3 Chord Songs: The Best Ever
Published on 08 December 2020
How many chords does it take to write a great song?
Well, that depends on your taste, really: lots of Beatles tunes have over 15 chords, whereas lots of electronic music uses only one...
However, as we all secretly know, 3 is the magic number, and 3 chords are really all you need to craft a world-class tune.
Proof, you say? But of course! Here are ten examples, picked not entirely at random, to show you just how effective ‘3 chords and the truth’ can be...
Folsom Prison Blues – Johnny Cash
The Man in Black was always one for creating simple, direct songs and none get more direct than this! It’s his lament to incarceration, and it features the enduringly creepy line, ‘I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.’
Good guy! The song is just E, A and B7, but it’s all about getting that ‘steam-train’ rhythm going, if you want to convince. It doesnt take too much work (think 'Boom-chicka-boom' when you strum) and it makes all the difference!
James – Sit Down
Take those Johnny Cash chords, sub out the fancy B7 for a plain old B, (therefore it's E for a count of 8, then A for 4 and B for 4) and you have James’ most well-loved anthem. It’s one of those songs that stays in the same progression for the entire piece, using vocalist Tim Booth’s variations of melody to create new sections. A pretty song about a serious subject, this is one all acoustic bashers should get under their belts.
Wicked Game - Chris Isaak
Take those three chords you’ve been using, and turn the B into a Bm. Now, play the chords in the opposite order from the James tune (so Bm, A and E, with E being the one you stay on for longer) and you’ll have this smouldering and haunting tune down in minutes. The lead parts are deceptive: they sound easy, but they also sound really bad when they are played incorrectly, so practice those whammy bar dips carefully! Or just strum away on those simple chords and witness knees weakening and collars heating up everywhere...
Rock and Roll – Led Zeppelin
Yeah, it sounds a bit like Status Quo (where are they on our list? Weeeeell...), but let’s face it: this tune rocks harder than Mount Rushmore! For all of the fancy Page-isms on display here, it’s really just A, D and E! Now, if your band’s drummer can properly play that intro, we suggest adequately bribing him with whatever he wants in order to retain his talents! He’s a keeper!
Walk of Life – Dire Straits
Those James chords will transplant directly into this jaunty little number by Knopfler and co. It’s one of those songs that everybody sort-of-knows, even if it’s just that keyboard part at the start. As an instant feel-good tune, it’s well worth having this on your back pocket, and with only three chords (E, A and B, than A and B again of you want that great intro) it’s hardly going to tax on your learning time!
Free Fallin’ – Tom Petty
Can you think of this tune without conjuring up images of Tom Cruise’s winning/maniac grin or Cuba Gooding Jr yelling for ‘the money’ to be shown to him? Us neither. Regardless, it’s an empowering ode to the spirit of following your hearts’ desire, and you can have it learned by rattling through D, G and Asus4. ‘Asus4’? Sounds fancy, but trust us, you already know it...move the finger on the second lightest (B) string up one fret (to fret 3) and leave the rest as they would be for a normal A chord: you're there! This means that each chord has that same 'D' note ringing out each time you change, giving it a lovely jangly sound.
Bad Moon Rising – Creedence Clearwater Revival
Just as the previous song makes us think of the Cruiser, this one will be forever associated with images of a man painfully transforming into a werewolf. Is it just us? We don’t think so. Happily, you can recreate this soundtrack to hideous lycanthropy by grabbing those same chords from Tom Petty (with a hairy wolf claw, if you insist) and returning the A to its plain old normal self. D, A and G. Just not during a full moon, OK?
Jane Says – Jane’s Addiction
Perhaps the prettiest song ever to be written about prostitutes and heroin, Jane Says is a camp fire anthem for freaks and weirdos. Just our kind of tune! To strum along with Dave Navarro, it’s an easy matter of going back and forth from G to A. When the chorus comes, add the excessively named Gsus2 add#11 (much easier when you see it) and you’ve got it in the bag!
Sweet Home Alabama – Lynyrd Skynyrd
Three chords is all you need to perform possibly the most booty-shakin’ tune of all time. D, C and G, played in all sorts of permutations, is what you need here. Try strumming them as full chords in time with the song, and then maybe pick out some of the notes within the chords. This is what we calling playing arpeggios (an arpeggio is simply a chord played one note at a time rather than all at once), and you'll hear some of the important notes coming out as you do this.
Google the tab for the song after you're happy strumming and you can develop from there. If you take the time out to learn a handful of the lead parts, you can actually gain some rich insights into note placement and playing over chord changes. Alternatively, you can learn the intro in about two seconds and then gleefully repeat ad nauseum with a smug/contented grin on your face! Whatever fits!
Three Little Birds – Bob Marley
Do you want to play one of the happiest, warmest and loveliest songs ever composed? Simple: go back and forth from A to D for the verses, and add an ‘E’ at the chorus. One or two listens to the song is all you really need to get a feel for when those chords change. Everything is gonna be alright, and you know it because you’ve just learned yet another classic song!
There’s Loads More
Yes, we went for a mixed bag here, so there’s no Elvis, no Clash and no ‘Quo, but there are literally thousands of great three chord tunes to choose from! It’s a food-for-thought situation, really, and whilst we are by no means suggesting that adding a daring 4th chord will ruin everything for you (jazz needs 5, really...) it’s a lesson in itself to see how economical and straightforward many of the world’s best loved songs are!
Now, it’s your turn. What didn’t we include? Let us know, and pledge allegiance to the three-chord tricks in your life!
Thanks for reading