I've been learning about harmony, and the harmonisation of major scales.

I can recognise simple chord progressions, and I try and practice by listening to popular songs.

For a major scale, we have:

I ii iii IV V vi vii-dim 

Here's my question : what if the chords in a song do not match any pattern known for a major scale ?

Here is an example I'm lost with - It's "Hey Joe" by Jimi Hendrix.

C G D A E 

No minor chords, only major. I have no idea how to approach this !


7 Answers 7


There are many ways to deviate from the pattern. In this example a very common pattern emerges from the circle of 5ths.

The chords don't belong to any one key, but rather come from multiple keys. You start with a C and go to G (I to V in the key of C), then you go from a G to a D(I to V in the key of G), then you go from a D to a A(I to V in the key of D), then you go from a A to a E(I to V in the key of A). From there in the E chord you have the notes E, G#, B and to get back to a C the G# goes down to a G by half step, the B goes up to a by half step, and E is common.

Keep learning more theory including modes, secondary dominants, substitutions, etc., and you will be able to recognize and utilize these deviations.

  • Plausible theory, but I think it doesn't explain how the song actually feels. :) The most natural way to hear the C - G - D - A part to my ear is IV - I - V - II in G, and then the E major - and perhaps the preceding A major is the only real "surprise" with a touch of key change feeling, because E minor was expected. To make it feel like the suggested circle-of-fifths thing with a series of I - V (or IV - I?) motions requires adding something that I don't hear in Jimi's singing in the song. Commented Dec 28, 2019 at 16:44
  • If this is the officially correct internet truth on Hey Joe, it should at least mention other perspectives. On the C, supposed "I" chord, if you try to play a cadence C - F - G - C ... that's just wrong. It's not I - V in C, it's IV - I in G. Commented Dec 28, 2019 at 20:56

Just done a trawl through sheet music, to find it's been written with key signatures of C, G and E. The original, which lands on A, has no key sig.

Most of the solo work seems to be using E minor pent/blues.

It could be construed that it's in E, as that's the chord it gravitates to each verse.

Or the chords could be explained (in E) as coming from parallel keys: C- from Em; G- from Em; D- from Em; A- from E major.

Most songs with more than three chords use the extras to go through part of the cycle of fourths/fifths. As in key C, they may stray to A, then D, then G to return to home - C.

Hey Joe does the opposite. From C, the cycle goes backwards until it gets to E. This gives the opportunity for the bass riff, which follows the chords with the same pattern for each, until E is reached.


In rock music it is not uncommon for the root notes of chords to follow a scale, while the chords all are major chords (or distorted fifths, i.e. power chords which have an overtone series much like a major triad). Therefore it can be more meaningful to analyze the harmony of a rock song by considering what scale/mode the root motion implicates. Many of the theories of harmony, such as considering the quality of chords (minor, major etc.) based on a diatonic collection of notes (major or minor scale), are mostly useful for analysing common practice period tonal music.

In Hey Joe the chord sequence can also be considered a type of subdominant chain (like a dominant chain, but instead of a V of V ... of V movement, the previous chord is always the subdominant of the following chord, as in a IV of IV of chain). A somewhat similar chord sequence can be found in the song Alright by Jamiroquai.


What's to "approach"? Those are the chords. They don't fit any neat system of all being in one scale. It would be ridiculous to invent constant modulations.

Lots of music does this. If your system of theory doesn't "allow" it, find a better system!


interesting ! I never noticed this about Hendrix's Hey Joe (although I've been playing for ages) ..

One trick that I suggest is to listen to the melody of the voice : if you notice, the first notes of the melody are a C (high) and a B (high) : and the first chord change is C moving to G : this , is a first progression, that seem to claim : "we are in the key of G" -meaning that G is the chord that stays in the mind for a little time, just to say we can relax for a while (my explanation of "tonality"..ehm)

of course everything happens so fast , so when you hear D and A and E you dont know what you do , this needs to study music theory with a deeper approach ( and good methods)

In music, we can see the same identical things (such as chord progressions) in different ways: for example, playing the song, to me it sounds like the D chord can be see :

as a bridge to a new tonal center (the final E) built on a minor pentatonic scale in Em , chord that changes abruptly in the end (a technique they use since classical music times)

E pentatonic minor's notes are E G A B D E so the roots of the chords of D and A , and E ,,are present , here

it's only a question of studying more kinds of music theory, because here, the basics of Classical Theory are not enough-

Jazz theory could help, but first of all, you need to comprehend how you can shift from one tonality (key) to another one in a matter of seconds


It has intrigued me for some time that "Hey Joe" seems to go "the wrong way" (resolution->tension, ie backwards) through the cycle of fifths. Quite a few "garage"-type rock songs feature this contrary motion in fourths. Try "Hurt" by Chris Spedding.

In fact, it's possible to harmonise it like this: IVmaj7(#11), Imaj7, V7, iim7, vim7. It's not "Hey Joe", but with some fiddling around voicing the chords, and threading a new melody through them, it sounds quite nice, if a bit doom-laden. Improvising in Phrygian on iii seems to work.

Another curiosity: it's almost, but not quite, the first few chords of "All the things you are", backwards. In fact, it's quite fun to try to try to re-melodicise the first 16 bars of ATTYA backwards...

  • So, given that the sequence is C G D A E, you're putting it in key G? Sort of works, as Jimi solos on Em blues, relative minor.
    – Tim
    Commented Feb 19, 2018 at 14:35

Could you clarify what you mean by "approach"?

If by "approach" you mean "notate the harmonic analysis", take your pick

     1  5  2  6  3 (in C) 
     4  1  5  2  6 (in G)
    b7  4  1  5  2 (in D)
    b3 b7  4  1  5 (in A)
    b6 b3 b7  4  1 (in E)

I'll leave the Roman numerals to you.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.