"CHAAAAAAAAG...It's been a hard day's night!"
"The most famous chord in all of rock & roll" -- Rolling Stone Magazine, March 2001
"quirky, arresting, unmistakably original - the musical equivalent of the song's title" -- Mark Hertsgaard, A Day In The Life: The Music And Artistry Of The Beatles
"A hijacked church bell announcing the party of the year" -- Guitarist Magazine, December 2000
"[the opening chord] pretty much defined the sound of an era" -- Guitarist, Dec 2000
"The opening chord of the song was like an amazing wake-up call" -- Joey Ramone, Guitar World, August 2000
And so starts The Beatles' classic song (and film) "A Hard Day's Night". The song needs no introduction - that chord tells you all you need to know. Within a second of its jarring onset, you can identify the song. Not only that, but that chord IS rock 'n' roll. Like Michael Lewis in "The 100 Best Beatles Songs", I'm glad they removed John Lennon's count-in to the song - it wouldn't have been nearly so effective! I don't think there is any other chord in history that has received so much praise, and has courted so much controversy.
It's undoubtedly fantastic... but what the heck is it?
This is a debate that seems to have raged since eager Beatlefans went to see "the Lads" in movie theatres back in 1964 and heard the title track ringing out on their radios and record players. Dominic Pedler, (in his near 800 page tome to Beatles songwriting excellence, "The Songwriting Secrets of The Beatles") summarises 21 different interpretations of the famous chord - just a mere selection of the interpretations he found in his research. Here are a few candidates suggested over the years:
A dominant 9th of F in the key of C
C-Bb-D-F-G-C in the key of C
A polytriad ii7/V in Ab major
G7sus4 (open position)
D7sus4 (open position)
G7 with added 9th and suspended 4th
A superimposition of Dm, F, and G
Dm11 with no 9th
Wow - what an array of possibilities! Pedler has conducted substantial research into the nature of this era-defining chord and he seems to have come up with an accurate answer to the question of what the chord is actually made up of.
The "busker's choice", a G7sus4, has been proved to be incorrect by none other than The Beatles' lead guitarist George Harrison himself. He has actually revealed what he played on his famous Rickenbacker 360/12 12-string electric guitar in an online chat on the 15th February, 2001:
Q: Mr Harrison, what is the opening chord you used for "A Hard Day's Night"?
A: It is F with a G on top (on the 12-string), but you'll have to ask Paul about the bass note to get the proper story.
Surprisingly simple really! This is a pretty easy guitar chord to play - even I can play it, and I'm hardly George Harrison standard! An Fadd9:
But if, like me, you eagerly reach for your guitar to emulate this piece of rock history, you'll be rather disappointed! It sounds kind of right, but there's a certain something missing - unless you happen to have a 12-string guitar that is. 12-string guitars have, as the name suggests, 12 strings! But they are not like 6-string guitars, as the strings are arranged in 6 pairs. Harrison's 12-string Rickenbacker was tuned, from low to high, E, A, D, and G in octaves, and B and E in unison. So when Harrison struck that mighty chord on 16th April, 1964, he was playing the top four pairs of strings of his guitar, not just four single strings that he would have struck had he only a normal 6-string guitar. So effectively there are twice as many notes sounding. The 12-string adds an extra higher pitched F and A, with the C and G duplicated, producing a much richer sound than on a 6-string. Further support for the Fadd9 chord in first position as the intro chord comes from the fact that it is this same chord that is arpeggiated by Harrison for the song's fade-out coda (from 2.21 until 2.27). Although to accept this as evidence, one has to accept the notion that the song is "book-ended" by the same two chords.
Still, even this doesn't sound quite right. Of course, the opening chord is not just being played by one instrument, as George Harrison himself said in the aforementioned webchat quotation. There is the faint shimmer of a ride cymbal and teasing snare drum from Ringo Starr in the mix, adding to the initial attack of the chord, but Paul McCartney's contribution is much more important as he provides a key component of the chord which gives it its character. So what is McCartney's bass note that will give us the "proper story"?
