When learning to play guitar, it can be a little daunting to open a chord book only to see hundreds of chords you think you have to know in order to play a just a few songs. In reality, the opposite is true: You only need to know a few chords to play hundreds of songs.
Many of the most famous songs in the world are made up of three chords or less, and many even share the same three chords. Harry Nilsson, for one, prized simplicity in his songwriting so much that he used a single chord (an arpeggiated C7th) to brilliant effect in his 1972 hit, "Coconut."
A great song doesn't have to be complex
Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, Jimmy Buffet, Jimi Hendrix, Jack White, The Beatles, The Velvet Underground, Bruce Springsteen, Guns N' Roses, Cat Stevens, Alice in Chains, Nirvana and countless others have caught our ear with songs that are simple in structure but profound in impact. As Willie Nelson says, all you need for a good song is "three chords and the truth."
The following is a list of songs that are not only easy to learn, but also popular enough to get others singing along with you.
"Sweet Home Alabama" (Lynyrd Skynyrd) G - C - D
"Sweet Home Alabama" is a classic song by Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. It was a big hit in 1974, reaching #8 on the charts. Ed King, the guitarist of the band, said that he dreamed the chords and two main solos of the song. "Sweet Home Alabama" is not very hard to play, and once the chords are mastered, the riff's hammer-ons and pull-offs can be incorporated.
"House of the Rising Sun" (Animals) Am - C - D - F - E
This traditional song was made famous by The Animals in 1964. Its easy chord progression will help develop fluidity in changing chords, and it is an excellent song to help you learn arpeggiated picking (notes of a chord played individually instead of simultaneously).
"Bad Moon Rising" (Creedence Clearwater Revival) D - G - A
This Creedence Clearwater Revival classic should be included in every guitarist's repertoire. Released in April 1969, it reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart and #1 on the UK Singles Chart. Another easy one to get under your belt.
"Horse with No Name" (America) Em - D69/F#
"Horse With No Name" was a big hit by the band America in the '70s. It is one of the best beginner songs around as it uses only two chords—E minor and an easy two-finger variation of D called D69/F#. Each chord is played for a bar of 4 beats, which repeats for the entire song.
"Jane Says" (Jane's Addiction) G - A
"Jane Says" is one of Jane's Addiction's most famous songs. The alt-rockers frequently end their concerts with it. The song alternates between the G and A chords and uses steel drums, which gives "Jane Says" its calypso flavor.
"Wild Thing" (The Troggs) A - D - E
Many players cut their teeth on this three-chord rock classic. "Wild Thing" is one of the first songs every young rock band learns. Originally a hit in 1966 for proto-punk rockers The Troggs, it has been played by just about everyone, including Jimi Hendrix. "Wild Thing" is three chords of explosive groove.
"Spirit in the Sky" (Norman Greenbaum) A - D - E
Considered by many to be a one-hit wonder, Norman Greenbaum wrote one of the most recognizable guitar riffs in rock and roll history. Released in 1969, "Sprit In The Sky" reached #3 on the Billboard charts and sold two million singles by 1970. John Lennon once professed to liking "Spirit in the Sky," stating that he "always liked simple rock and nothing else." It doesn't get much simpler than this one.
"Love is a Rose" (Neil Young) C - F - G
"Love is a Rose" was originally written by Neil Young in 1974 for the unreleased album Homegrown. It was later released in 1977 on his three-LP compilation Decade. Linda Ronstadt also had a hit with the song when she recorded it on her platinum-certified 1975 album, Prisoner in Disguise. The beauty in "Love is a Rose" lies in its austerity.
"Ring of Fire" (Johnny Cash) G - C - D
This Cash classic, written by June Carter and songwriter Merle Kilgore, is one of Johnny's greatest hits. The song landed at #1 in 1963 and was a staple of country radio. It opens with trumpets, a rare sound in country music, and is played using the G, C and D major chords. "Ring of Fire" was entered into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.
"Release" (Pearl Jam) G - C - D
A cathartic number that began as a three-chord drone riff, the emotionally raw "Release" was one of the first songs Eddie Vedder wrote with Pearl Jam. The song's theme of loss addresses Vedder's paternal parentage as well as his bandmates' grief at the loss of Mother Love Bone frontman, Andrew Wood. "Release" is one of Pearl Jam's more hypnotic tracks and closes out their breakthrough album Ten. Listen to the song to get the rhythm down as well as the correct placement of chords.
"Leaving on a Jet Plane" (John Denver) G - C - D
The late John Denver wrote this song in 1966 under the title "Babe, I Hate to Go." It became a #1 hit for Peter, Paul & Mary in 1969 as "Leaving on a Jet Plane." With its three chords and verse/chorus/verse/chorus structure, this classic is one of the easiest songs to strum on guitar and is often recommended to beginners.
Now that you've got a few two- and three-chord songs under your belt, it's time to raise the bar. Here are a few more songs to try, this time with four and five chords:
"Knockin' on Heaven's Door" (Bob Dylan) G - C - D - Am7
This Dylan classic has been covered by many people, including Eric Clapton and Guns N' Roses. It has some easy beginner chords, and the strumming isn't too complex either. "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" is one of those songs for guitarists who haven't been playing for very long. For the rest of us, it's a time-honored number to add to your repertoire.
"Brown Eyed Girl" (Van Morrison) G - C - D - Em
"Brown Eyed Girl" by Van Morrison is a staple of classic rock radio and cover bands throughout the world. Released in 1967, the single reached the #10 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. With only four chords to it, "Brown Eyed Girl" is one of the easiest songs to play on guitar.
"Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" (Green Day) G - C - D - Em
This mellow, acoustic number with contemplative lyrics from American punk rock band Green Day has served at many a senior prom and also played during the highly watched montage of the Seinfeld finale. Frontman and lyricist Billie Joe Armstrong had not meant it to be a romantic ballad and was surprised by the song's reception. "Good Riddance" is easy and fun to play. Be sure to listen to the clip to get the strum pattern down.
"Where Did You Sleep Last Night (In the Pines)" (Lead Belly, Nirvana) Em - A - G - B7
"Where Did You Sleep Last Night"—also known as "In the Pines" and "Black Girl"— is a traditional American folk song that dates back to at least the 1870s. While the writer is unknown, the song is most often associated with Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter, one of Kurt Cobain's idols and an early blues master. Nirvana introduced the song to a whole new generation when they played it on MTV Unplugged in 1994. This song is super simple to play and really cool.
There are, of course, a host of other songs that can be played with a minimum of chords, so let us know some of your favorite chord-lite songs in the comments. Do check out the many other beginner songs listed on the GT site.