister Anita Carter’s first album. Written more in the folk style, they wrote these songs and fulfilled their quota, toying with the idea of a song about a ‘burning ring of fire’, though eventually they decided to sleep on it as nothing was coming for fruition.
The next day, however, Kilgore received a call from June saying that one of the songs from the prospective album had been dropped, June having informed the producers that they had half finished a song called ‘Ring of Fire’ already. They both finished their parts of the song on their way to each other, quickly making their way to the studio, teaching it to Anita and the band, finally recording the entire thing in the space of a day.
Johnny Cash had a dream about the song, so taken was he by it, that he was singing the song alongside mariachi horns, promising Kilgore that he would do so if Anita’s album didn’t take off as they hoped. Sure enough, the album was a flop, and so Cash was straight on the phone to Kilgore: ‘I’ve got them horns ready.’ It was an instant hit.
Composed entirely as one of the most iconic three chord songs, much of the song in fact vamps on the G chord and could entirely be kept there aside from the chorus’ journey to the D major.
In the typical country style, the bass notes can alternate between the root and fifth or fourth, though you will have just as much fun throwing yourself in and playing along with the most simple chords. This is the entire point of country and folk music, after all: music by the people, for the people.
4. ‘What’s Up?’ by 4 Non Blondes
One of the more anthemic three chord songs, this pop rock giant took the air waves by storm in the early nineties, stadium rock for the soul. The song remains a favorite on more generic radio stations, so ubiquitous is its message of friendship and dialogue between companions.
Though they might be considered by some as one hit wonders, the 4 Non Blondes struck gold with this one, for their own royalty purposes and for the sake of the souls of all listeners and fans of a good toe-tapping anthem.
The song’s slow tempo and moderate rhythms invite even the most stoic and reticent onlooker to move and hum or sing along, the song’s message encouraging you to join in and sway arm in arm with a friend, belting out the lyrics no matter how out of tune; as long as you’re singing with others it will always sound good.
As three chord songs go, this is an all out jam, the song’s hook repeating ad infinitum, allowing you to shred along in any way you see fit, with vocal chops or guitar licks or simply smiles shared between friends. The song’s inherent rhythm will come to you even in the space of the first play through for the strumming pattern is so simple as to allow any one to join in. In fact, this seems to be encouraged!
5. ‘Three Little Birds’ by Bob Marley
This kind of reggae music is hard to deny, hard to decline its strong and polite beckoning to a better life and place where ‘every little thing is gonna be alright’.
I’m personally rather partial to reggae and dub music as it is, but there is something about Bob Marley’s music throughout his discography that seems to speak to something beyond human, beyond this era of life on earth which is so struck with strife, seeming to point towards a better time and place, the words and melodies gently humming us second by second towards it.
The song itself can be found on the landmark album Exodus, by Bob Marley and his band the Wailers, first released in 1977, though the song was released as a single three years later, charting considerably in the UK at number 17 of the top 20.
Initially inspired by a trio of canaries who would allegedly perch by Bob Marley’s window, though some believe it to refer, also, to the trio of female backing singers ‘I Threes’. From such humble beginnings, the song has gone on to infect the world with its boundless optimism, sweetness, and joy, peace incarnate.
As with many three chord songs, the most difficult part is likely to be in the rhythm, the chords themselves having taken care of themselves in usually being open, or lending themselves to use of a capo. The reggae rhythm will be useful in a panoply of other songs of this type, should you choose to learn any other reggae songs.
You’ll no doubt get the hang of this rhythm with a few runs through of the song, making sure to play on the downbeat, placing express prominence on it and the use of staccato stabs of rhythms, though in a smoother way. Much like funk music, the guitar will be functioning alongside the rhythm section, acting more like a percussive and harmonic instrument than usual.
6. ‘The Joker’ by the Steve Miller Band
This country rock cross over classic will be especially familiar to those who played Guitar Hero, at whatever age that may have been. However, this is far from a game soundtrack, entering into the top 100 upon its original release in 1974, and topping charts again upon being reissued several years, almost two decades, later.
The song’s intrigue remains, too, for it contains many small unique elements that separate it from other mainstream country rock cross overs of the period: thoughtful and considered slide guitar playing, coupled with a wolf whistle which doubles and counter points the melody as it goes along; lyrics intriguing and humorous lyrics, all atop a thick, muscular beat that would have even the most static, stoic spoil sport moving and grooving along.
Woah, hang on a second! What are all those weird letters and numbers, symbols tacked onto real chords!? They might look initially rather confusing, especially if you haven’t much experiencing with these particular chords or chord extensions more generally.
However, I’m willing to bet that you have at some point experimented with this very thing, and just haven’t know what it’s called. Adding any notes, any of your fingers seeking other notes while playing an open chord, is a chord extension!
Despite looking overly complicated, the Cadd9 is simply the open C chord with a couple of added notes on the highest pitched strings on the guitar, some even considering it more comfortable to play than the standard open C shape. The Dsus4 is an even simpler affair, taking the form of a simple D shape with the note on the E string increasing in pitch by one semitone, from F# to G.
Thus, though this may, on paper, look more difficult than some the other three chord songs detailed here, it is in fact no more difficult than simply wrapping your head around a new yet simple concept. Having practised each of these new chords in isolation and then the changes between these chords, you will be on your way to playing this song in no time, in a couple of play throughs tops.
7. ‘The Gambler’ by Kenny Rogers
Another country infused track, this one taken from the latter end of the 20th century, this is an example of one of those three chord songs that is infused with the antithetical. It is a simple song, comprised, of course, of three simple, open chords, and yet dealing with a complex and profound topic. The song is a frequent favorite of gamblers, too, despite being so centred on gambling addiction, imbibed with sentiment that almost begs listeners not to fall into such philosophical quandaries as gambling.
