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The Chords of ‘Wichita Lineman’ Blew Me Away

The recent loss of Glen Campbell – a music business legend if there ever was one – got me thinking about and listening again to my favorite of Glen’s hits – ‘Wichita Lineman’, written by Jimmy Webb (it’s also by far my favorite Jimmy Webb song).

This led me to breaking down the music of the song… and being blown away. It’s amazing to me how, when I analyze a song I like – usually for these blogposts – I always discover that there are specific technical reasons for why I like a song, why it works so well. (Of course there are also aspects that can’t be explained… the synergistic mysteries of words and music coming together.)

So, looking at the chords of Wichita Lineman (not for today the great melody or lyrics), what comes up?

Probably the most unusual aspect of the song is its harmony; its chord progression.

INTRO     | Fmaj7 | Fsus4 | Fmaj7 | Fsus4 |
VERSE    | Bbmaj7 | F/A | C7sus4 | Dminor Aminor | G | D | D |
CHORUS | Csus2 | Csus2 | G/B | Gminor/Bb | D/A | A7sus4 || Bbmaj7 | C | Bb | Csus4 |

As you listen (and do listen – and play); notice a few things:

The 7 bar Verse contains two melodic phrases of 3 bars each with an extra bar of D added for the pickup to the Chorus. This gets us pleasantly off balance right away.

The chord progression is a roller coaster, a grab bag of surprises. Start by observing the variety of different chords in this brief song – triads, majors, minors, 7ths and major 7ths, sus4 chords, suspended chords (D/A), chords with non-root tones in the bass (G/B, Gminor/Bb).

This variety, combined with the harmonic misdirection described next, is what makes the song sound so consistently fresh and surprising. No matter how many times you’ve heard it, it’s still hard for the ear to predict what the next shift is. And, as usual with a great song, a great melody leads us through.

The way the song plays with its key centers without hitting them is fascinating too. Check it out… The Intro starts in F… even though there’s an Fsus before the Verse, it seems like we’re in the key of F… the Verse is Bb, F/A, C7sus4, Dminor, A minor… but then a Gmajor chord (not in the key of F), followed by a Dmajor (after we just heard a Dminor)… harmonically speaking, we don’t know where we’re heading…

The Chorus chords are C, G/B, Bb, D/A, A7sus4…. at that point it sounds like we’re going to land on a D chord – the same chord that sounded like a V chord at the end of the Verse. But instead he hits Bb to C twice (under the famous ‘morse code/telegraph’ riff), indicating that, far from arriving at the key of D, we’re heading back to F (except we never quite land there, either – the Verse starts back on Bb – the IV chord of F).

It’s a classic of harmonic misdirection but, as with regular so-called ‘magic’, the trick is so natural and feels so good that you don’t even recognize you’ve been had! In fact you’re glad to be a victim of this sleight of ear.

Mainly, play through (and sing) the song a few times, considering the above. You’ll be glad you did.

Let me know your thoughts, additions, disagreements in the Comments section below:

wichita lineman


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12 responses to “The Chords of ‘Wichita Lineman’ Blew Me Away”

  • Tom

    The playfulness of the chord progression is a real surprise because the melody it supports feels so natural, effortless, inevitable. That’s great songwriting.

  • Nice one, Tony! I’m a big fan of this song, too. I really appreciate you focusing on the harmony here. (So many discussions of the song don’t, perhaps because everything else about it is remarkable, too.)

    It’s pretty but not formulaic. As complex a progression it might be, it’s never dissonant. And while it’s often (as you describe well) unresolved, I’m not sure ever feel misled. Maybe I listen to too much Scriabin and Strayhorn. Or, to look at it from another angle, maybe what’s misleading is the Hollywood country beat and phrasing.

    I hear Fmaj7 and Bbmaj7 as the harmonic bedrock of the song. Just playing those two chords back and forth, I feel on my way to any number of less interesting gentle/sophisticated songs of the era. Throw in the classic Capitol/Wrecking Crew sound, and there’s your bait for the switch.

    The harmonic transcription I like best is this guitar version by “DiddyD”, which differs slightly from yours:

    INTRO | Fmaj7 | C11 | Fmaj7 | C11
    VERSE | Bbmaj7 | Fmaj7/A | C11 | Dm7 Am7 | G4 G | D D4 | D
    CHORUS | Cadd9 | Cadd9 | G/B | Gm/Bb | D/A | A7sus4 || Bbmaj7 | Csus2 | Bbmaj7 |

    There’s even more variety in the types of chords. But, for me, this version offers more defined harmonic color and clearer movement. Some of the chordal discrepancies make a real difference to me. I’ll attempt to explain why, partly so I can get practice thinking this way.

    While it might look like a roller coaster on paper, I find it plays very naturally, maybe because so many of the chords hold over notes from the ones preceding them.

    – The chord names in the chorus are sort of misleading; The most important thing is that it holds a D over a chromatic descent.

    – Similarly, the second phrase of the verse holds a C over an otherwise square D A G progression.

    – In the “morse code” part, Bbmaj7 and Csus2 sound more correct to me than plain triads. The maj7 is prettier and pushes us more towards D, and then the C has a D in it, too (with D being a plausible resolution/home note, at least for this section).

    Then there’s a couple points where this arrangement differs from yours by using a C11:

    – In the intro, I do feel like it moves to C11 rather than Fsus4: I hear the the root move, and I hear D and G on top.

    – Then, in the middle of the verse I like C11 instead of C7sus4: adding that D helps lead us into the D-colored second phrase. And it reminds us of the intro—so it’s unresolved but not unfamiliar.

    Obviously this all just one amateur fan’s opinion! Hopefully I make some sense; I’m not trained in this stuff.

    And I haven’t even started to think about how the melody interacts with the harmony yet.

  • Gordon

    Found from a piano player at a jam playing this song that there’s a D note as a pedal tone all the way thru the song. What I really mean is that that D is in early chord all the way thru. Try just playing that D all the way thru. Makes a very cool harmony across all the chords, especially when it gets to the ‘wichita lineman’ lyric and right after! Very subtle, very cool!

    1. That’s a cool way to think of it. This might be a much shorter way of saying what I was trying to say!

  • Gordon

    Sorry, that’s every chord all the way thru.

  • Great analytical breakdown of this song by Billy Joel on both musical and lyrical levels as he presented Jimmy Webb with the 2003 Johnny Mercer Award which can be found on YouTube.

    The intro chords are somewhat moot because many artists have used different intros but in the standard version I hear no E natural in the second chord, so I think “DiddyD” is inaccurate by spelling it “C11” and I support Tony’s Fsus4, aka Gm7/C.

    This also applies to DiddyD’s “C11” in the verse and by “G4” doesn’t he mean “Gsus4”? Also, Tony’s “Bb+2” is ambiguous, the “+” sign implying an augmented chord but I hear no F#.

    This song will certainly pass the test of time!

  • Joyce Rogers

    great in depth postings

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