Basics: 10 Famous Songs Using Only 3 Chords

Name the simplest song you can think of.

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Proven over and over again, simplicity is the key in music sometimes. Keeping it basic, yet efficient is a mastery of its own, and we have more than few examples to prove it.

Pop songs are often based around that same four-chord pattern, but you can go even simpler than that. This time around, we'll take one step down and give you 10 famous songs based around three chords only. Check out the rundown below.

Bill Haley and the Comets - "Rock Around the Clock" (E, B, A)

As always, classics are the good place to start. Only three chords, recorded and released 60 years ago (!), but still hip and energetic an always.

View chords here.

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Bob Dylan - "Knockin' on the Heaven's Door" (G, C, D)

An obvious pick here, possibly the single most covered song in history. Mr. Dylan is renowned for his simplicity when it comes to the amount of chords used, and "Knockin' on the Heaven's Door" only proves it. Additional three-chord examples from his opus include "Blowin' in the Wind," "Mr. Tambourine Man" and more.

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The Troggs - "Wild Thing" (A, D, E)

The beginnings of garage rock, some would even say punk. Fun fact - the song wasn't originally written by The Troggs in 1966, but by The Wild Ones a year earlier.

View chords here.

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T-Rex - "Get It On" (E, A, G)

Masterfully turning a basic blues lick into a full-on rock fest, Marc Bolan and co. still stuck to simplicity with their staple tune "Get It On." In essence, it's three chords only.

View chords here.

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ZZ Top - "Tush" (G, C, D)

There are riffs in this one, but strip it down to bare bones and you'll get a 12-bar blues shuffle in G.

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Lynyrd Skynyrd - "Sweet Home Alabama" (G, C, D)

Epitomizing southern rock, it's Lynyrd Skynyrd and "Sweet Home Alabama." Guitarist Ed King once stated that these chords came in his dream, along two main solos.

View chords here.

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Jimmy Buffett - "Margaritaville" (D, A, G)

Mr. Buffett was recently proclaimed the richest guitarist in the world, so we believe that a spot on the list is in order.

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Joy Division - "Atmosphere" (A, D, E)

Properly integrating empty space can do wonders sonically, and Joy Division's "Atmosphere" proves it. Dynamics is the key, always remember that.

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Pearl Jam - "Release" (G, C, D)

"Release" is the closing tune of Pearl Jam's breakthrough debut "Ten." It's the only track on the album's standard 11-song listing that features contributions by guitarist Mike McCready and original drummer Dave Krusen.

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Arctic Monkeys - "505" (Dm, Em)

We'll close it with the Arctic Monkeys, and not a three-chord, but a two-chord song. Just to point out that artists still take the simplicity approach and are returning to basics even further.

View chords here.

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Got more to share? Do it in the comments.