The song was originally composed American country music song writer, Don Schlitz, though it has most famously taken on life as a classic of Kenny Rogers and his live song book. Schlitz was only 23 when he wrote the song, though it is all infused with a darkness unbecoming of so young a man, the morbid and fatalistic ending, and the existential entirety, included.
Much as with some of the best examples of country and western music, and folk music for that matter, this three chord song paints a veneer of simplicity and nicety over lyrics that deal with some of the darkest topics imaginable.
A gambler opens conversation with the narrator on a train journey and, for the price of some whisky and a cigarette, offers him some advice: that the “secret to survivin’ is know what to throw away, and knowing what to keep”, continuing that “the best you can hope for is to die in your sleep”. The gambler goes on to sleep, dying in it as he prophesied that he would.
Thus, the chord themselves won’t ask much of you at all, nor will the strumming technique. It’s, in fact, the topic that will tax you, so have a think before you delve too deep into learning this song, on guitar and / or vocals. It just might kill ya!
8. ‘Johnny B. Goode’ by Chuck Berry
I’ve no doubt this rock and roll anthem needs no introduction. Originally surfacing as a single in 1958, the tune was written by Chuck Berry who, though an incredibly debateable human being ethically, can certainly write quite the toe tapper.
This three chord song is considered one of the most recognizable songs throughout the annals of popular music, credited as the first song about what it means to be a rock and roll star, and finding home in the arms of countless swathes and hordes of artists eager to impress upon it their own signature touch, and vice versa.
One particular pop cultural cameo comes towards the latter half of the 1980’s classic movie ‘Back to the Future’, where main character and protagonist, Marty McFly, having travelled back in time performs the song at a home coming dance, thinking that he was playing a song they would know.
Since this is an example of a blues styling infiltrating popular music, which can be seen throughout the early history of rock, rock and roll, and these various cross pollinations of popular music, Marty instructs the backing band to play a blues. He then proceeds to go absolutely crazy, alienating the audience who have yet to experience such wild guitar experiments which he, a child of the 80’s, will be more than familiar with. This all culminates in silence and guitar feedback, before he utters the immortal line: ‘Oh yeah, you guys aren’t quite ready for that yet. But your kids are gonna love it!’
Using a capo on the 3rd fret, the chords that might otherwise have seemed a little daunting, placed as the Bb, Eb, and F chords are outside of the realm of open chord shapes. Thus, anyone familiar with the chords G, C, & D can play along to this most timeless rock and roll classic, not to mention plenty of others that might be inflected with blues stylings.
At its theoretical heart, the blues signifies the twelve bar blues, a structural and harmonic basis that places precedence on the root, the 4th, and the 5th chords in a given key. Thus plenty of songs in this style, whether traditional or more popular, can be called three chord songs. The format offers a reliable and steady basis for people to express themselves and add more of themselves and their character into the music than a more harmonically complex structure might.
9. ‘Gloria’ by Them
Rounding things off, we have another garage rock staple, here provided by the first band of the infamous Northern Irish singer songwriter Van Morrison. Despite initially being released as a B side in 1964, the song went on to accrue a cult following, becoming a main stay in garage rock circles for its simple, catchy three chord song structure and iconic ‘Gloria!’ chorus.
The song was initially conceived by Van Morrison when he was just 18 years old, tending towards being a purely vehicular track upon which he was known to improvise for up to twenty minutes at a time, the simple chords lending themselves to such repetition, inherently building tension with each loop of the changes.
The only real changes that come in this three chord song are in the textural and dynamic elements, making the chords an ample vehicle for exploring changes between loud and quiet, course and sparse. The lyrics, too, offer something more to hold on to, and boy are they fun to belt out. Between deliveries whisper quiet and razor sharp loud, there’s something for every one, even if you aren’t typically the most confident vocal performer!
So, there you have it. A whole spectrum of three chord songs from across the past several decades of popular music. There ought to be something for every aspiring guitarist amidst these numerous folds, and if not then I implore you to use your own ears! Train them to the ground and to the air, see if you can suss out which chords are in your favourite songs, and whether within any of them there lurks just three of those precious chords.
Three for the taming, three for the tame, there’s nothing wrong with three chord songs, freeing as they can be for accompanying your self, or simply as vehicles for a bit of care free strumming to vibrate one’s cares and worries away.
FAQs XX Three Chord Songs You Must Know
It’s certainly difficult to say out of the several basic open chords, though C, G, and D have certainly seen their fair share, but so have E and A. Those would certainly be the five most used guitar chords. The top three would be quite a stringent toss up between those five.
This trick refers to an audio illusion with which you can harmonise with a silly number of melodies with simply three chords. This goes for both classical melodies, and those more commonly found in popular music, though to me there isn’t much difference between them aside from the latter being more prone to simplicity. This trick plays on some of the many limitations and boundaries inherent in the Western musical tradition.
It’s difficult to declaratively and definitively say which are the three main chords, as they all get a turn from time to time, though admittedly some more than others. C would have to be up at the top, even if only for having been deigned the harmonic centre of tonality by Western musical standards. Perhaps, then, fanning outwards, from least to most complex in terms of accidentals would be the logical way to go in terms of determining main chords in music.
This is difficult to say, unless we were to include songs that are built entirely on one chord. Terry Riley’s landmark classical composition ‘In C’, is more or less entirely founded on a C major chord. The Beatles song ‘Blue Jay Way’ is exactly the same, droning repeatedly on a C major, both of which were influenced by Indian classical music to a considerable extent. ‘Heroin’ by The Velvet Underground is founded entirely on two chords, and most common country and folk traditions don’t have many more than three chord songs.