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Words and chords

The semantic shifts of the Beatles' chords


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Guitar Chord Progression:

VIb - The Buddy Holly - VIb-chord - Chord

Other Chord progressions

The Buddy Holly - VIb-chord

I have taken the nick name "The Buddy Holly chord" from Alan W. Pollack's analysis of The Beatles tune It Won't Be Long. It is taken from the Buddy Holly song Peggy Sue. The chord appeared in the chorus, at the words " ... pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty Peggy Sue". It is in the key of G-major, and the VIb-chord is Eb. It is quite easy to hear that he is playing a "foreign" non-diatonic chord.

From Alan W. Pollack's "Notes on "It Won't Be Long" ":

It's called the "flat VI" since its root is a half-tone lower than what it would be for the vi chord that naturally appears in the Major key. Think of it as the VI chord borrowed from the parallel minor key. I myself am tempted to dub it "the Buddy Holly chord" because of the iconic familiarity of its appearance in the bridge of "Peggy Sue."

From Ger Tillekens Words and chords

The flat-VI, a real Beatles' favorite, has often been called the Buddy Holly chord, though Buck Owens also has been honored as the main source of inspiration. This chord belongs to the cluster of parallel Majors: flat-VI, flat-III and flat-VII sometimes also referred to as Neapolitan chords. In the abundance of these chords in the Beatles' songs Steven Porter (1983: 72) finds evidence for a strong Classical influence on the group's compositions. He has to admit, however, the flat-VI is behaving quite otherwise indeed, according to its role in the diagonal grid, as a substitute for the iv. "All My Loving," a composition of McCartney, showing a free combination of turnaround and turnback, offers a another good example of these chords, the flat-VII (example 3). Just like the flat-VI in "I Saw Her Standing There," this chord turns the context of the lyrics toward the private side of display and the individual side of realization, thereby making the word "true" coming from deep within, sounding sincere and privately voiced.

The song It Won't Be Long is in the key E-major, and the VIb-chord is C. You hear it in the verse, and again it is not too difficult to hear that non-diatonic chord. (But it is not too easy to say what is verse, what is chorus and what is bridge in this song). You can also hear the chord in the bridge of I Call Your Name, once again as a C-chord played in E-major.

To put the chord in a harmonic context, you might think of it as the vi-chord of the parallel minor, meaning that it is the vi chord of E-minor if the root key is E-major. Another way to think of the chord is as the relative major to the parallel minor of the IV-chord. This might sound complicated. But if you listen to The Beatles' song I Saw Her Standing There, you might get the point. The first line of the chorus has these chords: E - A - C or is it E - A - Am? In some books it is labeled C-major and in other books it is labeled A-minor. Alan W. Pollack have this comment in his analysis of the song:

"The chord in measure 12 sounds very much like the C-Major, flat-VI chord, but closer listening proves it to be an a-minor chord placed in its first (aka 6/3) inversion by the C-natural in the bass line. Harmonically it's an example of "the minor iv chord appearing in a major key." The movement of the bass line for the second chord is an unusual ploy and, along with the falsetto "wooh" in the vocal of that measure, heightens the impact of the C# versus C-natural cross-relation between the chords. It's a delightfully groin-tightening and ambiguous momentary spike of intensity; leaving it up to us listeners to decide whether the protagonist's tension is one of approach / avoidance or more simply the joy of confident anticipation."

I am not going to give my vote in the debate. As I am mainly playing alone and not in a band context, I have to adapt the song to one guitar and cannot play exactly as The Beatles (and there is really no reason why you should not try to make your own twist to the song). I used to play Am, but recently I have more often been playing C. Both chords work, and they both add some tension.

To illustrate the ambiguity of this harmony even more, we can include The Beatles' Do You Want To Know A Secret?. After some circles of the E-G#m-Gm-F#m-B7-E (the song is in E-major), we suddenly get E-G#m-Gm-F#m-C (just before Closer .."), or do we? In the Wise score the chord is labeled C, but Alan W. Pollack will label this chord as an F over C in the bass (2nd inversion).

Recordings with the VIb The Buddy Holly - VIb-chord progression - Annotaded

  • The Beatles - Do You Want To Know A Secret -
  • The Beatles - Honey Don't -
  • The Beatles - I Call Your Name -
  • The Beatles - I Will -
  • The Beatles - It won't Be Long -
  • The Beatles - Lady Madonna -
  • The Beatles - Mean Mr Mustard -
  • The Beatles - Oh, Darling -
  • The Beatles - Old Brown Shoe -
  • The Beatles - Please Please Me -
  • The Beatles - PS I Love You -
  • The Beatles - Think For Yourself -
  • Eric Clapton - Tales of Brave Ulysses -
  • Buddy Holly - Peggy Sue -

  • Books covering the progression -

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