From Nirvana to Rush: 33 of the greatest trios in music
Sometimes, overcomplicating music is the wrong way to go. Of course, there’s value in relentless over-production and vast ensembles, just ask Brian Wilson. But more often than not, distilling music down to its base roots and expressions is the best way to get a raw and unfiltered sound. For these bands, the only way to go was with a three-piece.
Usually comprised of guitar, bass and drums, the simplest form of a band can often be the hardest hitting and judging by the list of 33 of music’s greatest trios, the reduction in numbers doesn’t mean a reduction in power. Everyone from Nirvana to Rush, three really is the magic number.
So we’ve compiled a comprehensive list of our favourite three-piece bands and are providing you with a possible list of new bands to check out. On the whole, we’ve avoided bands who have since become trios and instead focused on those we consider to be pure three-piece artists.
Expect some shock inclusions and, as ever, let us know in the comments who we’ve missed.
33 greatest trios of all time:
33. Them Crooked Vultures
Formed in 2009 when Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, Queens of the Stone Age maestro Josh Homme and the talented John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin decided to form a punk band, Them Crooked Vultures are one of the more surprising supergroups. That is, of course, because they’re actually pretty decent.
Their self-titled album is well worth a listen, especially if you can remove from your mind the humongous names attached to the project. If you don’t have time for a whole record then here’s ‘Dead End Friends’ as a good start.
When Wolfmother burst onto the heavy rock scene in 2006 with their song ‘Joker and the Thief’ the world paid attention. What followed was a series of massive headline shows and the group dominated the festival circuit. For a while, they were everybody’s favourite heavy rock band.
Nowadays the band operates as a vehicle for the songwriting talent of Andrew Stockdale as he, more often than not, unleashes a furious riff the likes of which are rarely seen. The sounds are so fearsome that they have the ability to make your hairs stand on end. Don’t believe us? Press play below.
The Atlanta based group consisted of Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, and Crystal Jones. Formed in Georgia in 1991, the group enjoyed success during the 1990s. They scored a whopping nine top-ten hits on the Billboard Hot 100. They didn’t just feature on the list either, they topped it with four number-one singles ‘Creep’, ‘Waterfalls’, ‘No Scrubs’, and ‘Unpretty’.
The group’s time in the limelight was tragically cut short following the death of Lisa Lopes but their 85 million worldwide record sales solidifies them as one of the greatest girl groups of all time.
30. The Cribs
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of arriving at a gig put on by The Cribs in the early noughties, count yourself very lucky. The band’s garage rock set them apart from the other indie band of the moment and The Cribs quickly became the thinking man’s punk rock.
Their shows were as raucous as a prison riot. Beer would crash against the ceilings of the largest venues and you were always guaranteed a swirling mess of a crowd. It meant that the three Jarman brothers from Wakey were always welcomed back to every city they set foot in. If The Cribs arrived you were sure of a good time.
The three sisters that form the indie powerhouse HAIM, Este, Danielle and Alana Haim, are all wildly talented individually. That said, there’s something weirdly comforting about the group as a trio. While we’re sure comparisons to TV-friendly family bands would undermine their ability and artistic integrity, there’s an unavoidable charm about HAIM that renders their work a little more sweetly.
Across their three albums (Days Are Gone, Something to Tell You and Women in Music Pt. III) the group have only evolved more resolutely into their roles as the leading lights of Fleetwood Mac-adjacent indie pop. If there are some troubles to be melted away then chances are HAIM have got you covered in one way or another.
28. Husker Du
Hüsker Dü are one of those bands that everybody has been quietly influenced by. The group formed in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in 1979 and quickly became a pioneer of the hardcore punk scene, later mellowing and crossing into the alternative-rock space. The band consisted of guitarist/vocalist Bob Mould, bassist/vocalist Greg Norton, and drummer/vocalist Grant Hart.
If we can only point you to one album to get a full dose of the power that Hüsker Dü seemingly had at their fingertips, then please divert your attention to 1984’s Zen Arcade quite possibly one of the albums of the decade and a key influence in some of the alt-rock of the ’90s. A joy to behold.
