The flat-six chord can add drama to your music and — with some exceptions — works best when used sparingly in your songwriting.
I’ll never forget the first time I heard “Peggy Sue” by Buddy Holly. (Or, at least, the first time I actively listened to it.) I was in high school, I had just gotten a copy of Buddy Holly’s Greatest Hits in the mail from Columbia House (13 records for $1!), and I was excited to explore his music since he was a big influence on the Beatles.
The song starts off like pretty much every other great Buddy Holly song: three chords (A, D, and E), hiccup-y vocals, etc. Granted, the arrangement was unusual, with the drummer lightly paradiddling away on the toms — almost like a surf rock song — but otherwise, nothing terribly weird. And then-BAM! Blink and you miss it. Right in the middle of the bridge, he throws a curveball chord over the words “Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty.” It was such a galvanic moment, I had to figure it out.
Not having a good ear, I grabbed my guitar and ran through all the chords in A major: F#m, Bm, C#m, etc. None of them worked. I tried a G. No dice. Exasperated, I started playing every chord I knew, regardless of key, until I landed on F major. It worked. The bridge goes A major to F major and then back again. On paper, it doesn’t seem weird. But F major isn’t in A major, so how exactly did that chord work? And why did it sound so great?
(It’s not just me, by the way, here’s a conversation between Ron Wood and Paul McCartney talking about that very chord. “Where did that F come from?” asks Paul. And watch how excited Ron is to play that part of the song.)
Borrowed chords are commonly used in music influenced by the blues, including rock, jazz, R&B, even country and folk. A borrowed chord is a chord “borrowed” from a key’s parallel minor. In the key of C major, for example, we can borrow a B-flat major (bVII, or flat-seven) from C minor and it doesn’t sound weird in spite of the fact that C major doesn’t have a Bb in it. The flat-seven chord is used so often and has become so ingrained in our musical DNA, it doesn’t even feel like a borrowed chord at all. It just seems normal. For example, think of J. J. Cale’s “Cocaine.” The main riff of the song just goes between the I and the bVII (E to D in Eric Clapton’s cover), and no one even blinks at it. It just sounds normal for blues-based rock.
There are other chords one can borrow from the parallel minor besides the flat-seven, chords that do sound more exotic, including the flat-three chord (which really sounds bluesy), the minor fourth, and the one I’m going to focus on today, the flat-six (bVI).
To be clear, especially since “Sixth chords add moody complexity to your music” was recently posted on this blog, a flat-six is not a special kind of chord. It’s just a major chord with its root on the flattened sixth scale degree of your home key. So, if your song is in C major, the flat-six chord would be A-flat major. If you are in A, like in “Peggy Sue,” it’s an F major.
Why a flat-six chord “works”
At first glance, an A-flat major (Ab-C-Eb) shouldn’t work in C: It features two notes (Ab and Eb) that are foreign to that key. But the chord’s major third note is a C natural, which is, of course, our tonic. And the chord’s “foreign” (non-diatonic) notes are just a half step away from two of the notes in a C major chord (C-E-G): the Ab wants to resolve down to G and the Eb wants to move up to E.
How to use it
With any chord or note, context is everything. The most common way flat-six chords are used are basically as passing chords that resolve to the V7, before going to our root. “Cocaine” again provides a classic example of this. The chorus goes E-D-C-B, or I-bVII-bVI-V. That C major chord, the flat-six, has a ton of restless energy, and it’s desperate to resolve down to the B chord. If you were to stop the song on that C chord, listeners would fall out of their chairs.
While using the flat-six chord to resolve to the dominant is a certainly valid (and time-tested) use for the chord, I find that it slightly neuters the power of that chord. More interesting (IMO) is to go from the bVI right back to the I, as we saw in “Peggy Sue.”
Elvis Costello gives us two nice uses of the flat-six in “Clowntime is Over.”
The intro features these chords: C-F-C-Ab. Feel how that Ab just hangs there, full of energy, desperate to resolve. Costello gives us that resolve, starting his verse off on C. It’s a great way to energize that beginning. Then, in the chorus (at 0:32), we go
C F Ab Fm C
Clowntime is over, time to take cover…
Note how fresh that Ab feels, like the song has suddenly leapt to life. Here he resolves that Ab to an Fm, which is another borrowed chord, giving us a softer, slightly less satisfying resolution, but it works because the chorus is only halfway done.
That I-IV-bVI progression never fails to thrill. Perhaps the most famous early example of this is in the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There.” The flat-six comes on that amazing “Oooh!” in the chorus.
Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” features this progression: F-Bb-Ab-Db. This song features two borrowed chords, the flat-three (Ab) and flat-six (Db). This song is so well known it can be hard to hear that progression with fresh ears, so let’s look at two ways that progression could have gone, and why the one Kurt Cobain chose works so well.
Had he stuck to “regular” chords (i.e. chords normally found in our key of F) he could have done this: F-Bb-G-C. (Yes, technically that G should be a G minor, but for reasons I won’t go into, it’s common enough to use a major there). That’s a perfectly workable progression, and there are plenty of songs that do that.
He also could have “borrowed” a progression from Leadbelly, whom we know he adored. “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” if transposed to F, uses these chords: F-Bb-Ab-C. This is an interesting progression for two reasons. One: we get the flat-three chord that shows up in “Teen Spirit” (and clearly this song must have inspired the Nirvana tune), and this gives the song its bluesy feeling. Two: going from Ab to C is the same flat-six to one progression we saw in “Clowntime is Over.” So even though the song isn’t in C, it still has some of that flat-six energy.
But in both of these alternative progressions, we’re ending on C, the dominant chord. And while C to F is a totally tried-and-true cadence, feel how much more exciting Nirvana’s progression is, ending on that flat-six chord. That Db absolutely propels the song forward. (Dave Grohl’s drumming doesn’t hurt, either.)
My final example is Boston’s “More Than a Feeling,” a song that was thought to have inspired “Teen Spirit.” While the progression in the chorus isn’t the same as the one in “Teen Spirit,” it does feature a whopping use of the flat-six (Eb).
G C Em D
It’s more than a feeling, (more than a feeling)
G C Em D
when I hear that old song they used to play (more than a feeling)
G C Em D
I begin dreaming (more than a feeling)
G C Eb(!)
till I see Marianne walk away
Feel how that Eb chord is just so beautifully jarring. No wonder the band uses it to put the brakes on the chorus. Then, in an interesting case of chord substitution, rather than resolve that flat-six back to G, the band takes a little side journey to G’s relative minor of Em:
Em A Asus4 A G
I see my Marianne walking away
Except in jazz, flat-six chords are usually just played as regular major triads. You can play a bVI7 chord (e.g. Ab7 in the key of C), though you’ll find that is much better served as a passing chord resolving down to the V7 (G) before going to the I. Why this is so: the 7 in Ab7 is a Gb, which, when coupled with the Ab note gives you two tones that want to move to G natural (the Gb wants to move up to G and the Ab wants to move down to it).
Also, with the exception of Nirvana, the songs that seem to make the most of their flat-six chords use them sparingly. As thrilling as that chord can be, it can lose its power if used too often. Nirvana gets away with it thanks to their use of dynamics, but for the most part, your best bet is to use it for your most dramatic moments.