What we find is a very clever use of McCartney's trademark Hofner bass. McCartney adds a D note to the proceedings, but the clever thing about this is not that the note is itself a D, but rather, which D it is. McCartney could have played a "low D" - an open D string, or the A string at the fifth fret, but this would have provided a quite "booming" tone. Instead, McCartney opted to play a "high D" at the 12th fret of the D string (Dominic Pedler suggests this is how it was played, rather than playing the D by fretting the G string at its 7th fret). This high D on the bass is the equivalent playing an open D string on a regular guitar, which has an important effect for the sound of the chord. The high D bass tone "intertwines" with the F tone of Harrison's 12-string guitar, causing the F tone, which is the initially dominant tone, to become superseded by the D. Pedler has described this as a "virtual pull-off".
This has been, intriguingly, accounted for by Pedler by the presence of the so far unmentioned John Lennon's part in the opening chord. Lennon, as it turns out, is playing the exact same Fadd9 shape that Harrison is playing, but on a 6-string acoustic guitar. However, the strange oscillating effects of McCartney's high D can be largely explained by Lennon's decision to change guitars during the recording session. Lennon was initially playing his famous Rickenbacker 325 electric guitar as the group were working out the song, but decided to change, for whatever reason, to using his Gibson J-160 acoustic. The effect of the F from Lennon's guitar dropping off in favour of McCartney's D note is attributed to the sound of McCartney's bass resonating in the soundbox of Lennon's acoustic and being captured up by his pick-up.
But we're still lacking much of the serious punch that the opening chord. This is due to "the fifth Beatle", George Martin, playing a chord on a Steinway Grand piano, overdubbed on the final mix of the record. I myself was surprised to learn that there was a piano chord at the beginning of the track. But there is, although it is very difficult to hear amidst the general cacophony of sound. The nature of this piano chord has been almost as hotly debated as the nature of the opening chord as a whole. Once again, Pedler has provided a convincing answer in his book, drawing on conclusions from music expert Arthur Dick. Like the guitar chords, the piano chord is surprisingly simple - just three notes - D2-G2-D3 (where C4 is middle C). There has been much suggestion that there is a B note in there somewhere, but Arthur Dick has proposed that this is due simply to the "vintage 1964 reverb" and the fact that a real piano will produce the feeling of a B harmonic when this is played, suggesting a G major triad.
So, all in all, what do we have?
George Harrison: Fadd9 in 1st position on 12-string electric guitar
John Lennon: Fadd9 in 1st position on a 6-string acoustic guitar
Paul McCartney: high D played on the D-string, 12th fret on electric bass
George Martin: D2-G2-D3 played on a Steinway Grand Piano
Ringo Starr: Subtle snare drum and ride cymbal
This gives the notes:
G-B-D-F-A-C (the B is a harmonic).
As for what to actually call this chord. Well...that's anyone's guess
And what if you only have one guitar? Well, there are a few good approximations for those of us who don't happen to have a full band in our living rooms! One, (that I may have read or invented, I can't remember which!) is to simply play the Fadd9, but not fret the D string at the 3rd fret, instead playing it open. This includes the McCartney bass note, but at the cost of the F note:
Another is the "busker's choice" - a G7sus4, a chord barred at the 3rd fret. I think this is pretty fair-sounding:
However, many prefer another chord which includes the A note that characterises the chord - a G7sus4/A, again, a chord barred at the 3rd fret:
Some find these chords too low, lacking the higher chiming of the 12-string guitar. This chord, barred at the 5th fret gives the chime, but lacks an F note:
However, George Harrison has suggested an alternative based on the original Fadd9, but with the bottom E fretted with the thumb at the 3rd fret:
But as Pedler says, "we can't have our cake and eat it". Only the full band, with piano, can fully recreate that instantly recognisable sound.
Dominic Pedler, The Songwriting Secrets of The Beatles, Omnibus Press, Chapter 12
Stephen J. Spignesi and Michael Lewis, Here, There and Everywhere: The 100 Best Beatles Songs, Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc
Ian MacDonald, Revolution in the Head, Pimlico
Alan W. Pollack's "Notes On…Series"; http://www.icce.rug.nl/~soundscapes/DATABASES/AWP/awp-notes_on.html