In most forms of entertainment, people like things that are more polished. Most comics fans like skilled art more than stick figures, and TV/film watchers like actors who have training more than random people off the street doing their best.
But among many music fans, this is not necessarily the case. A huge subculture likes their music to be as unpolished and simple as possible. To them, rock music is all about protesting against The Man or getting a solid groove on. Anybody can do that. But to do more complicated stuff, you probably need help from a big music corporation, who will corrupt you and steer you away from true artistic revolution. Forget them; all you need is Three Chords and the Truth.
This is a Cyclic Trope. Pop music goes through periods where it becomes too pretentious, or too slick to be taken seriously, or formulaic corporate bubblegum. In response, bands turn to Three Chords and the Truth to "get back to where we once belonged." But with time, the limits of the trope mean that everything begins to sound the same and the simpler songs can even become as slick and corporately produced as the complex ones, and music returns to more elaborate songs feeling that more talent=more heart.
At their best, fans of Three Chords and the Truth represent sincere, democratic music that anybody can enjoy, can be played by anybody with a guitar (or otherwise), and rejects pretension or corporate, manufactured emptiness and complexity.
At their worst, they just become a mirror of what they're opposing. They rebel against pretentious, complex, inaccessible music that claims to be True Art — but the ones who hate catchy tunes are just as pretentious, and also want music to be inaccessible to ordinary people. They rebel against people who don't know any music other than what's on the radio — but they don't know any music outside their narrow sub-group. They complain about popular music being narrow and limiting to the point where everything all sounds the same, but if they had their way all available choices would just be narrowed and limited to their own musical preferences — to the point where everything would all sound the same. They rant against any form of music that takes too much practice and talent to play saying that the common man should know how to play any band's song within 5 minutes of picking up a guitar regardless of previous experience; soon they get so down-to-earth that the draw of their music becomes too simplistic to get into. And while they rebel against corporate control of music, smart corporations have learned that they can make a marketing trend out of angry anti-corporate songs. Without a balance between 3-chords and 300-chords, music listeners get blown out on one style or the other and each camp uses the lull to fight back until their method becomes popular again. Note similarities to Full-Circle Revolution.
An interesting note: now that computers (especially Macs) are so prevalent and high-quality recording software can be had for cheap (or free, for the many people who use Audacity), digital recording via USB or MIDI is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to record music outside of a tape recorder.
While the phrase "three chords and the truth" was first coined by Nashville songwriter Harlan Howard (to describe country music), the real Trope Namer is a verse added by U2 to their cover of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," absent in both the original and the famous Jimi Hendrix version.
Contrast with Epic Rocking. See also Epic Riff, which might even be three chords long. A similar trope in pro wrestling is Five Moves of Doom. Add a minor submediant and you get The Four Chords of Pop. Compare/Contrast with Black Metal and related genres, which as noted below takes these same ideas, especially "accessible production values" and uses them in a very different way. See also Mohs Scale of Rock and Metal Hardness.
Not to be confused with that Leitmotif that accompanies The Reveal (Dun dun DUUUN!) Nor should it be confused with the Dreadful Musician, where incompetence rather than simplicity is involved.
Also note that this article is as much about the philosophy this goes with as the actual Three chord song.
Most hits have a tonic chord (I), fourth (IV) and fifth (V) chords. For example, if the song was in E (the tonic), there would ultimately be an A (fourth), and B (fifth) chords too.
Late 1960's Proto-punk bands like The Stooges often played very few chords. "Kick Out the Jams", by MC-5, another proto-punk group, consists of only two chords in rapid succession.
The Shaggs were a band formed by Dot, Betty, and Helen in 1968 on the insistence of their father, Austin Wiggin, who believed that his mother foresaw the band's rise to stardom. The band's only studio album, Philosophy of the World, was released in 1969. They are famously, nay legendarily, bad musicians.
Blues. The basic twelve bar blues progression is three chords- tonic, subdominant, dominant. And it fits the haunting cries of the likes of Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson perfectly. Most early Rock & Roll (Elvis et. al.) was simply Blues played cut-time. Singers like Elvis, James Brown, and Buddy Holly influenced bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and The Who, which fed into punk rock, and many other three chord bands. The later list of bands grew out of those chords quickly though.
The most famous advocates of Three Chords and the Truth are punk bands that started in the 1970s, like The Ramones and The Sex Pistols. They were rebelling against music that they saw as insincere, bombastic, or pretentious. This was explicitly mentioned on a notable 1976 front cover of punk fan-zine Sniffin' Glue: "Here's three chords. Now form a band."