27. Violent Femmes
‘Blister in the Sun’ may well be the archetypal American indie song. Built out of a kicky rhythm, the track is a folk-punk masterpiece and with its softly spoken middle part and is a highlight of most indie dancefloor parties. For that song alone they deserve inclusion on this list, luckily the band have so much more to offer.
Dig a little deeper and you find a well-rounded group that not only has a habit of filling the room with a sweating mass of joyful revellers but of creating moments of post-modern poignancy—and for all those doubters unwilling to scratch the surface, they still have ‘Blister in the Sun’.
26. Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble
The mercurial artists known as Muddy Waters once said of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s incredible talent and destructive nature, “Stevie could perhaps be the greatest guitar player that ever lived, but he won’t live to get 40 years old if he doesn’t leave that white powder alone.” Sadly, it would be another tragedy that would cut SRV’s time short.
While he would soon become the toast of the town thanks to his enigmatic guitar work, it was within a band that SRV felt most comfortable and with Double Trouble Vaughan undoubtedly found his most creative outlet.
If you’re going to write songs literally about “f*cking my dog in the ass” then chances are that people aren’t going to take you seriously. When your frontman then leaves the group in pursuit of UFOs then things get kicked up a notch. Blink-182 are not your usual band.
The divided camps on Blink-182 tend to show a person’s age because we refuse to believe that anyone who became a teenager around the turn of the millennium and doesn’t like Blink they are just being grumpy. For a moment, Mark Hoppus, Tom DeLonge and Travis Barker were one of the biggest bands on the planet. Their music may have moved from pop-punk joy to poignant alt-rock but the band’s heart will always be a little bit silly.
24. The Prodigy
The loss of frontman Keith Flint has rekindled a love affair with Prodigy. Outside of the standards like ‘Firestarter’, ‘Voodoo People’ and ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ the band have always been the perfect combination of EDM and punk and has seen them gain legendary status in Britain.
Those two tracks may grab the headlines, but digging a little deeper there’s far more than meets the eye. Head over to songs like ‘Breathe’, ‘Charly’ and ‘Omen’ for a little education on why Prodigy are so widely loved.
When Jawbreaker announced their return in 2017 after a 21-year hiatus, the punk rock world let out a little jump for joy. One of, if not the most influential punk rock band in consideration of the formation of emo, Jawbreaker’s reign from 1986 to 1996 saw the group provide the foundation for countless bands to follow.
Alongside bands like NOFX, Rancid and Green Day, Jawbreaker were part of the punk rock revival that spread through California in the early nineties and only now is their wide-reaching influence being truly discovered. The first track to listen to if you’re just discovering the band has to be ‘Boxcar’, from there you just gain more speed until falling in love with the band at the bottom of the hill.
22. Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Led by Karen O, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were part of the garage rock explosion of the early noughties. While bands like The Strokes operated in the slick mainstream of effortless cool, YYYs were the arthouse intelligentsia’s choice. As visceral and razor-sharp as anybody, O, alongside drummer Brian Chase and the fiery riffs of Nick Zinner, was a shape-shifting entity to deal with.
First album Fever To Tell is still one of the most arresting debut records we’ve ever heard and when you find out the band then turned this sound into a festival-headlining, stadium-selling, mainstream-swimming set of tracks, you have to respect their craft.
21. Emerson, Lake & Palmer
Welcome to the list our next supergroup. Formed in London in 1970, Emerson, Lake & Palmer consisted of keyboardist Keith Emerson; singer, bassist, guitarist and producer Greg Lake and drummer and percussionist Carl Palmer. Having sold 48 million albums worldwide, they may well be the best you haven’t heard yet.
One of the pioneers of prog rock alongside acts like Pink Floyd, Emerson Lake & Plamer had a run of albums that turned the genre into a huge phenomenon. Add to that the odd radio hit like ‘Lucky Man’ and you have a winning combination.
Now we can already hear you yelling at the back, but we think ska music gets a tough rap, especially when you consider acts like the giants Sublime—a band consisting of Bradley Nowell, Eric Wilson and Bud Gaugh—who, to all intents and purposes, are an overlooked juggernaut.
