Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Blues Bite (Guest Post by Mark Edward)

A high school friend of mine who reads the blog and is a fan offered this very thorough look at one of my favorite chords, and its use in some music I know (and some I don't). I first learned this distinctive chord at NAU Music Camp, where the late, great Grant Wolf called it the "blues bite," and I use it whenever I can, almost to a fault (it opens this song, for instance). Without further ado, here's Mark, and his thoughts on the quintessential blues chord.

The 7#9 has appeared in popular music for nearly a half century. It is arguably the “bluesiest” of all chords, consisting of a major triad supplemented with both a flatted seventh and a flatted third (the #9). The dissonance created by the use of both the major and minor third in the same chord gives the 7#9 a unique, pungent sound easy to recognize and difficult to ignore.

For many fans of pop/rock music, the first introduction to the 7#9 came from the Beatles’ 1966 hit “Taxman.” The verse begins with George Harrison playing a straight D7 over Paul McCartney’s rumbling bass line, creating an unsettling feeling underneath the vocals. But the disquietude only gets worse when, at the end of each line, Harrison adds the #9 to the chord (first heard at :13):
The jarring sound of the 7#9 provides a musical exclamation point that drives home the lyrics’ frustration.

Despite the popularity and priority of “Taxman,” the musician often credited with introducing the 7#9 into the rock lexicon is Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix’s 1967 hit “Purple Haze” put the 7#9 front and center for blues-rock guitarists (first heard at ~0:23):
Hendrix’s fuzzed-out guitar sound was the perfect complement for the natural dissonance of the 7#9, and the combination spread like wildfire. Hendrix deployed the 7#9 in other hits as well, including “Foxy Lady” (in which the chord is implied but not played in its entirety) and “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” (in which the chord is used sporadically). As a testament to Hendrix’s influence in popularizing the 7#9, the 1-3-7-#9 voicing that he and other guitarists use almost exclusively is commonly called the “Hendrix chord.”

Jimmy Page, whose greatest musical talent lay in repurposing borrowed elements, picked up the 7#9 baton and ran with it in the early days of Led Zeppelin. E7#9 is prominently featured in “The Hunter” section of “How Many More Times” (first heard at ~5:32):
And in the main riff of “The Lemon Song” (opening measures):
from Zeppelin’s first two albums, both released in 1969. In both of these songs, Page uses the chord to punctuate ascending single-note riffs on the guitar’s bass strings. Page also scratches the same chord in a machine-gun rhythm to open Zeppelin’s 1970 concert in Royal Albert Hall with the first few bars of “We’re Gonna Groove” (opening measures):
With its sour sting, the 7#9 emphatically heralds the band’s arrival.

At around the same time, Joe Walsh of the James Gang availed himself of the 7#9 in 1970’s “Funk #49.” (In an interesting side note, Walsh sold Page the Les Paul that became Page’s main workhorse throughout the first half of the 1970’s.) But Walsh had his own take on the 7#9. After a beautifully sloppy opening blues lick, “Funk #49” finds its groove with a stabbing A mixolydian chord-based riff (at ~0:06):
This section is followed by a descending minor pentatonic single-note riff (punctuated by a few power chords), played four times in A and then four times in B (beginning at ~0:27). At the end of this sequence, Walsh slams an E7#9, then returns to the first chord-based riff in A (~0:47).

The difference between Walsh’s usage of the 7#9 and that of the previous examples is noteworthy. In the earlier instances, the 7#9 is used to “blues up” the tonic in an otherwise slow-moving chord progression – providing harmonic tension is an end in itself because it makes the chord or riff more interesting. By contrast, Walsh uses an E7#9 to facilitate the key change from the linear riff in B back to the chordal riff in A; the chord itself is not part of either riff but rather acts as a bridge between them. The E7#9 in “Funk #49” also has a different relationship to the prevailing modality of the song, being the harmonic dominant (the V7#9 in the key of A) rather than the tonic. As a result, the tension of the chord is resolved, albeit incompletely, when the A7 of the first riff returns, whereas the tension remains unresolved in the earlier examples.

A decade later, the 7#9 became probably the most harmonically complex chord – hell, maybe the only harmonically complex chord – in the recorded canon of AC/DC. In 1980’s “Shoot to Thrill,” E7#9 appears at the end of each verse, immediately before the chorus (first heard at ~0:59):
As in “Funk #49,” the E7#9 here is a dominant chord that is resolved to the tonic when the chorus in A kicks in. As a song construction device, the V7#9 in “Shoot to Thrill” is substituted for the well-worn V or V7 chord at the end of the verse to provide a little extra tension. Although the 7#9 chord is a seldom-used component in rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young’s toolkit (his chords often consist of just the root and fifth), it bears note that the individual elements of the chord (i.e., the 1, minor 3, major 3, 5, and flat 7) are staples of lead guitarist Angus Young’s electric blues style. Thus, the consolidation of these elements in a single chord is not so far afield even for a band with harmonic boundaries as narrow as AC/DC’s.

In contrast to AC/DC, Queen uses more than its share of harmonically complex chords, so hearing the 7#9 on “Don’t Try Suicide” from 1980’s The Game is perhaps unsurprising. What is surprising, however, is how Queen’s Brian May presents the chord. By 1980, May had carved his niche as a master of multitracked guitar harmonies, and his use of bent-and-released strings, finger vibrato, and whammy-bar dives in his layered guitar parts often gives the harmonies a fluid, syrupy feel. Even when strumming chords in a single stroke, May can seldom resist nudging the whammy bar to give the chords an underwater feel. Yet the recurring D7#9 in “Suicide” is played by just a single guitar, unadorned by other harmonic instruments, and sounds (to these ears at least) to have a touch of chorus as its only form of pitch alteration – certainly none of the heavier vibrato that May often uses. When the D7#9 appears in the opening riff, it follows a chromatically ascending bass line, creating a hot splash after the bubbling bass finally boils over (first heard at ~0:12):
Later, May uses the chord to follow a signature multitracked harmonic guitar solo played over a shuffle beat. In this instance, the single jangly guitar chord effects a transition from the busy-ness of the solo to the pared-down simplicity of the opening bass line and resets the entire mood of the song (at ~2:36). And May’s austere presentation of the 7#9 in “Suicide” reminds us that this chord has its own delightful flavor that needs no embellishment.

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