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You're Playing It Wrong: "Green Oniions"

October 23, 2013
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OH, GEEZ! HERE’S A GOOD’ UN : Somehow, it took hearing the Booker T. & the M.G.s’ classic “Green Onions” on a recent television commercial to come to the embarrassing realization that I’ve been playing Steve Cropper’s rhythm guitar figure wrong for, oh, about 40 years. But, that epiphany got me thinking that there might others in the same boat.

The song begins with Booker T.’s famous F minor-based organ groove, which has been arranged for guitar in Ex. 1a. (Tip: Try playing it an octave higher.) B.T. vamps on this one-bar, I-minor-chord figure for four bars before Cropper enters and the 12-bar blues form commences. To point out another common error, the progression does not stick to a strict minor blues format, as B.T. uses the major-based IV- and V-chord moves illustrated in Examples 1b and 1c during bars 5, 6, 9, and 10. Note that even though the IV and V chords are major (Bb and C), the minor-third-to-perfect- fourth jumps in each figure reinforce an overall minor tonality. Plug these three figures into their appropriate slots in a 12-bar Fm-Fm-Fm-Fm-Bb-Bb-Fm-Fm-C-Bb- Fm-Fm progression and groove on.

Here’s the lowdown regarding Cropper’s part: Upon entering at the top of the progression, Cropper lays down sharp, staccato Tele stabs, all anticipated on the and of beat four. Now, I don’t know about you, but for way too many years, I just assumed he was playing the 5 and root of each chord on the B and E strings like a standard, mid-register R&B “chick.” (Maybe it was my crappy stereo.) Ex. 2a portrays my mistaken Im figure, while Ex. 2b shows fingerings for the erroneous IV- and V-chord stabs.

But, what’s really happening here is quite extraordinary. Ex. 3 reveals that Cropper’s sting-y punctuations are actually three-note, second-inversion major triads played a fourth higher than each chord in the progression—that’s right, it’s in two keys at the same time! Check it out: Cropper plays Bb chords over Booker T.’s tonic Fm figures, and extends his M.O. to include the IV and V chords, where he substitutes Eb and F triads for B.T.’s Bb and C changes. Holy polytonality!

What’s the moral? Go back and listen with today’s ears to some favorite songs that you’ve played many times, but haven’t heard in years. You may be surprised.

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