Brian Wilson songwriting

Brian Wilson’s songwriting tricks and techniques

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We look at recurring songwriting and chord techniques Brian Wilson used to create some of the most beloved and enduring songs in 20th century popular music.

In “The ingenious musical arrangements of Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys,” we explored Brian Wilson’s unique arrangements in an effort to better understand what makes him stand out as a master at crafting a song. This post will dig into some of the tricks Wilson used to write some of the most memorable and beloved songs in 20th century popular music. The next time you’re seeking inspiration for a song, maybe some of these techniques can stir the muse.

Slash chords

Slash cords, or inverted chords, are simply chords where the bass note is something other than the root. A typical slash chord you might see is D/F#, which means you’re playing a D major chord with an F# in the bass (also known as the first inversion). While slash chords pop up quite a bit in rock, Brian Wilson uses them more extensively and creatively than perhaps any other songwriter in rock and pop music.

Basslines. One way Wilson uses slash chords – and this is also the most common use of slash chords employed in rock and pop – is in service to bass guitar. This makes sense, since Wilson was a bassist and often composed with the bass in mind. The most common way you hear these type of slash chords is with a descending bassline. Frequently a songwriter will choose to hang on one chord while the bass descends underneath (à la the intro and chorus to the Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon,” or the opening lines of the Beach Boys’ “Wonderful”). Less common, but one that Wilson employs a lot, is to change chords, but frame the chords to keep the bassline descending. One nice example of this use of slash chords in an oft-overlooked gem from 1970’s Sunflower album called “Our Sweet Love,” featuring an unusual chord progression with a highly chromatic bassline.

G     Bm7/F#     Dm6/F     C/E     Cm/Eb
I thought about a   summer day and   how the time just   floats away

Pedal tone. The opposite approach is to keep the bass on one note (a pedal tone) under a changing chord progression. “A Day in the Life of a Tree” from 1971’s Surf’s Up album makes effective use of this. The first several chords are played over a pedal D (D, F#/D, Em7/D, D7). When the singer (the band’s manager and co-writer of the song Jack Rieley) finally gets to “But now my branches suffer…” the bass finally changes, giving the song a much-needed break from the opening tension.

Extended chords. Another way Wilson uses slash chords is as a sort of shorthand for playing more complex chords. Wilson was highly influenced by the jazz harmonies of groups like the Four Freshmen, and he would often use “exotic” chords (by rock standards) like ninths and elevenths in order to give his vocal harmonies more color. But these chords can be hard to play and they can often sound cluttered, so instead Wilson employs slash chords to imply these chords.

We’ll explore “California Girls” in more detail later, but the first two chords of the verse (“Well East Coast girls are hip, I really dig those styles they wear”) are B and A/B. In this context, A/B is really functioning as a B11, which leads rather nicely to the next chord of E. (A fully fleshed out B11 is: B-D#-F#-A-C#-E. When you play an A/B chord, B-C#-E-A, you’re omitting the 3rd and 5th to focus on the special notes that an 11th chord brings to the table.) The nice thing about this is it’s easy to play: just have your guitarist play an A chord and your bassist play a B… and voila: an 11th chord with no one getting sore fingers.

Ambiguity. The final and most important way Wilson uses slash chords is to create tension and ambiguity. “God Only Knows” offers perhaps the best example of how Wilson employs slash chords in this manner. At first, the song seems to be in the key of A. You hear simple A and E chords playing in the intro. Then the bass kicks in with a nice example of descending bassline slash chords: A, E/G#, A/F#, E. The bass then walks back up (E, F#, G♮) to A. When Carl Wilson starts singing, it’s on a D/A chord. This inversion, where the 5th note in the bass, is the most unstable form of a major chord, and this instability is nicely mirrored by the words (“I may not always love you…”).

Because of this voicing, it’s unclear how we’re supposed to hear this D chord. It doesn’t sound like a I chord (in other words, it doesn’t feel like we’ve transposed to the key of D, even though we passed through the bassline of G natural, instead of G#), but it also doesn’t feel like a IV chord in the key of A. Wilson keeps the listener off balance with other slash chords in the verse, including a nice B/A chord (a highly unstable inversion with the 7th note in the bass) and a E/B chord, which mirrors the earlier D/A chord. Here is the progression for the first verse, because it’s highly unusual and widely studied.

D/A     Bm6
I may not always love you

F#m     F#m7     B/A
But long as there are stars above you

E/B     Cdim
You never need to doubt it

E/B     A#m7b5 (We’ll examine this chord later)
I’ll make you so sure about it

A     E/G#     F#m7     E
God only knows what I’d be without you

A final thought about Wilson’s use of slash chords. When covering songs by other songwriters who use slash chords, I find that, for the most part, I can skip the whole slash part (if the chord is difficult to play on guitar) and the song still sounds fine. But because slash chords are so integral to Wilson’s compositions, that approach really doesn’t work for Beach Boys’ songs. “California Girls” doesn’t sound right if you simply play an A chord on the verse instead of an A/B. Same with playing a D instead of a D/A for “God Only Knows.”