The Ramones have almost never played a song with more than three or four chords, and often played with as few as two chords.
The Sex Pistols fired their original bassist, Glen Matlock, for being too focused on the music and not on the attitude. His replacement, Sid Vicious, was widely (but mostly inaccurately) believed to be unable to play a single note of music.
The Clash, early. Later on, by London Calling they had moved onto to everything from rockabilly to ska to reggae. By Sandinista! they also moved to hip-hop and dub.
The original lineup of The Misfits. The majority of their songs sound like they were recorded in a public bathroom.
The Germs' music was full of this in general, but the biggest example would be their debut single: The a-side, "Forming", was recorded to two track in a garage and features an odd stereo mix where the vocals are in the left speaker and every other instrument is only in the right. The b-side, "Sex Boy", is a live performance recorded on cassette from the audience; glass breaking and people having conversations or shouting can be heard more clearly than the music.
On one occasion (seen in this video), Mick Jones appeared as a guest guitarist with Ian Dury and the Blockheads (Dury himself had been an early punk solo act) and before they started playing was informed, "We've got four chords in this song, Michael."
The Adverts went so far as to name their debut single "One Chord Wonders" (although the song had at least four chords).
The New York Dollslived this. They were forced to start writing their own songs from early on, as all their attempts at cover versions sounded unacceptably inept even to them.
British punk band Crass stuck strongly by simple chord progressions and generally didn't even care much for melody.
1960s Folk Music was obsessed with authenticity — "real music" came from the old anonymous folk composers of the 1930s and earlier, and nowhere else. So modern folk singers couldn't write songs that were more complex than the oldies. Some real hard-cases disapproved of the idea of writing new folk songs at all, since only the old ones were "real". Famously, when Bob Dylanused an electric guitar for the first time, some folkies denounced him as a sell-out — only corporate shills used fancy equipment, and the 1930s composers never used electric guitar.
Woody Guthrie has been quoted as saying, "If you play more than two chords, you're showing off."
Even before going electric, Dylan faced criticism from some in the folk community for shifting from protest songs to a more surreal, impressionistic type of lyricism on his Another Side of Bob Dylan album. One critic, Irwin Silber, accused him of having "somehow lost touch with the people". Dylan, in his turn, wrote "Maggie's Farm" as a Take That towards these very same people, and later wrote ''Nashville Skyline'' as an attempt to distance himself from them once and for all.
Tom Lehrer parodied this in "The Folk Song Army," which in one version proclaims a united front against "poverty, war and injustice, and chords that are too hard to play."
The 1980s saw many bands that appealed to college radio rebelling against the slicker stuff on commercial radio. Of course, once these bands were signed to a major record company and used their high-tech equipment, many of their fans felt that it just wasn't the same anymore.
The grunge music of the early 1990s, while not as stripped down as the other examples, was also deliberately simple music in contrast to the overproduced stuff that came before. The image was simplistic and honest. People who had been grunge fans before it was cool were utterly appalled when ordinary people began liking it and the tabloids treated grunge musicians the same way they treated Hollywood actors. The most famous grunge singer, Kurt Cobain, was so depressed by this that it is believed to have contributed to his drug addiction and eventual suicide. Grunge (and punk) also saw this as far as hardware. Most players of the era used cheaper "pawn shop wonder" guitars like the Fender Mustang or the Gibson Melody Maker (both originally designed for music students), and eschewed rackmount guitar effects in favor of simple "stomp box" pedals.
Mark Arm of Mudhoney told a story in the film "Hype!" about being approached by Bruce Pavitt and John Poneman from the Sub Pop label and being told specifically to only use five chords but no more than three in their first single, "Touch Me I'm Sick".
Something similar happened to rap music over the course of the '80s and '90s, as it slowly became further and further commercialized. However, most die-hard hip hop fans (or at least the older ones) tend to go against this trope, believing that the more skillful an MC is, the better. And despite appearances to the contrary, lyricism has often been then best route to financial success and artistic longevity as Jay Smooth points out.
Though neither punk or rap, Tom Waits has been called the King of Lo-Fi. He often uses intentionally bad recording equipment, skeletal percussion, and will occasionally record outside. While his songs tend to be layered with plenty of instruments and found sounds, plenty of them still retain their quality when you strip them down to a singular instrument and a voice. Their base? usually 3-5 chords.
The White Stripes, which of course consists solely of an auteur guitarist/pianist and a drummer who can hardly play, records frequently include statements that no digital technology was used in the production of the album.
Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave albums include a similar statement that the only things used in their albums are vocals, guitar, bass, and drums, although in their case it's mostly not being bothered to learn the new technology. This might have more to do with the fact that the uninformed listener could be forgiven for thinking that the freaky noises Tom Morello produces came out of a synthesizer. (Morello is in many ways the antithesis: the famous disclaimers were put on the records essentially to brag about Morello's technical abilities. It takes a lot of foot pedals to make some of the noises he makes.)
Extremely successful example: Lemmy Kilmister formed Motörhead after being kicked out of Hawkwind, a progressive rock band... which now is much more obscure than Motörhead.
Almost the entire premise of Black Metal music is Three Chords and the Truth and God Is Evil. Even the production of the albums is deliberately made "raw" (as in basement four-track recording) to enhance its "cult" nature. Many albums are given limited production runs to prevent too many people from listening to the music (although in some cases this is simply because the album wouldn't be likely to sell enough copies to justify a second print run). Often the music is calculated to be repellent to anyone other than black metal fans, including normal metalheads.
"Burzum", a solo project of Varg Vikernes and one of the founders of the genre, is a prime example. His production values are comparable to those of pre-Perestroika Russian rock music. Vikernes's personal reminiscing on the recording of Burzum's fourth album, "Filosofem", gives a good idea of the sort of aesthetic he was going for: when recording the vocals (which are all tortured, indecipherable screams in any case) he asked the technician in the studio for the worst mic they had, and didn't even use an amplifier for the guitar parts, instead plugging his guitar into the speaker from a boombox.
"Transilvanian Hunger" by Darkthrone. The album's production values are extremely poor, the guitar work very simplistic (there are about three or four unique riffs in the whole album), the drums nearly inaudible, vocals incomprehensible, and the bass.... well, yeah. And yet it's heralded by some as a masterpiece of sinister, cold, and dark Black Metal.
John Darnielle of/aka the Mountain Goats released hundreds of songs recorded on a forty-dollar boom box. The audible grinding of the boom box's gears (which got louder with each release as the machine deteriorated) arguably didn't do Darnielle's unremarkable guitar playing and unusual voice any favours, but his lyrics were compelling enough to build a respectable and fervent fanbase — many of whom objected to his move towards more professional production techniques and a major indie label in the early 00's.
Seasick Steve. Although for him, it's more like three strings and the truth.
The late Johnny Cash's simple boom-chicka-boom style only used a few chords but was full of substance. Compare that to his contemporaries: Elvis' catchy hooks and cliched showboat antics/sexually explosive performances and The Beatles's complicated style which uses dozens of chords and follows the rules of music down to the last note ("#9, #9, #9, #9....'"). His authentic simple style won the respect of the Alt Rock crowd, evident in Social Distortion's cover of "Ring of Fire" and his own legendary cover of the Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt."
For that matter, the "outlaw" Country Music movement of the 1960s and 1970s spearheaded by the likes of Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. This style relied on a cut-and-dried songwriting, simple yet effective production and playing, and unadorned, rugged vocals (especially in Willie's case). Like Cash, these artists (and other similar ones) relied on little more than guitar, bass and drums.
Parodied in Metalocalypse, where the band members once insisted that a certain cut of music sounded like "ones and zeroes" and "microchips" and that they need to be "as analog as possible", despite them demonstrating (and their producer pointing out) that they've been deafened so much by all the loud music that they can't even distinguish each other by voice. The solution is to record on the most analog material possible: water.
Queen's albums before The Game used no synthesizers, and warned so in the album sleeve. But their producer stated it wasn't a protest on the overuse of synths:
"There was no stipulation that we wouldn't have any synths, but the statement 'No synths' was printed on the album sleeves because of peoples' lack of intellect in the ears department. Many people couldn't hear the difference between a multitracked guitar and a synthesizer. We would spend four days multi-layering a guitar solo and then some imbecile from the record company would come in and say, 'I like that synth!'".
Status Quo is particularly renowned for supposedly only knowing three chords, not that it stood in the way of success. Heavily lampshaded in that they released an album called "In search of the Fourth Chord." In one promotional interview, there was a section that went like:
"Actually, we did find a fourth chord. It's in a song near the middle of the album. Listen"
*Plays a couple of chords*
"It's not those"
*Plays another chord*
"Not that one either"
*Goes through about five chords*
"It's not any of those either."
There was even an advert for a "Best Of" album at one point, that had something like the following voice over:
"Twenty-five years. Eighteen albums. Fourteen tours. Nine number ones. Three chords."
Peter "Grubby" Stubbs introduced them: "They can only play three chords, but gee, they play them well!"
