Reeling In the Years Chords

reeling in the years chords steely dan

Reeling In the Years Chords

Reeling In the Years Chord Changes Explained

“Reelin’ In the Years” by Steely Dan is probably best known for its electric guitar solos but the chords played on the keyboard are a great example of using diminished chords and voice leading. Guitar players can learn a lot from these chord changes.

The song opens with a lead guitar solo played over the basic chord changes G-A. It’s the A chord that functions as the tonal center of the music and so most musicians would say that the song is in the key of A.

Mixolydian Mode
G and A are actually chords IV and V (4 and 5) from the D major scale. So this song is in a mode, the fifth mode Mixolydian. Listen carefully to the guitar soloing that occurs over these changes during the song and you’ll notice that it features notes of A Mixolydian mode, also called the dominant scale, which is really D major. Often A major pentatonic scale patterns are used, which feature notes still relative to D.

Verse Chord Changes
The verses feature two sets of chord changes. The first is D-A/C#-Bm7-A. The next set is Em-Ebdim-Dm-A/C#. The form is AABA with the first set of changes played twice followed by the second set followed by the first set again.

Chord Voicings
The voicings of these chords, that is, the way that the notes are stacked, is critical in order to get the proper voice leading effect that these chords are obviously based on. See my PDF Reeling In the Years Chords for notation and guitar tab.

reeling in the years chords steely dan

In the guitar tab, you can see that the first set of changes, measures 1-2, follows the D major scale backward from D C# B A. This is a type of diatonic voice leading because the chord roots are leading right down the scale.

The next set of changes features half-step chromatic voice leading using the notes E Eb D C#. You see this in the chord roots that move along the 5th string. By fret number they go 7 6 5 4. In addition, there is voice leading occurring on the 2nd string with the notes G Gb F E. By fret number they go 8 7 6 5. More often than not, when you come across chords that are both non-diatonic, that is, out of key, and based on chromatic half-step movement, voice leading is at play. In these cases, the purpose and goal of the chord changes is the chromatic movement.

I could not find these chord changes notated properly on any free guitar tab website. I think it’s the use of diminished chords, chord inversions and voice leadings, plus the fact that these chords need to be drawn from the piano figuration in the song, that make the chords difficult for guitar players to identify. But, now you know!

Get the full Reelin’ In the Years Steely Dan Digital Sheet Music.


Comments ( 9 )

  • Chris Pratt


    I bought your theory book several years ago and it is the best theory reference in my collection . Your blogs really do help in apply theory to practice. Thank you for providing so much useful lessons. I am planning on buying your mode dvd’s in the near future.


  • Marty


    Thank you for the song analytic. Was hoping that you could post a series or compose a book about writing modal compositions. I have learned much from your “Fretboard Theory” book and DVD’s great materials.

  • Ted

    Hi Desi: I am really looking forward to working through this song! After listening to your Podcast 12 on tonics, modes and keys, I hope to develop good detective skills at analyzing harmonic structure of songs.

    Strongly recommend your books and materials to anyone who wants to learn how to play guitar or bass.

  • Lance Jackson

    Excellent, thanks

  • Geoff "Reon From Zircon" Mainwaring

    Thank you for both the clear explanation of the harmonic structure and “rhyme scheme” of the chord changes, and the contextual explanation of the mode this song is in. I learned a lot here that I can extrapolate so I can learn to recognize the other modes.


    This was exactly what I needed. Bbdim… I knew something was missing! Thanks

  • Mark

    Robert, it’s actually an Ebdim. (Maybe you just typed it wrong.)

  • Stu Weissman

    Just curious if you’re calling the chord Ebdim7, why write it with a D3 as the lowest note? Of course I recognize that Eb and D# are enharmonic (in equal tempered tuning), but in my ever so humble subjective opinion, I prefer to see consistency. In my thinking, Ebdim7 is built on mi 3rds from Eb, therefore the chord is spelled Eb, Gb, Bbb, Dbb, although for readability i’d likely use A and C in the notation. Even so, still think the Eb is the correct bass note.
    Again, this is offered for discussion, not criticism.

    thanks for your work

  • Good question. The answer is… Because I didn’t pay attention to the notation. I only paid attention to the tablature and the chord names above the staff. I guess you can call me a typical guitar player. ;)