Repeating motifs

This is a technique employed by countless composers and songwriters, though Wilson seems especially enamored of it. The idea is to take a chord progression, a melody, or melodic fragment, and repeat it after having either transposed it or inverted it.

The choruses of two of Wilson’s biggest hits use this gambit in a blatant, almost laughable, way: “Good Vibrations” and “California Girls.” For “Good Vibrations” Mike Love sings the chorus “I’m pickin’ up good vibrations…” over an F#. He repeats it again, only this time the band joins in with the “good-good-good, good vibrations” backup vocals. Then the whole band simply does the exact same thing, only this time in G#. Then… hey that worked, so let’s go up again, this time to A#. When the chorus returns at the end of the song, they simply reverse this pattern, starting in A#, then singing it in G#, then in F#.

The chorus for “California Girls” repeats its same melody and chord pattern transposed a whole step downwards, and then again. It’s worth exploring the chords for this section, however, for those minor seventh chords are pretty interesting.

B     C#m7
I wish they all could be California Girls

A     Bm7
I wish they all could be California Girls

G     Am7     B
I wish they all could be California Girls

A couple of things about those minor seventh chords. First, Brian Wilson LOVES minor seventh chords. He uses them in practically every song he’s ever written. Which is cool, and was highly unusual (for rock) at the time.

The second thing to note is his use of the Am7 to resolve to B major. You’d be hard pressed to find a similar resolution (bvii7 – I) elsewhere in rock. At first this seems puzzling and almost like it shouldn’t work. But when you realize Wilson is essentially using a circle of fourths – with some clever chord substitutions – this makes more sense. If he were playing a straight-up circle of fourths on this song, the progression would be B-E-A-D-G-C then resolve back to B. (Play it on a guitar, and it will make sense.) But Wilson substitutes the relative minor for every other chord – C#m7 is the relative minor of E, Am7 is the relative minor of C, etc. – giving the chorus a more exotic flair.

The orchestral introduction to “California Girls,” which was widely celebrated at the time, prefigures this whole concept of repeating a melody and then moving it down a whole step. (The opening figure is played four times in B before moving down to A.)

Wilson uses repeating motifs (aka: theme and variations) over and over again throughout his career. Think of “I Get Around,” which has the background singers repeating “get around-round-round I get around” on different chords (G, E7, Am, F (D7)). Or “All Summer Long,” where he repeats the melody and the lyrics (“Sitting in my car outside your house”) over two different chords, C and Eb.

Augmented chords

Augmented chords (major chords with a sharpened 5th, for example C-E-G#) aren’t found too often in rock. (One notable exception is the first chord in “Oh! Darlin’” by the Beatles.) But Wilson uses them fairly often, especially in his earlier songs. “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)” begins on a G7+/F (slash chord alert!). But more interesting is his use of augmented chords to heighten tension of his dominant seventh chords, as we see in “The Warmth of the Sun.”

At the end of his verse, he lands on a the dominant G7 chord, which already wants to resolve to C, but then he pushes things even further by following that with a G7+, which really pulls you back to C. (This song also shows how Wilson is able to come up with unique and startling variations on the “Heart and Soul” chords.)

C     Am     Eb     Cm7     Dm7     G7     G7+5
What good is the     dawn     that     grows into     day

Half-diminished chords

We saw one of these already in “God Only Knows.” A half-diminished chord is the same as a minor seventh flat five (m7b5, sometimes written as m7-5). The symbol for this chord is ø7 or simply ø. To clarify what this chord is, a Cø is C-Eb-Gb-Bb. This is different from a Cdim7 chord, which is C-Eb-Gb-A. (Frankly, the nomenclature for these two different diminished chords is all messed up: what we call a dim7 chord should really be called a dim6 chord, but I digress.)

Though ø chords are frequently found in jazz, Wilson is one of the very few rock songwriters to regularly employ them, and they give his music a unique sound. Pet Sounds is littered with ø chords.

There are two ways in which Wilson uses half-diminished chords. One is simply as a by-product of his basslines. In “God Only Knows” we saw this in action as the bass moved down from a Cdim to E/B to A#ø to an A in the chorus. (Also, it doesn’t hurt that Carl Wilson sings a high, yearning A# note on the word “sure” on that A#ø chord, which mentally makes us want to hear a resolve to an A chord.) We’ll see a clearer example of this in our last song.

Another way Wilson uses these chords is much more typical of jazz, which is as a predominant chord, setting up your dominant seventh (often a flat ninth chord). We see a beautiful example of this from the bridge on “Caroline, No” on Pet Sounds.

Fmaj9
Oh Caroline, you

Dm7     G7     Cmaj7
Break my heart, I want to go and cry

Bø     E7b9     Am7
It’s so sad to watch a sweet thing die

Fm6/Ab
Oh Caroline, why

(Note the descending bassline from C to Ab. That Fm6/Ab really pulls you down towards the next chord, which is an Em7/G.)

