The One-Chord Song – Can It Work?

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!.

Posted in Chord Progressions, songwriting and tagged , , .


  1. Yip plenty Reggae songs are one chord . Some R&B , Ii’s all in the groove , hip hop can also work this way, too many chords can kill a groove & the song.

  2. Land of 1000 Dances
    High Time We Went
    Peter Gunn Theme
    Chain of Fools
    Electric Avenue
    Within You Without You
    Tomorrow Never Knows,
    Run Through The Jungle
    Loser (Beck)

  3. “Lowrider” by War is just a G chord. The r&b classic “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” is just a B-flat 9th chord.

  4. In the years I have been writing songs, one ambition that has eluded me till now, was a powerful catchy, one chord song . I achieved this with a ripper of a song called “Back Sliding Baby”. This song charted Australia wide at #8 on the dance unearthed charts on our Triple J radio network in September 09 . it is on two of my albums, “Funk n Remix” and “Back Sliding Baby” Movie Mix . Quentin Tarantino has the song for evaluation.
    I loved writing and recording this song and is certainly one of my favs…

  5. While not a one-chord song, “Add It Up” by the Violent Femmes is a great example of making the most out of two chords. If I’m not mistaken, I believe the classic “16 Tons” is also played tacitly with one chord.

  6. Pingback: Basics - Standard Chord Progressions 2 « Songwright

    • “Born in the USA” is 2 chords, the bass changes.
      Mine is not even a riff, the bass doesn’t change, it’s just ONE chord :”Get Up Stand Up” by Bob Marley (Gm).

      • “Get Up Stand Up” (actually in Cm) is a great example of the 1-chord song. Marley is a master craftsman when it comes to the subtleties of the 1-chord song. This tune really works.

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