Can a song be written using just one chord? And why would you want to do such a thing? We like to think of chord progressions as something like a journey that a song takes. You start out with the tonic (key note) chord, wander on to some other chords, before wandering back again. So why would anyone want to write a song using just one chord. Isn’t that a little like saying you’re going for a walk, and then just hopping up and down on the spot?
Well, don’t tell Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings that the one-chord song can’t work. “American Woman” is basically a one-chord song. There are others, too: “The Ballad of Hollis Brown,” by Bob Dylan, and “Within You Without You” by the Beatles.
Some songs use two chords, like “Bullet the Blue Sky” by U2, but essentially comes across as a one-chord song.
So what’s the charm of the one-chord song? It’s the ultimate in chordal minimalism. I often say that you want your chord progression to be simple to stay out of the way of a more interesting lyric, and the one-chord song is the ultimate in staying out of the way. But the one-chord song can do even more than that.
That one chord, if played to a specific repeating rhythmic motif, can either create or enhance a mesmerizing effect, or can serve to strengthen the emotional impact of a lyric. In “American Woman,” it amplifies the sense of emotional antagonism displayed by the lyric. In “Within You Without You,” it magnifies the lulling hypnotic effect of the sitar and drum.
My own preference, actually, is for the two-chord song for creating these effects. With two chords, you’ve got more opportunity to modify and play with a melody. And the two-chord song can avoid the stark inflexibility that’s a danger with one-chord songs.
Try experimenting with a one-chord song. You may find that it will add a sense of profundity that you’ve been looking for.
“The Beat Goes On”, recorded by Sonny and Cher back in the 60s, is another example of a one-chord song. Do you know any others?
-Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website:
Songwriting tips! Write Better Chords, Melodies and Hooks!.