73 comments sorted by best / new / date

    j.christopher.s
    I'm pretty sure everyone on the planet, including the video you linked, plays "Knocking on Heaven's Door" with Am, making it a 4-chord song...
    AlanHB
    Yeah. Also Sweet Home Alabama has an F chord over the woo-hoo parts. Wild Thing has a G inbetween the "I think I love you" parts. Maybe this article should be called "Best Songs that only use 3 chords in the first 3 bars".
    guitar/bass95
    I don't really get these lists. These have been around for a while at sites like Cracked for example, and now they have spread here. It's always just "X things that share something in common". These just seem like articles that are meant to grab your attention, and then actually deliver no substance. I mean, listing 10 famous songs that use less than 4 chords? How did you pick these 10 among the dozens of fitting songs out there? Not that it's actually a big deal, I play a lot of atmospheric music and I can base whole songs on only one chord. Three is a freaking luxury.
    guitar/bass95
    Not to even mention that the fact that a song has only three chords has nothing to do with the melody. And the melody is what makes the song sound like itself. If you would only play a Cmaj chord and sing the melody of "Knocking on a Heavens Door", it would be completely recognizable, it would probably sound a bit different and worse, but you would recognize it. And a less strict progression actually leaves a lot more room for the melody and gives a lot more options with out-of-key phrases and borrowed tones, so in a way it gives the song the ability to become even more complex.
    N7Crazy
    No Ramones? They were the first band that popped into my head. Btw, good call on JD - You could have also included "Love will tear us apart" which when you strip down to the bones is just a D-Bm-A progression, using nothing but those chords. Also, I thought the chords to atmosphere were C#, G#, and F#?
    BongHooitz
    What about CCR? Bad Moon Rising - D A G. Down On The Corner - C F G. Many others too.
    Rebel Scum
    Re: Release Me "It's the only track on the album's standard 11-song listing that features contributions by guitarist Mike McCready" You sure about that?
    MrKew
    I hope the article meant it's their only contribution in terms of actual songwriting. It's definitely a confusing statement.
    MaggaraMarine
    Whole Lotta Love by Led Zeppelin is only 2 chords, mostly just 1 chord. AC/DC - It's a Long Way to the Top is mostly 1 chord. The chorus has three chords. And there are a lot more AC/DC songs that are mostly three chords. Though many times there's one section in their songs that uses at least one more chord (for example the main riff of Highway to Hell is A-D-G but before the chorus there's an E major chord). But yeah, basically (almost) any 12 bar blues is going to fit the list. Also, I wouldn't say using only 3 chords makes the song simple. Being simple is not about chords. It's more about the structure. Or it could also be about rhythm or dynamics or melody or whatever. Music isn't chords. Chords are just one element of music. Also, the amount of chords doesn't really make the chord progression simple or complex. For example a basic "circle of fifths" progression (i-iv-VII-III-VI-ii-V) is pretty simple. But you can make a more complex sounding progression, even with 2 or 3 chords by using non-diatonic chords. Also, what makes the progression sound more "complex" or "interesting" is the rhythm.
    Floyd Phoenix
    The Velvet Underground - Heroin Mostly two chords with a third one occasionally added in, but still an incredible song.
    xonty
    That Smell (Lynyrd Skynyrd) has only 2 chords, and it's a killer song - better than Sweet Home IMO
    _tim*
    That Smell is a f*cking great song. Amazing riff, and crazy guitar solos. But the main riff is actually played with 3 chords, F, G and Am.
    lake-2
    Come on, gouge away by by the pixies should have made this. That song was the inspiration for smells like teen spirit.
    MrMisfit93
    Anything by The Ramones? Odd
    raethegit
    Eh, nope, Ramones indeed mostly use 4 chords (or more). Even Blitzkrieg Bop is A D E, but there's an additional B in the chorus.
    zeeguitarist
    Baba'o Riley- The Who..... Probably not simple in terms of instruments, but a great three chord song...
    INSULIN
    sweet home Alabama has an f in it knockin on heavens door has an aminor in it
    fokkertism
    Alisa - Zhar bog Shuga, (Am, C and G, with a D in the part before the choruses) Cosmic Psychos - Tonight Alright (C and D, with a G and F in the choruses) Cosmic Psychos - Lost Cause (E, F#, A) Badmingtons - Ako mi dadesh (Am, C, G) Tlot Tlot - Old Mac (D#, F) TISM - It's Novel, It's Unique, It's Shithouse! (C, D# and F, with an A# in one part) Doug Anthony All Stars - Big Dirty Mongrel (G, C, A#) Doug Anthony All Stars - SATANDEVILBEELZEBUB (G, C, A#, but played as G, C and F in one part)
    Jfzgd
    Vampire by Lee Perry, 1 chord, Am. and it's still good fck!!!
    Z0S07657
    The Beatles - Tomorrow Never Knows John only strums one chord "rather earnestly" throughout the entire song.
    basebot
    Two great 2-chord songs in the last few years: Blurred Lines and Moves Like Jagger. Also worthy of a mention for the 3-chord wonder is Forget You by C-Lo Green (apart from the middle bit)
    RonaldPoe
    I'm a big Voltaire fan and would like to note that most of his guitar playing (according to Voltaire himself) consists of 3 chords, Am, Em, B7, in D Tuning. "Ex Lover's Lover" is an excellent song of vengeance that just includes Am and Em as it's chord progression.
    Also I never noticed that "Moves Like Jagger" mainly has only 2 chords (that song is a lot of fun in Rock Band 3). "Clint Eastwood" and "Murdoc is God" (both by Gorillaz) are awesome songs and both revolve around one chord (Ebm for the former).
    It's like I say melody and rhythm > chord progressions.
    ratbertovich
    Clocks by Coldplay, (D Am Em) in essence. Three repeats of (F C G) in the rather short bridge.
    ratbertovich
    The Beatles should have made the list, by the way. I haven't played any Beatles songs for ages but Love Me Do immediately comes to mind. I don't remember the chords per se, but most Beatles songs can be played (A D E) of (G C D), disregarding how the fab four played it. This should be a good tip for youngsters looking to impress young girls on the beach. It used to work for me.
    s6k
    Brown eyed girl, by Van Morrison, is the most obvious choice for me. It's also one of the first songs you should learn on guitar or bass in my opinion. So much to be learned from that song, and lots of nice embelishments you can make to it as you improve in skill. Yes it has an Em in one little place... but the rest is just G,C and D
    proglove13
    Sweet Home's chord progression is a direct lift from a song on Led Zep 1. I can't remember which at the moment, but this is fact.
    paulliebtlol
    I'm pretty shure, no one will notice my comment, but I've got a song which has barely only one chord in it: Gorillaz - Clint Eastwood. It's mainly Ebm all the time. Sometimes the Ebm is combined with F# and G# which changes the chord into another one, but the Ebm pattern is going through the whole song.