The band really came into their own with the mega releases 40oz. to Freedom and Robbin’ the Hood two albums whose influences can still be seen in bands like FIDLAR to this day. Still a huge band in the state of California, if you’ve never heard Sublime before then there’s no better time than now.
Originating from Hollis Queens in New York and founded in 1983 by Joseph Simmons, Darryl McDaniels and Jason Mizell AKA Run, DMC and Jam Master Jay. Unquestionably one of the most legendary bands on this list, the hip-hop group helped define an entire genre during its embryonic stages and took rap to the top of the mainstream.
Of course, their mega-single with Aerosmith on ‘Walk This Way’ cemented the group’s inclusion into a host of legendary lists we think their own work is far superior. Whether it’s the kicky jams of ‘It’s Tricky’ or the classic ‘It’s Like That’, whenever you put on Run-DMC, you are guaranteed a party.
Fronted by the enigmatic Brian Molko, Placebo was a force to be reckoned with in the ’90s — they offered something different to the ‘lad’ culture of Britpop and the nerdiness of Radiohead. Their brand of subversive alt-rock cultivated a mass of fanatical followers and an unbreakable fandom. Placebo were all caught in the tightly woven net of androgynous angst and sublime songwriting.
There’s no doubt that Placebo’s work has had an influence on British music today but we’re betting that as time goes on, the reverence with which we hold Brian Molko’s band will only grow and grow. Listen to their seminal song ‘Nancy Boy’ for a taste of their brilliance.
Ok, there may well be some raised eyebrows at this one. However, the Oslo band, formed in 1982, A-ha deserve their rightful place on this list. The group have never stopped performing or pursuing their artistic endeavours and should be celebrated as such.
Now, let’s get down to the real reason the band are included on this list that song. ‘Take One Me’ is, without doubt, one of the most consistently picked karaoke songs of all time despite being clearly one of the hardest to sing. While the group will tell you they’re far more than just a single song, it’s hard to see past it when it is such a behemoth.
16. ZZ Top
Formed around the incredible beards of two of our favourite performers Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill, ZZ Top have been at the top of the rock charts since they began. Beloved by North America, the band have become guilty pleasures outside of their usual classic rock circles.
The band’s debut album ZZ Top’s First Album saw them quickly establish their sound around Gibbon’s iconic blues guitar—something which has made him a favourite among other guitarists. But his real talent is finding a riff hook like nobody else can, namely on songs like ‘Gimme All Your Lovin”.
15. Dinosaur Jr
The eighties were a wild time for progressive alt-rock bands. While much of the country was covered in choking hairspray and gruelling aerobic workouts, some of those across the land were creating deeply experimental and industrialised rock. One such band was Dinosaur Jr.
J Mascis rightly takes most of the credit for the band, being the lead singer and principal songwriter will do that, but the contribution of Lou Barlow and Murph to the outfit can never be understated. While the band grew into their sound, you’d be hard pressed to find a better distillation of their work Dinosaur.
A band that features the powerhouses Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss is always going to be a big deal and Sleater-Kinney were certainly that. The band formed as part of the riot grrrl scene and quickly brought their politics into their music, never separating the two since.
Born out of the same Olympia, Washington scene that Kurt Cobain and a host of other acts sprung out of, the group are deeply entrenched in the mystique of Generation X. The band use personal and social themes as pillars of their music and are about as authentic a group as you’re ever likely to find.
13. Crosby Stills & Nash
Crosby, Stills & Nash formed in 1968 shortly after David Crosby, Stephen Still and Graham Nash had jammed with one another in July of that year. Seeing the potential at hand, the group quickly assembled and formed one of the first powerhouse supergroups.
While the band would gain further notoriety once Neil Young would join in with their escapades, the band as a trio were arguably more potent. Their self-titled debut album came out in 1969 and featured two top 40 hits in ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ and ‘Marrakesh Express’. They are one of the unfulfilled projects on this list we wish had more time.
12. The Crickets
With a frontman like Buddy Holly, it was hard to have included The Crickets so low on this list. The band are undoubtedly one of the most influential groups of their day with songs like ‘That’ll Be The Day’ and ‘Peggy Sue’ arguably moving rock ‘n’ roll into the top ranks for the first time.
