30 Three-Chord Songs You Must Know

Published Categorized as Acoustic Guitar Songs

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, and 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 more or less firmly stuck 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 true in 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.

Table of Contents

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 homecoming and returning.

  • D – 1 bar
  • C – 1 bar
  • G – 2 bars

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 airwaves with, as Willie Nelson says, ‘three chords and the truth’.

  • D – 1 bar
  • A – 1/2 bar
  • G – 1/2 bar

3. “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash

This one is a true classic that has transcended itself, snowballing to become far more than the sum of its parts. This song ought to be instantly recognizable 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.

  • G
  • C
  • D

4. “What’s Up?” by 4 Non-Blondes

One of the more anthemic three-chord songs, this pop-rock giant took the airwaves 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.

  • G
  • Am
  • C

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’.

  • A
  • D
  • E

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.

  • G
  • Cadd9
  • Dsus4

7. “The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers

Another country-infused track, this one taken from the latter end of the 20th century, is an example of one of those three-chord songs that are 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 centered on gambling addiction, imbibed with a sentiment that almost begs listeners not to fall into such philosophical quandaries as gambling.

  • D
  • G
  • A

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 debatable human being ethically, can certainly write quite the toe tapper.

  • Bb
  • Eb
  • F

9. “Gloria” by Them

Here we have another garage rock staple 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 mainstay in garage rock circles for its simple, catchy three-chord song structure and iconic ‘Gloria!’ chorus.

  • E
  • D
  • A

10. “Common People” by Pulp

This powerful and class-conscious anthem for mass depression and status guilt is still as relevant today as ever!

  • C
  • G
  • F
Common People (Full Length Version)

11. “Not Fade Away” by Buddy Holly

At a time when a pair of glasses marked you out as studious and detestable, Buddy Holly made it okay for everyone!

  • E
  • A
  • D
Not Fade Away: Buddy Holly 1957 the Complete

12. “Free Fallin’” by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

Likely one of the most popular tracks from an already popular artist, this anthem is sure to paint the walls of many an inner-psyche of the time.

Tom Petty: Fallin' Free

13. “Happy Birthday” by Anon

No one knows exactly who wrote this song, but it is ultimately ubiquitous and inescapable.

  • C
  • G
  • D
Happy Birthday

14. “Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley

To this day, no one does it better than Elvis, no one packs quite the same punch nor uses as much hairspray as the King himself.

  • A
  • D
  • E
Hound Dog

15. “La Bamba” by Ritchie Valens

This now iconic song is known the world over, but it wasn’t always this way. And yet, you can hear its influence almost everywhere you go!

  • C
  • F
  • G
La Bamba

16. “Nebraska” by Bruce Springsteen

Another of Bruce Springsteen’s crudely-covered artistic efforts that are actually really amazing – his is a career marred by poor album artwork but lauded by lyrics that lift up the common man to heroic status.

  • A
  • D
  • G
Nebraska

17. “Wild Thing” by The Troggs

Though undoubtedly better remembered by the infamous Jimi Hendrix cover, this song was originally written by Chip Taylor and performed by the Troggs on a 1966 single, hitting number 1 – but at what cost?

  • A
  • D
  • E
Wild Thing

This massive single from Blink 182’s magnum opus Enema of the State is the song that would ultimately come to define, undoubtedly the song that they are most remembered by.

  • C
  • F
  • G
All The Small Things

19. “Blowin’ In The Wind” by Bob Dylan

A mesmerizing and era-defining folk tune, this is one of the many canonical songs that Dylan is known for introducing into the American songbook.

  • D
  • C
  • G
Blowin' in the Wind

20. “Great Balls of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis

You could insert just about any classic blues tune accurately into this list because the 12-bar bar blues are usually made up of only three chords (I, IV, and V). This tune just happens to be performed by the Killer himself, Mr. Jerry Lee Lewis.

  • C
  • F
  • G
Great Balls of Fire

21. “Glory Days” by Bruce Springsteen

Another stirring and anthemic tune from the great Bruce Springsteen further explores feelings of discontent among the working class and a yearning for simpler times.

  • A
  • D
  • E
Glory Days

22. “Love Me Do” by The Beatles

Many of the Fab Four’s early tracks are either founded upon or entirely constructed within the confines of the 12-bar blues and this early hit is no exception.

  • D
  • A
  • E
Love Me Do (Remastered 2009)

23. “Marry You” by Bruno Mars

Taken from Bruno’s smash-hit album Doowops & Hooligans, this was one of the most defining tracks, not just of the album itself, but of the entire generation within which it was conceived and all those living within it.

  • D
  • Em
  • G
Marry You

24. “TNT” – AC/DC

No one does it better than AC/DC. Taken from an era where each rock song was more or less entirely obliged to exist within a world of rock that spoke only of rock, AC/DC were the best of the bunch and always sought new phallocentric terrain.

  • E
  • G
  • A
TNT

25. “Love is a Rose” by Neil Young

One of the central tenets of country rock takes a step away from his place at the foundation of the genre to offer forth a delicate and comfortable ballad founded on some familiar and tasteful chord changes.

  • G
  • C
  • D
Love Is A Rose

26. “In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins

Everyone surely remembers where they were when they first heard this track, right? Lulling you into a sense of false security, the song suddenly massacres you with the deep descending drums around the middle of the track, segueing into a world of lush chaos.

  • Dm
  • C
  • B
In The Air Tonight (2015 Remastered)

27. “Twist And Shout” by the Beatles

Likely the single defining track of the Beatles’ earliest recorded music, “Twist and Shout” has, since release, become something of an institution in and of itself.

  • D
  • G
  • A
Twist And Shout (Remastered 2009)

28. “Pride and Joy” by Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble

Just try listening to a demo of just about Fender Stratocaster or Fender Super Reverb without hearing someone spank the heck out of their guitar trying to capture something of the magic of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s artistry, we dare you!

  • Eb
  • Ab
  • Bb
Pride And Joy by Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble

29. “Wicked Game” by Chris Isaak

Famed equally for his appearances in the world-renowned Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me as for his floaty music career, Chris Isaak is an artist whose name you might not know but whose artistry you have no doubt already digested, willingly or not.

  • Bm
  • A
  • E
Wicked Game

30. “Sunday Morning” by Maroon 5

This early gem from the annals of the Maroon 5 discography has us watching the band years before their inevitable tumble toward mediocrity and their ongoing quest for relevancy in the public sphere.

  • Dm7
  • G7
  • C
Sunday Morning by Maroon 5 (2005-07-13)

Final Tones

So, there you have it! Hopefully, you now have plenty of fuel with which to stoke your burning fire of desire for learning three-chord songs!

You might encounter these songs playing Guitar Hero or Rock Band as well! Let me know in the comments.

FAQs Three Chord Songs You Must Know

What are the 3 most used guitar chords?

It’s certainly difficult to say out of the several basic open chords, though C, G, and D have certainly seen their fair share, and 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.

What is the 3-chord trick?

This trick refers to an audio illusion with which you can harmonize 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.

What are the 3 main chords in music?

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.

What song has the easiest chords?

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 the same, droning repeatedly on a C major, both of which were influenced by Indian classical music to a considerable extent.

By Nate Pallesen

Nate is just your average (above average) guitar player. He's no Joe Satriani, Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page - wait this site is about acoustic guitars (sorry) He's no Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins, or Michael Hedges, wait? who!? He's no Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton or Ben Harper - more familiar? Anyway you get the point :-)

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