In this free guitar lesson I have another installment of How Does This Song Work featuring “Runnin’ Down a Dream” by Tom Petty. You get to know how this song makes use of the blues scale, added chord tones, and modal interchange.
Runnin’ Down a Dream Key
The song centers on an E5 power chord for the most part, but a full E major chord is used at times, so the music is considered to be in the key of E major. The vocal melody makes use of the major 3rd, G#, which helps establish the major tonality. The sheet music uses a key signature for E major that includes the four sharps that make the E major scale. But, as you will soon see, “Runnin’ Down a Dream” features notes and chords from other key signatures.
The signature guitar riff you hear at the beginning of the song uses a descending E minor blues scale. The E minor blues scale is the E minor pentatonic scale with an added b5th. The riff alternates between the tonic pitch, E, and the scale tones starting on the 5th, B.
Underneath the riff is an E power chord rooted on the fifth string at the 7th fret. Since an E power chord only contains a root and fifth, it’s called E5. E5 consists of the root, E, and fifth, B. Since the remaining strings that are not in use are E and B, you can strum all six strings for a big, full-sounding E5 power chord.
During the verses, the chord changes from E5 to D5 at the 5th fret. The E major scale has a D#, not a D natural, but D natural is found in the closely related E Mixolydian mode. D is also in the parallel scale of E minor. The use of D here is an example of modal interchange, which is also called modal mixture. You are mixing notes and chords from different types of E scales.
To add more color and depth to the D5, you keep the open 1st and 2nd strings open. This chord is called D6sus2 because the 2nd string, B, is a 6th to D, and the 1st string, E, is a 2nd. “Sus” is short for “suspended” and indicates that the 3rd of the D chord, F#, is left out.
The chorus introduces two new chords to the mix, G and A. When you think of these chord roots in relation to E, G is a minor or flat 3rd, A is a fourth, and D is a minor or flat 7th. So, you see more major/minor mixture here.
After a repeat of the verse and chorus, a new section is introduced called the interlude. And this section introduces another chord, C. C is yet another minor interval. It’s a b6th in the E minor scale. In fact, C-D-E is b6th-b7th-1 out of the E minor scale. You might think of this as 4-5-6 in the relative major, G. Nonetheless, this movement in whole steps is a popular move and is often used to lead to a major chord even though the movement comes out of the minor scale.
The interlude borrows from the verses by sustaining the open 1st and 2nds strings again. When you add E and B to the C power chord shape, you create the sound of C major 7. All together in the interlude you hear Cmaj7, D6sus2, and E5. This trick of sustaining open strings gives simple chords a complex sound. It is often the root and 5th from the tonic chord that is sustained in music. In this case, the root is E and the 5th is B.
The fabulous guitar solo in “Runnin’ Down a Dream” is all E minor pentatonic. It starts in pattern 1 at the 12th fret, shifts up into pattern 3 at the 17th fret, uses a bit of pattern 5 at the 10th fret, and touches on pattern 2 as well. The solo is loaded with bends, hammer-ons, and other techniques that are best left to experienced lead guitarists. If you’re interested in playing guitar solos like this someday, take time to learn pentatonic scale patterns and how they are used to play simpler things, like riffs and more basic solos.