It would be a blueprint that countless British invasion bands would use to gain success over the pond. Sadly, The Crickets were never able to fulfil their potential after Buddy Holly died in a tragic plane accident. His music may remain but his legacy is all too short.
11. The Police
Formed in the furnace of London’s punk scene, Sting, Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland took The Police in a completely different direction than most of punk was heading. They quickly found their spot at the top of the pile of British new wave and went on further still to claim the mainstream as their own, setting up for Sting to go even further still and become a bonafide icon of pop.
The band were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2003 and have often been ranked as some of the finest musicians in rock. Copeland, in particular, is famed for his unique drumming style. But it’s as songwriters that the band really excel, you only need to hear ‘Roxanne’ to know that.
10. Green Day
Often lumped in with the dog-f*cking pop-punkers further down the list, Green Day eventually transcended the confines of the teenage wasteland and began making more politically inclined tracks. They even released a musical based on the band’s seminal record American Idiot.
That album would go on to define the band for a new generation after Billie Joe Armstrong, Tres Cool and Mike Dirnt had already beguiled the previous generation with songs about boredom, frustration, and a lack of motivation, they did so backed by a barrage of fearsome riffs and rollicking drum fills.
Put simply, if you can’t enjoy the thrill-a-minute mozzarella dipping fun of the band’s standout LP Dookie then you need to have a quiet word with yourself about taking life too seriously.
9. Beastie Boys
The cultural impact The Beastie Boys had and are still having to this day cannot be underestimated. Mike D, MCA and Ad-Rock created not only a brand new style of rap when they broke out of New York in the eighties but, in doing so, proved that music didn’t have to stay in one particular box. For a brand new audience, this seems a simple prospect—but in the eighties music was still extremely tribal.
It meant when artists like Run-DMC and Beastie Boys broke out of hip-hop and into the rock world, things became a little clearer and boundaries between the groups a little less obvious. But the truth is, Beastie Boys had punk at their heart and were formed out of an experimental hardcore punk band called The Young Aboriginies.
After their local single ‘Cooky Puss’ caught some of the limelight, the band moved from strength to strength creating their own genre in the process. Songs like ‘Sabotage’ and ‘Intergalactic’ cemented the place songs like ‘Fight For Your Right’ had etched out of stone.
8. Bee Gees
To take out the crystalline vocals of the Bee Gees from this list would be a travesty. Forget the inference that the band just wrote disco records, the Bee Gees are one of Australia’s finest groups, perfecting a tone unmatched and creating a series of records that are equally as unequivocal.
Formed in 1958 around brother Barry, Robin and Maurice, the band initially began life as a covers band—even taking on one of Bob Dylan’s classic songs in the process. But soon enough they found their niche on the pop market before carving out a whole new one altogether with the arrival of disco.
The turning point of the band’s career came as they created the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever and cemented themselves as legends of their craft. Unstoppable party-starters—haters be gone!
7. The Supremes
If you’re widely known as a premier act of Motown Records then chances are you’re always going to be a legendary outfit. That can certainly be said of The Supremes. The band originally formed as a quartet but after Betty McGlown’s departure from the band, it left Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson and, of course, Diana Ross as an unstoppable trio.
During the mid-sixties, the band achieved huge success with Diana Ross as lead singer with Berry Gordy pulling the strings behind the scenes, including renaming the band Diana Ross & the Supremes later on. Aside from the esteemed authenticity the band had, they also had great records.
As well as songs like ‘Baby Love’ and ‘Come See About Me’, there were also brilliant tracks like ‘Someday We’ll Be Together’ and ‘I Hear A Symphony’.
There’s a certain inevitability for Motörhead to arrive near the end of this list. Alongside their formidable frontman Lemmy, Motörhead have done a fine job of grabbing themselves an undying legacy. Grabbing, as one might imagine, with the gnarled grip of a whisky-soaked biker.
The band’s hard rock sound, best shown in their seminal song ‘Ace of Spades’, quickly made the band the most agreed upon group at the punk rock and heavy metal disputes. The group so easily toed the line between both genres that they were accepted by both. Much of that, however, was down to Lemmy.
