A pedal point is the repetition or sustain of a single note throughout various harmonic changes that can make a standard progression more interesting or ground a complex progression in something familiar.
It’s amazing how powerful one note can be. Depending on how it’s used, a pedal point can add an incredible amount of excitement or tension to a song. It can give soloists the ability to explore distant harmonic lands. It can make people want to dance or bang their heads, or it can fill the listener with dread.
Not bad for one note.
A pedal point is the repetition or sustain of a single note throughout various harmonic changes. The repeated note is usually played in the bass, though it can be played as the highest note (called an inverted pedal) or voiced in the middle (called an internal pedal). Pedal points are basically as old as music itself. They have been used in classical music since before Bach and are standard features of folk music traditions from all over the world (e.g. Indian tamburas and Scottish bagpipes.)
“Jump” by Van Halen is a frequently cited example, but here’s another great one from a few years earlier. “Abacab” by Genesis features three pedals: a C in the verse, a G in the chorus, and an A in the bridge. This pedal not only drives the beat, it also gives added harmonic flavor to what would otherwise be fairly standard chords. (Genesis actually used pedal points all the time.)
Here’s one of my favorite examples: the theme to the original Dawn of the Dead, performed by the excellent Italian band Goblin. The pedal starts around the 0:47 mark and soaks the film with impending doom
Though technically a pedal is just one note, the bass in the Coltrane quartet’s version of “My Favorite Things” still functions as a pedal, even though it features a flourish or two. Bassist Steve Davis mostly hangs on that E note while McCoy Tyner plays all sorts of chords, including Em7, F#m7, Am7, D7, Gmaj7, etc. This video nicely emphasizes the bass.
This was quite a departure from standard jazz bass, which normally featured walking bass lines. And while much of “My Favorite Things” is a two-chord vamp, pedal point would play a larger role in jazz throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s because it allowed the soloists and accompanists more freedom. (Metal bands use pedal points all the time for the same reason.)
Miles Davis’ “Shhhh/Peaceful” offers a great example of this. Dave Holland plays a D pedal while three keyboardists — Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Joe Zawinul — all go to town, layering all kinds of chords over each other, and John McLaughlin delivers a quiet, tasteful solo. Without that pedal, it would be a mess. The bass also gives the song its unique groove.
I mentioned earlier that a pedal point doesn’t have to be in the bass. The Replacements’ “Here Comes a Regular” offers a nice example of an inverted pedal. Note the ringing high C#, which lends a wistful air to this song.
Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt” features an inverted pedal: an insistent, high G, played on piano during the chorus, which, coupled with Cash’s gravitas-filled singing, feels like impending doom.
“Wonderwall” by Oasis features a double inverted pedal point, with the guitarist playing two notes, an E and an A over the chords F#m, A, E, B.
Internal pedals are less common in modern music, though they are regularly featured in various folk traditions (tamburas often play this role). A nice example of an internal pedal from a pop album is the Beatles’ “Blackbird,” which features a ringing “middle” G note throughout the song.
Putting pedals to work
Pedal points — especially bass pedals — can make your humdrum chord progression more interesting. As much as songwriters love to create unique chord progressions, often the most successful songs, or most powerful choruses, are when songwriters use tried-and-true progressions, like the classic I-V-vi-IV progression found in numerous hits (e.g. “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Poker Face,” etc.). You can make a well-used progression sound interesting by employing a pedal. The easiest to experiment with are tonic and dominant pedals, but interesting things can happen when you use a different note. (For example, if you’re in C, try that I-V-vi-IV progression with an F (subdominant) in the bass, or a high E as an inverted pedal.)
Pedals can also help make bizarre chord progressions smoother. Take this progression — which I grabbed from the Secrets of Songwriting article on the power of the pedal point — C Eb Ab F Db G C. If you play it straight, with the bass playing the root of each chord, you can hear how it’s a pretty out-there progression. That may be just what you want. But if you want to soften that progression a little, try adding either a tonic or dominant pedal and see where that takes you.
Scott McCormick is a musician and the author of the Mr. Pants series of graphic novels for kids. His new audiobook, Rivals! Frenemies Who Changed the World, has been described as “drunk history for middle-grade kids” and is available on Audible. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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