Sweet Home Alabama Guitar Scales, Chords and Music Theory

sweet-home-alabama-guitar

Sweet Home Alabama Guitar Scales, Chords and Music Theory

“Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd is one of the most popular guitar songs ever. In it’s most basic form it’s just a simple three chord song. But there’s actually a lot more to it than that. I’m going to break down this song and analyze its key, chord progressions and scales.

The primary Sweet Home Alabama chords are:

D-C-G-G

That’s one measure of D, one measure of C and two full measures of G.

Most guitarists would say that “Sweet Home Alabama” is in the key of D because it starts on D. But since the music spends the most time on the G chord, it’s really the G chord that is the tonal center (called the tonic) of the song. For this reason, most of the guitar solos are based in the G major pentatonic. You can play along with “Sweet Home Alabama” using G major pentatonic scale patterns. Just put the recording on and “Turn it up!”

Now let’s take a closer look at the whole chord progression. Even though the chord progression starts on D, the D, C and G are actually drawn from the G major scale. I, IV and V in G are G, C and D. There’s no other major scale that includes all three of these major chords together. So the “Sweet Home Alabama” chord progression, D-C-G, is V-IV-I in G. That’s five-four-one in case the Roman numerals are throwing you off.

G Major Scale
G A B C D E F♯
I ii iii IV V vi vii♭5
G Am Bm C D Em F♯?m♭5

Sweet Home Alabama Chords
D C G
V IV I

Since the chords are drawn from the G major scale, you can play it over the whole progression. Try playing along with the song using G major scale patterns and you’ll hear that they blend perfectly.

While “Sweet Home Alabama” is primarily drawn from G major, there is one important twist that needs to be pointed out. There is modal interchange at the 1:30 mark with the chord changes F-C-D. The F is borrowed from G Mixolydian mode, the C major scale. I also hear the bass use an F-natural over the G chord beginning at 2:20, creating a G7 sound. In the vocal melody, this F-natural is used as a “blue note,” a note sung or played at a slightly lower pitch than that of the major scale for expressive purposes, and creates a D minor sound (Dm is 1-♭3-5, D-F-A).

Finally, while the guitar solos are mostly G major pentatonic, I hear the minor 3rd B♭ used, which makes the G major blues scale.

Sweet Home Alabama Tab
As you can see, there’s a lot more going on in “Sweet Home Alabama” than most guitarists realize. And I haven’t even touched on all the intricately woven guitar parts featured in the song. Listen carefully to the original recording and you’ll hear that none of the guitars are simply strumming the basic chords and each part is unique. They pick, arpeggiate and riff around the chords bringing into play different articulations, stylistic ideas and chord extensions. I highly recommend getting the complete, accurate Sweet Home Alabama guitar tab and learning all the different guitar parts.

 

Comments ( 5 )

  • Les osborne

    I love your Fretboard Theory II book! You make it so easy to understand “Modes”! What a great addition to your other materials!

  • This is a really great breakdown! This song is a ton of fun to solo over, but I have a new idea now that I’ve read your post. Thanks!

  • Chris Kallaher

    Great post, Desi, and a very clear explanation of why this song is primarily in G major. A good “compare and contrast” song that uses a similar progression is “Can’t You See” by the Marshal Tucker Band. It uses D-C-G-D but clearly calls for D Mixolydian.

  • Richard

    “But since the music spends the most time on the G chord, it’s really the G chord that is the tonal center (called the tonic) of the song. ” – things aren’t that simple. You have to look at the phrasing and how the cadences work. The ‘big moments’ in the song lead into the D chord, making a strong case for that being the tonal centre. There’s a strong case for the piece being in D mixolydian.

  • You’re right. The song can really go both ways. I have always approached the solo sections with G major pentatonic, but lately D major pentatonic sounds good to me. Go figure!

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