Secret Chords of the Sixties

Phoebe Buffay

Please join us in welcoming our very special guest blogger Bill Goshay with his interesting and unique take on “The Secret Chords”of the 60’s and more!

Here’s Bill

I heard there was a secret chord that David played and it pleased the lord, but you don’t really care for music do ya?

– Leonard Cohen, “Hallelujah”

PHOEBE (Lisa Kudrow): How many chords do you know?”
STEPHANIE (Chrissie Hynde): “All of them…”
– Phoebe Buffay to a rival guitar player on “Friends”

So, what are chords, anyway? I started playing guitar around 1964. I got pretty enthusiastic about all of it including music theory. There was actually a set of rules for making music! Part of it was how to make chords. But just what are chords? Why do they exist? What is the big deal? Is this just old-school noise? Wikipedia defines chords as “as any harmonic set of pitches”.  Phoebe Buffay from Friends defines chords as something else entirely:

What? There is a long explanation there that begs off the questions above, IMHO. I have also pondered how to explain chords to people and eventually an analogy came to me very recently.

Imagine watching a play where the stage is bare, and a single performer is playing a part. It can certainly be interesting, gripping and demands a lot from the actor. But it can get old, fast. The way I think of it., that is like an a-Capella singer, or a singer with no accompaniment.

I once saw the great Judy Collins perform at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. Near the end of the set, one of her acoustic guitar strings broke. I fully expected her just play without it. Instead, she put down the guitar and instead made the gutsy decision to sing the rest of the song with no accompaniment. It was a memorable moment, seeing her on stage with hundreds of us watching her as she somewhat nervously kept going to ultimately end in thunderous applause. What a scene. What a memory for me. I also vividly recall the first time I heard Janis Joplin singing “Mercedes Benz”. Such playful grit with a-Capella sparseness, plenty of Pearl-sonality and, as it turned out, a poignant encore to a brilliant career. The human voice is my favorite instrument by far. Even so, I would not want my entire Apple Music playlists to consist only of a-Capella tunes.

Chords decorate melodies, like the stage set adds meaning to an actor’s performance. Melodies are enhanced by chords playing “behind” it. Do you know the song “Sleep Walk” by Santo and Johnny? Hear it in your mind for a moment. What makes it sound sleepy, dreamy? Surely the slide guitar helps, but you can hear plenty of that on songs that don’t sound sleepy (think of “Run for Your Life” by the Beatles). It is the chords subtly playing behind the melody, making a that dreamy musical scene. As the chords change, the scene morphs. As the flowing chords progress through their changes they take us with them to new musical backdrops.

You may already recognize certain chord sequences. For example: What do these songs have in common: “Silhouettes”, “Angel Baby”, “Bristol Stomp”, “Donna” and “Sleep Walk”? The chords are in the same progression of harmonic tones based on ’50’s chord progression’, in the sense that they’re intended to be familiar to the ear and inherently likeable. Yet there is one subtle change in ‘Sleep Walk’ that grabs our attention while breaking what was then the accepted rules of music theory. All it takes is unexpectedly (back then) altering a single note in one chord and presto, the listener is sleep walking instead of taking walks past your house, doing the Bristol stomp or crooning Donna. That’s all it takes to create an entirely different melody.

The Beatles also made ingenious use of these unexpected chord progression changes. It was a key ingredient to their sound. Why does “World Without Love” sound like a Beatles song, and not like the hundreds of other similar pop ballads? Yes, it was written by John and Paul, but you don’t need to know that to be able to spot it as a Beatles song. It is their chord progression rule breaking that catches the ear, whether you’re consciously aware of it or not. How cool is that?

Then in 1964, there came a song that turned out to be a turning point in Rock and Roll:“Oh, Pretty Woman”. Even to those who didn’t realize it at the time, that opening guitar lick gave that song an instant identity that set it apart from the field. Take a moment and remember that iconic guitar lick. Play just five notes, and anyone (with some millennial exceptions) will immediately know the answer!

Countless artists – far too many to list here – have credited that opening lick as their own inspiration, since then.  Meanwhile, the Kinks were doing a hybrid sound using chords played rapidly, as if they were guitar licks, in songs like “All Day and all of the Night”.

