Two Chord Songs That Were Big Hits

Although rock grew up pretty quickly, getting more and more complicated in the process, its formative years were largely defined by simple chord structures: the I-IV-V jump blues progression that practically defined the genre in the '50s, and also the slightly more complicated doo-wop progression which threw a minor into the mix. But there are a few songs, rare in Western pop music, that made it to Top 40 radio using only two chords and somehow not boring everyone to tears. See how many you can play!

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"A Horse with No Name," America

The 45 sleeve of America's "A Horse With No Name"
The 45 sleeve of America's "A Horse With No Name".

One of the most famous two-chord songs, mainly because it makes no bones about its simplicity, ping-ponging back and forth between the home key of E minor and an enigmatic D6/9 chord with a F# bass. The song never gets boring, however, because ​America's airy three-part harmonies color the chorus, adding a ninth to the Em and transforming the D into a Dmaj9. Don't understand any of that? Don't worry. Just get the rhythm right and move between Em and a D chord to which you've added B and E notes.

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"Everyday People," Sly and the Family Stone

Sly and the Family Stone Everyday People

 Sly and the Family Stone

This one's super simple: Sly and the Family Stone's childlike ode to individual freedom moves on a C and a G pattern throughout, specifically G-C-G. Make sure you only stay on the C note briefly before jumping back to G! The main reason no one notices that Sly and his family are singing such a simple song is because he's endlessly inventive about what he puts over it: there's a verse and a chorus, yes, but also a singsong taunt about the silliness of racism ("There is a blue one who can't accept the green one"), some hippie chanting, some scatting, you name it. It sounds almost freestyle, but the parts are actually structured!

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"Paperback Writer," The Beatles

The Beatles Paperback Writer

 The Beatles

This Beatles hit is a bit of a cheat, since the opening a cappella breakdown, which returns later, is actually composed of three chords: "Paperback Writer" sneaks in an A minor after the C and G opening, and then the bare suggested skeleton of a D major. However, Paul McCartney specifically wanted to write a pop song which stayed on one chord, like an Indian drone, and that's just what he did. On guitar, the song buzzes around contentedly in that G7, only letting you up for air on the last word of the verse - "writer" - which lands on C. Paul's bass part, however, is not for beginners.

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"Feeling Alright," Joe Cocker

Feeling Alright by Joe Cocker

 Joe Cocker

The piano part ​on the Traffic song which led off Cocker's first album sounds a lot harder than it is: bop around between those two chords and you'll find it. The real difficulty in playing this one with a band lies in the interplay, as you might imagine because there's a ton of jazz-funk going on here. Which makes sense, given the talent: there's a stunning selection of session men and women from both coasts, including Lieber/Stoller sideman Artie Butler, Wrecking Crew legend Carol Kaye on bass, Paul Humphrey on drums, who would later play on Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On," and Laudir de Oliveira, later of Chicago, on bongos!

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"Jambalaya," Hank Williams

Jambalaya On the Bayou

Hank Williams 

It's not at all unusual for a real Cajun two-step to utilize only two chords, and that's exactly what Hank Sr. was going for on this 1952 standard. In fact, Hank based this hit off of a traditional Cajun song called "Grand Texas," changing the melody only slightly and inserting English lyrics about life on the bayou. It was the first time much of America had been introduced to this kind of music, let alone the culture, and its simplicity makes it wildly popular even today. Once you learn the back-and-forth of a Cajun two-step rhythm, which won't take long, your whole band can play it!

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"Tom Dooley," The Kingston Trio

Tom Dooley," The Kingston Trio

 The Kingston Trio

Another old folk song, this time from the piney woods of North Carolina, and one which did even more to introduce a certain style of music to America. "Tom Dooley" was a classic Appalachian murder ballad, a true story of a man (whose last name was actually spelled Dula) who swung covering for the murder of his fiancee by a former lover. Dula died in 1866, and this song was passed down from generation to generation, with the Kingston Trio popularizing it nearly a century later. Although Dula swore his innocence to the end, the song paints him as guilty in his own words.

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"Memphis, Tennessee," Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry, chess

 Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry was the mastermind who transferred the I-IV-V blues progression to rock and roll, which is one reason many people assume this song has three chords in it. Another reason: Lonnie Mack's hit instrumental version from 1964, entitled simply "Memphis," which does add a third chord in order to facilitate a new part written by Lonnie himself. ( Johnny Rivers' cover, which put him on the map, uses two chords but adds a blues-based intro that descends through four.) Listen to the original, though, and you'll find the bass player essentially stays on two notes throughout, although Chuck unspools a lot of tasty licks over the top, including some sevenths.

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"Pushin' Too Hard," The Seeds

Pushin Too Hard by The Seeds

 The Seeds

Written by legendary cult figure-slash-epic burnout Sky Saxon in just fifteen minutes while waiting for his girlfriend to finish shopping, this feral slice of garage-psych was destined for simplicity - it's no surprise to anyone to learn that Sky's spitting vitriol over just two chords. What keeps it interesting, along with Saxon's palpable resentment over his cage of a relationship, is a) the groovy electric piano solo and b) the spaghetti western guitar solo, both of which were incredibly fresh then and remain timeless today.

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"Tulsa Time," Eric Clapton

Tulsa Time, Eric Clapton

 Eric Clapton

Country singer Don Williams, of "I Believe In You" fame, employed guitarist Danny Flowers during the Seventies, and it was Flowers who came up with this ode to Oklahoma, which became a hit for Williams and later Clapton, who released it as the b-side of his live version of J.J. Cale's "Cocaine." (To this day, many people erroneously assume it's a Cale song.) The two-chord progression here is so simple and yet so compelling that it's been picked over and over again whenever Americana artists feel like putting together an All-Star jam. (Williams' original is in G.)

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"Mendocino," The Sir Douglas Quartet

Mendocino by the Sir Douglas Quartet

 Sir Douglas Quartet

"Sir" Doug Sahm, an icon ​of the Tex-Mex sound, definitely believed in keeping it simple: his two big Top 40 hits, this and "She's About a Mover," have five chords between them. Doug was all about the groove, and while you can sneak in an A7 to spice up this groovy little tale of love in a beach house, you shouldn't feel obligated. Just be sure to get that organ in there - and, like Doug does here, to thank your fans for all the "beautiful vibrations."