In this free guitar lesson I have another installment of How Does This Song Work featuring “Hard to Handle” by The Black Crowes. You get to know how this song uses a blues-influence composition technique that involves mixing major and minor tonalities.
Hard to Handle Key
Now let’s get into the song. The music is in the key of B. Everything revolves around a B major chord.
The song intro begins with an ascending riff that uses notes from a B major triad plus a 4th interval. This is followed by a descending riff that makes use of the minor 3rd, D. You play these parts twice, although the last time through ends one note short because you transition to the verse.
Right away, we have a mixture of major and minor which is a defining part of this song’s bluesy sound. You play chords based on both major and minor intervals in upcoming song sections, and the guitar solos mix major and minor as well.
The verse features two rhythm guitar tracks. Guitar 1 is played using the common rock and blues rhythm pattern that adds a 6th and b7th to the power chord shape.
Guitar 2 makes use of a partial “A form” barre chord and adds a 4th and 6th which ends up making part of the 4 chord, E, in “C form.” This is a common guitar trick that was popularized by Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones.
The music moves to F# in the chorus. No surprise here. F# is the 5 chord in the key of B. Specifically, you play an F#7 chord shape that is rooted on string five at the 7th fret.
The chorus is followed by a short interlude that features the chords D, E, A, E and B. This is where things take a turn. The D chord is not in the key of B. But it is based on the minor 3rd, D, which came up in the intro and surfaces again in the solos. The A chord is not in the key of B either, but it is in the closely related B Mixolydian mode.
In the key of B, the note A is a b7th which is also called a minor 7th. You can also think of the A note as adding more minor intervals. In fact, the root notes for all the chords create the B minor pentatonic scale. B, D, E, F#, and A. By interval, that’s 1, b3, 4, 5, b7. So, even though we’re in a major key and using major chords, we’re making use of the interval structure of the minor pentatonic scale, which forms the basis for many blues-based songs.
In true blues fashion, the guitar solos mix major and minor intervals as well. You can think of this as being based in B minor pentatonic with the addition of some major intervals. The major intervals include the major 3rd, D#, and the major 6th, G#. On top of this, you have the b5th, F natural, from the B minor blues scale.
The next phrase in the solo makes use of the same note combination but in a different position. Here, I’m in the position of B major pentatonic. I have a root, 5th, 6th, 2nd, plus the minor 3rd from the B major blues scale.
The rest of the solo makes use of the same notes in different positions and different registers.
So, there you have it. “Hard to Handle” is considered to be in a major key but its chords are based on the structure of the minor pentatonic, and the lead lines mix major and minor intervals. The result is the blues-rock sound we all know and love.
Now, if you’d like to play music that is composed in this manner, you want to make sure you don’t get ahead of yourself and learn things out of order. Before you go mixing scales, you need to spend time playing music that is strictly in a major key, and then spend time playing music that is strictly in a minor key. Only after you understand major and minor tonalities by themselves will you be able to follow the music when the tonalities are mixed.