Around 1967, after I had been playing in my band since junior high school, I began going out to places with our bass player, John. He was five years older and could drive us all around in his 1957 oxidized red Chevy panel truck. What a blessing this was. John showed me lots of new things, often taking me back stage to meet the musicians. He didn’t even know the bands, but he was bold enough to break a few rules and I got to tag along with him. He took me to the Ash Grove, where we saw Canned Heat, giving me a very gritty and very loud introduction to the blues. Blues has its own chord progression rules that sets it apart from your typical pop ballad that you may also have noticed with songs like “Johnny B. Goode”. This early incarnation of Canned Heat was my favorite and to put it mildly, I was inspired.

The Beatles (genius musical scavengers and innovators that they were) took inspiration from the blues as well, as can be heard most evidently in ‘Birthday’. Not your typical pop song – just guitar licks centered around a blues chord progression.

Then came something very heavy. A LED ZEPPELIN. Guitar licks, very few chords on steroids. Phoebe would have been lost. Steppenwolf, Cream, Led Zeppelin and a host of bands to follow used licks to create their musical sound/scene. Actually, the chords are still implied by those licks because the notes, instead of being played all the same time are played sequentially. So really, the chords are still there.

The new sound was here to stay, including the “Power Chord” with is made with just two notes. Years later, my own son would play in a band, and power chords were all they wanted to play. I will leave it to other musicians to enhance these trends, but knowing about chords illuminates music, increases interest, stimulates the mind and soothes the soul. Where they are implied or played openly, they are there, like old friends, energizing and comforting us forever.

To those who say chords are irrelevant, I disagree. They may be old school, but they are golden. Knowing about them helps us understand, appreciate and even remember the music we hear. And if you make music, learn the rules about chords. Then Break Them!

SMS~Bill Goshay is a celebrated Guitarist, Music and Technology instructor, songwriter, world class Audiophile as well as a master of Sound Design!  Bill is among the original team of engineers who hard wired and help launch the now legendary Sound City Studios in the San Fernando Valley!


  1. Chords..I learned guitar on a 50’s Gibson tenor guitar..4 strings…chords only.. Tom Dooley was the first tune I learned. My dad showed me the G and the D7. G was easy on the tenor. Only needed one finger. D7 was a bit more challenging, as I needed 3 fingers to play that chord. E minor used one finger as well, easy and the C chord used 2 fingers on the tenor. Then along came my 6 string..more strings and sometimes, 4 fingers. Even now after 50 years of playing guitars, the A chord in open position and the F chord, are still the hardest chords for me to play. Maybe that is because, years ago at the age of 16, I switched to bass as my main instrument. 4 strings played one at a time. Excellent choice.

    But knowing the chords and how they all worked, made the bass special..alternate notes out of each chord could be played against the actual chords, that I learned on guitar. Without the knowledge of the chords I would not have been able to pick and choose which notes to play. Which brings me to piano. I can play a little piano. I know all the chords and that’s about it. But it does come in handy at family gatherings and random parties. People think I can play piano….I commit piano..but i do know the chords. all I ealy want to do is play the intro to, “Benny and the Jets”, right shoe? Problem is, there are notes in there. But it is based on chords. Bill is correct, chords are the bases of music, whether one is playing trumpet, like Wood or Benny and the Jets.

  2. VERY WELL STATEDand thank you. My formal intro to “playing” music was learni g the trumpet in J.H.S. Of course learning a “NEW LAUGUAGE” was necessary to properly “read/play my lines asigned to “my role” in the music presented to the listener.
    ALL instruments played throughout the creation actually were in a constant rhythmical dance of harmonies which I later learned are CHORDS.
    Of course my trumpet cannot by itself play a “chord” but in unision with other trumpets and/or in sync with other note producing instruments are indeed creating chords. When I picked up a guitar I did what most fledgling guitarists did whih was to rely on the little boxes of dots, lines, numbers above the staffs and measures whih illustrated the magic CHORDS. What I was willfully unaware of was that I really did not need those illustrations because I had ALREADY learned skme basic music theory — how & why — those chords are created! RIGHT IN FRONT OF MOST OF US ALL THE TIME. I was not gifted with a magic ear so I needed the guidance for quite a while of the chord names as written; & you know already: “Don’t Trust the Written Chord Designations all the time”!
    Even without a great ear once I put the basic rules together the guitar was DEMYSTIFIED finally.
    thanx again…wood

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