And speaking of the Beatles (carrying over from last week), it may sound crazy but this column is about a guitar chord. That’s right — just one chord, so if you’re not into the guitar or Beatles music or whatever, so sorry.
And yet it might help that this is one of the most famous chords in popular music history, a beautifully sustained and shimmering blast from George Harrison’s Rickenbacker 360/12 12-string guitar, a singularly bold, riveting and spine-tingling opening statement. The chord has entered music immortality and is instantly recognizable to almost everybody of that generation.
I’m referring of course to the opening chord of “A Hard Day’s Night.” It’s a song attributed to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, but, according to various websites, it is mainly a solo Lennon composition that he dashed off in one evening during a creative frenzy after making up his mind to compose the eponymously-named movie title track (which, incidentally, was inspired by a Ringo Starr malapropism.)
On April 16, 1964, the band gathered at Studio 2 of EMI Studios in London. Lennon had the melody in his head and the lyrics scrawled on a piece of paper. The other bandmates knew nothing of either. Incredibly, according to Wikipedia (citing a 1980 Playboy interview with Lennon and the memoirs of Maureen Cleave, an Evening Standard journalist), it took the band just under three hours to put the song together and polish it up for final release, eventually deciding on the ninth take.
And now for the technical part since the exact nature of the opening chord has been the subject of musical theory debate for years. Most self-taught amateur guitarists (and evidently a lot of pros as well) assume the chord is in the key of G and are thrilled, after experimenting with a variety of structures, when they land upon G7sus4 (a barred third fret, ring finger A-string 5th fret, pinky G-string 5th fret.) It’s perfect; it sounds just right and there can be no other way.
Or at least so it would appear until one finds out that the chord is wrong, as was the case with me not too long ago. As if passed down from Mt. Olympus, George Harrison initially confirmed during an online chat in February, 2001, that, “It is an F with a G on top, but you’ll have to ask Paul about the bass note to get the proper story.”
So what Harrison is suggesting here is that it’s a Fadd9 (ring finger D string 3rd fret, middle finger G-string 2nd fret, index finger B string 1st fret, pinky high E string 3rd fret.) This is same chord that introduces (in a different way) the song “Getting Better” from Sgt. Pepper’s, the structure of which also happened to be a favorite of Jimi Hendrix’s at various points up and down the fretboard.
So Harrison’s comment was a huge revelation and a big surprise. But it did not account for a bass note (on the guitar, that is.) And that remained something of a mystery until Randy Bachman (of Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive fame) revealed in a YouTube video that he was given special access to the original masters in Apple Studios and could break it all down, discovering that Harrison adds a low G with his thumb (low E string, 3rd fret.)
There are other instruments at work to round out the mightiest of opening chords. Paul McCartney plays a high D on the D-string, 12th fret on his Hofner 500/1 electric bass, John Lennon a Dsus4 on a Gibson J-160E 6-string acoustic guitar, Ringo subtly raps the snare drum and ride cymbal, and “Fifth Beatle”/producer George Martin provides D2-G2-D3 on a Steinway Grand Piano.
The whole mix has been analyzed by musicologists for years, suggesting that the overall chord relates to the Beatles’ interest in pandiatonic harmony, how it may function as a surrogate dominant anticipating the G major that opens the first verse and so forth (whatever all that means.)
We can certainly all agree that’s a uniquely appropriate chord and mixture of sound that’s one of a kind. Its subtleties continue to fascinate musical theorists, as they have been doing for the past half-century. And that’s because there is no more remarkable example in song where such a “right” guitar chord (the G7sus4) could end up being so “wrong.”
Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at edwardgilbreth@ comcast.net.