The song “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd is one of the most famous guitar songs of all time. Learning how to play the song’s Introduction has become somewhat of a requirement for anyone who wants to be taken seriously as a rock guitarist. The song is one of the most commonly performed songs among cover bands too. Not only is “Sweet Home Alabama” likely to get people out on the dance floor, but it will also get the lead guitarist excited about taking an extended guitar solo.
Equal to the popularity of “Sweet Home Alabama” is the controversy surrounding its key. Some people think it’s in the key of D. Others believe it’s in the key of G. Some guitarists play solos using the D major pentatonic scale. Others use the G major pentatonic scale.
So, which key and scale are correct? And what did the song’s co-writer and lead guitarist, Ed King, say about the song’s composition?
Sweet Home Alabama Chords
Let’s begin by looking at “Sweet Home Alabama’s” main chords. In their simplest form, they are D, C, and G. The song is in 4/4 time with two beats on D, two beats on C, and a full measure of G.
|| D / C / | G / / / ||
Key of G
When combined, these chords fit together in the parent scale of G major. In the G major scale, the D chord is 5, the C chord is 4, and the G chord is 1. In music theory, this is called a 5, 4, 1 chord progression. You can also write it using Roman numerals as V, IV, I.
Since chords D, C, and G fit together in the G major scale, you can consider “Sweet Home Alabama” to be in the key of G. You can use G major scale patterns to play guitar solos over the music. You can also use G major pentatonic scale patterns.
But, hang on.
Key of D
While the chords fit together in the G scale, the song begins on D, and many musicians hear D as the primary chord. This creates D Mixolydian mode because D is the 5th degree in the G scale, and the 5th mode is Mixolydian. In D Mixolydian mode, you number the chords 1, ♭7, 4 (or I,♭VII, IV if you prefer Roman numerals). You can use D Mixolydian and D major pentatonic scale patterns to play guitar solos over the music. D Mixolydian scale patterns are identical to G major scale patterns. The only difference between D Mixolydian and G major is which note you consider to be the starting point.
So, “Sweet Home Alabama” could be thought of as being in either the key of G or the key of D (D Mixolydian to be more specific). Which key is correct? It depends on how you hear it.
The chord progression in “Sweet Home Alabama” seesaws between D and G with C acting as a fulcrum. This back and forth causes the key to be somewhat ambiguous, like an ambiguous image that looks like one thing at first glance but then looks like something else once your perspective changes. I’m thinking of the iconic illusion known as “Rubin’s Vase.” Do you see a vase, or do you see two faces?
What Key Do You Hear?
What do you hear when you listen to “Sweet Home Alabama”?
Do you hear the music as resolving on D or G?
Does the D major pentatonic scale or G major pentatonic scale sound like a better fit when you play over the song?
If you spend enough time with this song, you may come to the same conclusion I have come to: I hear the music both ways!
In the past, I always heard G as the tonic in “Sweet Home Alabama.” I played guitar solos based on G major pentatonic patterns. Now I hear the D major pentatonic scale working also. I just need to play D major pentatonic for a moment until my ear adjusts.
What Did Ed King Say About the Key?
What did the song’s co-writer and lead guitarist, Ed King, say about the song’s composition? We need to look to the producer of “Sweet Home Alabama,” Al Cooper. In Cooper’s book, Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards: Memoirs of a Rock’ N’ Roll Survivor, Cooper describes the recording session as follows.
“I heard Ed play the solo. I freaked. ‘You’re in the wrong key, Ed!’ He looked at me with this sly look on his face and said, ‘This song is in the key of G, Al. That’s the chord we end the song on when we play it live.’ They actually ended on the IV chord (G) live as opposed to the root, which was D, the key the song is actually in. In their book of music theory, whatever chord you ended on was the key the song was in. I listened again to the solo, which was in another mode, not unlike John Coltrane’s work. ‘It’s very progressive, Ed. I can live with it if that’s what you want,’ I said, once again backing down from any kind of music theory debate. By the time I mixed the song, I loved the solo, but I’ll always know why he played it that way. Ed felt the opening chord of the song (D) was the V chord. And he still does to this day. Al’s advice: Don’t stand in the way of genius!”
Well, there ya go. Ed King, the guy who co-wrote the song and played all of the guitar solos, said the song was in G. He approached the solos as if he were in the key of G. At least, that’s what he thought. I hear him playing with an emphasis on D at times. The very first lead line you hear in “Sweet Home Alabama” is played in the D major pentatonic scale. It begins toward the end of the song’s second measure. The very first phrase that starts the first guitar solo played at 1:30 resolves on notes from a D major triad. It seems that even though King was thinking about the key of G, his playing reflected a D tonality at times.
But, What About That F Chord?
No discussion of “Sweet Home Alabama” would be complete without addressing the F chord played at 1:30, 1:44, and 3:47. Where does it come from? I think of it as a classic example of modal interchange.
Modal interchange is when you combine notes and chords from two parallel scales. The most popular type of modal interchange involves mixing the two most popular major modes, Ionian and Mixolydian. In the case of “Sweet Home Alabama,” if you’re thinking G major scale, you would mix G major with G Mixolydian. The three major chords in G major are G, C, and D. The three major chords in G Mixolydian are G, C, and F. Put all the chords together, and you get four major chords, G, C, D, and F. In music theory, you would say you’re borrowing the F chord from a parallel scale. Lynyrd Skynyrd used this same composition technique in the song “Free Bird.”
You hear modal interchange (also called modal mixture) in the bass line to “Sweet Home Alabama” too. During the second guitar solo that begins at 2:20, the bass player interprets the G chord as G7 from the parallel scale of G Mixolydian mode. You hear the ♭7th, F, emphasized in the bass line on the G chord.
No Ordinary Three-Chord Song
There’s one final thing I’d like to say about “Sweet Home Alabama.” It’s no ordinary three-chord song. There are actually four chords in the song, as we have already discussed. But more than that, the music is played with carefully-crafted, interwoven parts. Listen to the interplay between the guitars. Notice how new parts get introduced at the chorus to define the section differently. Listen to how the drums, guitars, and bass accent particular beats together. Oh, and that piano solo? EPIC! These details are what make “Sweet Home Alabama” sound so distinct and so awesome. The song may only use four chords, but the music is composed brilliantly, and the instruments are played expertly. That’s why “Sweet Home Alabama” is so legendary. Turn it up!