Country music singer Sara Evans used this as the title of her first album.
The current lo-fi/goth scene, including such bands as Blank Dogs, Blessure Grave, Zola Jesus, and Drunkdriver, has a focus on minimal simplistic music with ATROCIOUS sound quality, usually being recorded on a single tape recorder and oftentimes distributed EXCLUSIVELY on cassette-and all this in an era where digital recording and cd's would be both cheaper and easier.
Harsh Noise is music made entirely of static and feedback. "Talent is overrated" is a saying commonly used by harsh noise musicians and fans.
Lou Reed's 1975 Metal Machine Music in particular is an example of this type, being a double-LP consisting entirely of about 75 minutes of guitar feedback, with no deliberate instrumentation of any kind. In the sleeve notes for the album, Reed claimed to be taking Three Chords and the Truth to its logical conclusion. Reed would later state "I was really serious about it at the time. I was also really stoned." Some people returned the album thinking there had been a manufacturing mistake.
There is group in Quebec called "Les Trois Accords", which means, you guessed it, "Three Chords". Apparently, the name came from what they knew on the guitar when they started and during the production of their first album. They got better (in musical talent) with time. In an aversion, however, nobody really cared (if anything, they got more popular).
Matt McDonald, the singer of the Seattle band The Classic Crime, is fond of these. Their most recent album has a song on it called "Four Chords"
Several of Bruce Springsteen's albums, including the massively critically acclaimed (but poorly selling) Nebraska.
Soviet/Russian bardic music, a genre nigh unknown in the West but massively popular in the USSR, is exactly that: songs big on lyrics but easy to play, meant to be played by everyone who can play a guitar even a little bit.
Also Russian rock music in general falls under this trope (more in the 80s, less now). Both bardic traditions and lack of adequate equipment contributed to this.
Ditto for Polish bardic music unless there is a piano accompaniament.
Crow: "Chord, chord, chord, chord, chord, other chord."
Gaita Zuliana, a Venezuelan genre of music mostly played during christmas time, is more of a "Three instruments and the truth". In a genre who is already very regionalistic, there is an awful lot of songs praising the "authentic" Gaita song, being it in the old school style ones, or the ones whose only instrumentation are guitar, cuatro, tambora and furruco. Given that one of the most famous gaita groups is now a salsa orchestra, after dabbling with an experimental stage addimng more and more instruments and having his obligatory Synthetizeritis stage in The Eighties, it's understandable.
The Too Strong play primarily acoustic songs recorded with a single, low-quality microphone. Vocals are often indecipherable. The static is at times overwhelming. There is no percussion or bass.
Most songs by The Frames
AC/DC's career is built around this trope. While Angus Young's guitar solos are fairly sophisticated, most of the band's songs not only have three chords, but many of them are in the keys of A or E. By sticking to these two keys, almost all of their rhythm parts can be played in open position (the first several frets on the guitar fingerboard), giving the band's music a fuller, throatier sound.
The song DAF by Powderfinger is named after the 3 chords of the song.
Parodied in Cheech and Chong's "Earache My Eye" where glam rocker Alice Bowie proclaims, "And I only know three chords!" The irony is that most glam rock is more complex.
Devon: Man, we need a roadie. Other bands have roadies.
Oz: Well, other bands know more than three chords. Your professional bands can play up to six, sometimes seven, completely different chords.
Devon: That's just, like, fruity jazz bands.
The band Fred (not to be confused with the Youtube channel) had a breakout hit at home in Ireland with "Four chords and the truth". It's difficult to find on most video sites (due to the popular comedy character) but you'll find it one their myspace.
Mojo Nixon, as typified by "Rock & Roll Hall of Lame" where he complains about corporate music:
Real rock and roll is about cheap electrical guitars
And maps to secret places that serve underage kids in bars
There is an album called ''Three Chords and the Truth" by Carl Asch (a member of a renaissance-fair-playing band). Apparently someone had said this to him once, but he doesn't seem to have any idea what it actually means.
Many a noise rock group have decided that even three chords was stretching it; Jad Fair, guitarist for Half Japanese, quipped thus: "The only chord I know is the one that connects the guitar to the amp."
His brother (and band-mate), David Fair, wrote what may be the essential essay on this concept with "How To Play The Guitar".
Against Me!, prior to (and arguably through, to a more limited extent) As the Eternal Cowboy. They alienated a large portion of their original fanbase when they switched styles, though they presumably picked up a shiny new fanbase.