Modulations

So far, all of these techniques are pretty easy to employ yourself. (Though, granted, it’s nice if you have Wilson’s gift for melody. It also helps if you write your songs on a piano, as some of these chords and voicing are pretty guitar-unfriendly.) This technique, however, may prove difficult to achieve, but we’ll discuss it since it’s so central to Brian Wilson’s music.

Brian Wilson loves to change keys in his songs. It doesn’t matter how short the song is, he seems to want to modulate as often as possible.

In his early songs, he simply did what a lot of early rock and roll guys did, and that is to modulate up for the last verse and/or chorus. This is a classic gambit that can breathe new energy into the end of your song. While most early rockers liked to modulate up a whole step, Wilson’s songs more often than not tend to modulate up a half step, which is a little jazzier. “Don’t Back Down,” for example, employs this half-step modulation (from Ab to A) though this song is a bit unusual in that they sing the verses in Ab and the chorus in A. Note how much tension he builds at the end of his verse by going from an Eb chord (“They grit their teeth…”) to an E on the word “down,” making the chorus especially explosive.

But Wilson soon became more creative and restless with his key modulations than his peers. In fact, he would often modulate so much and so wildly that his songs become almost unglued and ethereal.

Take “The Girls on the Beach” from 1964, which moves around so much it’s hard to believe it doesn’t sound like a jumbled mess. The songs starts in Eb, modulates up to E for the chorus, has a bridge in Gm, and then, in the final verse, it moves from Eb to E, up to F for the chorus, and then back down to E for the outro. And frankly, that’s not even highlighting all the weird changes in this song. They’re worth checking out.

Wilson’s 1970 masterpiece “This Whole World” offers another master class is key modulation. For a song that’s only 1:50 long, there are four modulations, from C to A to Db in the verse, then to Bb in the bridge; rinse and repeat. There are 16 different chords (not counting slash chords) in the first 40 seconds. Again, it should be a mess, but Wilson makes it look easy. All that, plus a nice a capella section: this song is basically a thesis statement in how to make a Beach Boys song.

There’s plenty more to discover in the songwriting of Brian Wilson, and we’ll explore his album Smile in a future post. Let’s finish up with “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder),” a Beach Boys classic that incorporates everything we’ve discussed so far: slash chords (both of the tonal ambiguity and descending bassline varieties), augmented chords, ø chords, repeating motifs (the melody of the first two lines of the song), and a nice key modulation in the bridge (not to mention all the beautiful and complex arrangements we discussed in our earlier post).

In other words, just another Brian Wilson song.

Dm     Dm7     Dm6/F     E7
I can hear so much in your sighs

Gm6/Bb     A7+     Dm7/C     Bø
And I can see so much in your eyes

Bbm6     F/A     Gm7
There are words we both could say

C7     Gm7
Don’t talk, put your head on my shoulder

C7     Gm7
Come close, close your eyes and be still

Eb9     Bbm7
Don’t talk, take my hand

F+/A     Bbm6/G/F/Eb     Db     F/C
And let me hear your heart   beat

Dm     Dm7     Dm6/F     E7
Being here with you feels so right

Gm6/Bb     A7+     Dm7/C     Bø
We could live forever tonight

Bbm6     F/A     Gm7
Let’s not think about tomorrow

Dm7     G7/F
Listen, listen, listen

C/G     Fm6/Ab     Eb/G     Gdim     F/A     Bbm6     F/C     C7

C7     Gm7
But don’t talk, put your head on my shoulder

C7     Gm7
But don’t talk, put your head on my shoulder


Scott McCormick is a musician and the author of the Mr. Pants series of graphic novels for kids. He also runs Storybook Editing, offering developmental editing for authors.

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8 thoughts on “Brian Wilson’s songwriting tricks and techniques

  1. To Scott, first off, great article! Just to clarify one point (a moment to allow my music theory training to seep through–finally, a use!). The reason why it’s called a diminished 7th, not a diminished 6th, is because technically it should be spelled C-Eb-Gb-Bbb. It’s the interval relationship with the root of the chord, in this case “C”. Therefore, the “B” is the 7th; “Bb” is the minor 7th; “Bbb” is the diminished 7th. I hope that helps.

  2. I may be totally wrong but regarding many of the unusual chords that Brian used I wonder how much of his music was influenced by recording studio technology. Besides having been in many recording studios and having my own at one time and seeing how sounds were speeded up and slowed down on different songs which on tape was possible. Snare drums were slowed down to make them sound deeper and fuller and other instruments were speeded up. Joe Meeks records were always a lot faster than the original recording and he said “most pop songs sound better speeded up” So we don’t know how much of what Brian did was intentional. ‘Good Vibrations’ took 6 months of solid studio time–something that could never happen today–but it was worth it.

  3. One of the greatest examples, but left out of the Article…”Little St. Nick”! It’s loaded with slash chords, and extended chords sung by the vocals. I’d love to hear a bunch of High School kids, SATB of about 30 kids, with a rock band [ 2 guitars, one acoustic, one electric, keyboard, bass and drums ] . Talk about an opportunity for audience participation at the end of a Holiday Concert! Ya, I work at a public school and am a guitar/trumpet player of 50 years.

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