Lemmy Kilmister is one of the most legendary men in music. As famed for his unstoppable thirst for Jack Daniels as he was his politeness within the right company, what Lemmy didn’t like about rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t worth knowing about.
5. The Jam
The Jam had become overnight sensations when they began touring the toilet circuit in their suits, sweating profusely and delivering raucous and electric performances. Their song ‘In The City’ perhaps typifies that movement as the band arrived not only on the punk scene but in the charts too, finding itself on the top 40.
Paul Weller was just 18-years-old when he penned the anthem, dreaming of leaving his small town behind. The singer recalled writing the track in a reflective interview with Q Magazine 2011: “It was the sound of young Woking, if not London, a song about trying to break out of suburbia,” he said.
“As far as we were concerned, the city was where it was all happening; the clubs, the gigs, the music, the music. I was probably 18, so it was a young man’s song, a suburbanite dreaming of the delights of London and the excitement of the city.”
It was this ability to capture the times around him that quickly asserted Paul Weller as one of Britain’s finest songwriters and while he continues to have great solo success, nothing will ever match the intense rise he, Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler shared. Tracks like ‘Going Underground’ and A Town Called Malice’ have turned The Jam into a legacy like no other.
Rush are a band now so intrinsically linked with the idea of creative evolution that to keep them to one spot on this list may be a difficult task. The group were famed for their sprawling rock anthems and have seen a resurgence in recent years, one which has seen such questions posed to the members of the group.
The band’s inclusion in the Jason Segel and Paul Rudd’s film I Love You, Man, a scene which sees the band bind the two characters, has introduced the Canadians to a brand new generation who are all eager to hear more. Following the sad death of Neil Peart, that feeling has intensified and the need to know more has grown stronger ever since.
Songs like ‘Tom Sawyer’, ‘2112’ and ‘YYZ’ have seen the band become cult heroes. But really the prog-rockers were the best band to see live. With Alex Lifeson on guitar, Neil Peart on drums and Geddy Lee on bass, Rush are the musician’s favourite set of musicians.
3. Jimi Hendrix Experience
Take the incredible genius of Jimi Hendrix on guitar and put him with two boards of wood and we’re pretty sure that they would rank near the top 10 as one of our favourite trios in music. It just so happens that Hendrix was backed by the incredible Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell.
The band, formed around Hendrix after his arrival in London, signalled a new hero for the swinging sixties, unleashed a series of incredible songs to establish Hendrix as the best there is. While there’s no doubt that songs like ‘Purple Haze’ and ‘Hey Joe’ are straight from Hendrix’s brain, to have two acclaimed performers alongside you must’ve been very comforting.
We needn’t go on about the mercurial talent of Hendrix, but revisiting the band’s self-titled debut album is a must for any budding fan of rock.
Of course, no list would be complete without Nirvana. Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl have the uncanny ability to feature on almost any list of “greatest” bands you’ll ever see. Largely for one reason; they were pretty damn great.
Through a combination of never-heard-before stylistic tunes and a brand which flagrantly rejected the commercialisation of music, Nirvana quickly became the unannounced king of grunge. With their seminal album Nevermind, they confirmed that spot and created a worldwide fandom that is still insanely potent to this day.
The band’s time in the ascendancy was sadly cut short by the suicide of Kurt Cobain but the songs and work they created during their short time together still stand the test of time today. Of course, the anthemic ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ launched the band into the stratosphere but, by that point, they had already achieved a bunch of acclaim through their pioneering sound.
Cream may have only been together for just over two-years but what Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce conquered in that short time will live on forever. The initial hype from the moment of their incarnation was unprecedented as the trio was immediately dubbed as the first ‘supergroup’.
The three now-iconic figures all originated from session musician backgrounds with Clapton garnering an immense reputation for his tremendous time playing with The Yardbirds and John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers. Baker and Bruce, meanwhile, had played together in the Graham Bonds Organisation.
After a car journey shared between the legendary drummer Baker and the Guitar God Clapton, ended with them deciding to form a band with Jack Bruce. The scene was set and one of the most devastating live acts of all time was formed. Though the band wouldn’t stick around for long, the music they made and the influence they wielded during that time means they’re undoubtedly the greatest trio in all of music.