Invoked by Nick Drake when he went to record his third album, Pink Moon. Feeling that the previous albums were, quote, "too full, too elaborate", he recorded it in a two night sprint with just him and his guitar, with only the title track containing another instrument in the form of the piano.
Legiăo Urbana was a Brazilian band particularly known for this. All of its songs are composed of nothing but Three Chords and the Truth, to the point that any amateur with more talent than a mossy brick can play their songs by the second try. As far as bands dead for over a decade go (It dissolved in 1996 with the singer's death) it still sells well, and its former members are still acclaimed for that time.
Lou Reed once quipped: "One chord is fine. Two chords is pushing it. Three chords and you're into jazz." Aside from the aforementioned Metal Machine Music example, however, this is pure Hypocritical Humour.
The Monks. Three chords, feedback, and the truth.
Entertainment for the Braindead recorded her Raw Timber EP in the middle of a forest, with just a guitar. Interestedly, the first song from the EP "A String", is about one of the strings breaking on her guitar, and she complains that five strings is not enough.
Seattle-based band The Classic Crime references this idea in their song "The Same Four Chords", though they let an extra chord slip in there.
Doesn't that sound familiar? Doesn't that hit too close to home? Doesn't that make you shiver, The way that things have gone? Doesn't that seem peculiar, 'Cause everyone wants a little more? Something I do remember, To never go this far Thats all it takes to be a star.
And before that in comedian Rob Paravonian's "Pachelbel Rant" in which he shows how some pop songs follow the pattern of Pachelbel's Canon in D. It should be noted that in both his routine and Axis's, some of the songs are key-shifted; what's being parodied is the chord progression, which does remain the same.
British reggae group UB40 was especially this early in their career, since they had just stepped off the dole queue (hence the band's name) and hadn't yet learned to play their instruments. They did, however, more than make up for it with uplifting enthusiasm.
Kanye West's2010"Runaway" is unique and haunting for nine minutes. It consists of basically four chords (almost exclusively dyads mind you — so basically not much more than ten notes/two per chord) on the piano): E Maj; D#dim/E; C#min A Maj.
The Cat Empire gives us the song One Four Five. No bonus points for guessing which three chords it centers around.
Polish punk rock fun/parody performer, Brudne Dzieci Sida (Sid's Dirty Children), wrote a song "Trzy akordy, darcie mordy" ("Three chords, screaming your mouth off") about how that music is to be played. Rough translation of a bit: "If you don't know, how to play, I'll just show you in a sec, that's how you hold B, and D, and that is A."
Country Music songs written by Casey Beathard tend to be not only three chords, but also a very limited melody range. It's like he thinks that D Major is the only key that exists, and that D, E, F#, A and B are the only notes on its scale. Take a look at, say, "Find Out Who Your Friends Are◊" by Tracy Lawrence.
Voltaire usually only uses the A minor, E minor, and B7 chords. His songs are mostly different because of his powerful singing.
Trio's Da Da Da is a prime example of the "Neu Deutsche Welle" that favoured stripped-back but structured compositions.
Parodied in Bloom County. When Steve decides to form a heavy metal band, the casting notice says that musicians must know three chords and "be able to grimace musically."
The majority of Creedence Clearwater Revival's work is like this; although their most famous protest song, "Fortunate Son", actually had 4 chords. Invoked in "Wrote A Song For Everyone"; the lyrics of which are about the singer trying to write this type of protest song during the Vietnam War era, but failing to get anyone to listen.
George Thorogood and the Destroyers have made no secret of this, but it hasn't stopped them from selling 15 million albums worldwide since 1974.
Slash and Axl Rose of Guns N' Roses parodied this mercilessly in a skit. Slash claimed to have invented a "fourth chord", and played a wild variety of chords with Axl claiming that each one wasn't the right one.
"Achy Breaky Heart" by Billy Ray Cyrus is one of many songs that uses only two chords (I and V).
The era of hard rock and metal music following 1994 can be seen as one big middle finger to anything with more than 4-chords. Metal solos and guitar riffs in particular were seen as "uncool" as compared to 4-chord progression that was popular with Post-Grunge and Pop Punk bands of the day. Nu Metal is the commercial epitome of this, where a large number of songs really did have three chords. This is as compared to glam metal and thrash metal during the '80s, which didn't seem to know that there was such a thing as playing with less than 50 chords at a time. Needless to say, metal fans can be tolerant of Three Chords and the Truth... just as long as there's still some complexity based talent out there.
Drone Metal one-ups everything in terms of sheer chordlessness. Many songs drag on for half an hour and feature not a single chord.