Gerry Rafferty

“Planing” Chords to Create an Interesting Moment In Your Songs

Maybe I’m just not paying enough attention to today’s new music, but it seems to me that in the 70s and 80s, mainstream pop groups did a better job of using interesting chord progressions that added a lot to the overall effect of their music.

As you likely know, I encourage especially newer songwriters to stick to basic chords, but that’s mainly because a standard progression that uses predictable chords is a far better alternative than a “creative” progression that’s not making a lot of sense (i.e., badly written).

But creative chords that use inversions, added tones and other kinds of non-chord tones can add so much. And as I say, back in the 70s and 80s, there seemed to be a way for songwriters of the top-40 type to use these more creative progressions.

If you’ve been wanting to become a more creative writer when it comes to chords, the best way to increase the number of chords on your sound palette is to analyze songs that you know are using less-than-ordinary progressions.

Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” — his hit single from 1978 — serves as a perfect reminder that creative chord progressions, ones that pull you in and out of the key you thought you were in, and offer chords that don’t resolve the way you thought they’d resolve, definitely do belong in pop music.

In fact, Rafferty uses a chord technique called planing to create this iconic opening.

How Chord Planing Works

Let’s take a quick look at the chords for the intro to “Baker Street”, and then consider two different ways that you can make unusual chord progressions work for your own target audience.

INTRO: G/A  Eb/F  F/G |G/A Eb/F  F/G

In case you’re not familiar with slash chord notation, the note to the left of a slash is the chord you play, and the note to the right of the slash is the bass note that should be played at the same time.

It’s a gorgeous start to this song, but normally when you see these kinds of chord inversions (G/A, etc), it’s indicating that it’s a kind of dominant chord that wants to move to the chord four notes higher than the bass note. In other words, you’d typically follow G/A with D.

But in this case, Rafferty slides the whole chord structure downward to Eb/F, then moves up to F/G. When you do this to this kind of dominant chord, you strip it of its normal chord function, and now the chord is used simply as a complex sound that gets moved around wherever you want it to go.

Taking a chord structure and “sliding it around” like this is called chord planing, and it’s a very creative way to help audiences make sense of otherwise complex chords. For example, you could take, let’s say, a chord structure like this: G/C (a G chord with C in the bass). You could then plane that up and down and create this progression:

G/C  Bb/Eb  C/F  Bb/Eb

Using those chords you could create a little riff where, because all the notes of all the chords are moving up and down together, it all just seems to make sense:

So if you find yourself experimenting with an interesting chord change, but you’re worried that it’s not making tonal sense in your song’s key, this little chord planing trick — the same trick Rafferty used in “Baker Street” — can provide an interesting moment.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

Essential Chord ProgressionsLooking for lists of progressions you can use in your own songs? “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle has 2 main collections, plus eBooks on how to harmonize your own melodies, and more.

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  1. Hi again Gary, speaking of technology, should I have a WordPress account to survey the discussion? Or what does WordPress do for me? An option came up for me to create an account somewhere along my merry way…

    • I’m not aware that you have to have a WordPress account to be involved in discussions on my blog. I’ve been under the impression that anyone can comment and see everyone’s comments. But this isn’t the case for you?


      • Hi Gary,
        You are probably correct, not sure why an option to create a WordPress account came up when I was on this site. Or maybe I wasn’t..

        Keep up the good work! I enjoy!


  2. And aren’t there some musicians (Jane Siberry) and bands who have pushed back refusing to be governed by the producer? And aren’t there many opportunities to produce your own music today, if you know the technology, without a producer?

    • Yes, some artists have been quite successful pushing back against producers. But the issue today is that since the producer appears to be heavily involved in the artists’ music making right from the start, they seem to be able to cultivate a sense that they’re all involved in the project, bypassing the traditional arguments that would happen between recording artists/groups and producers.


  3. Hi Gary,
    I agree, the music of yesterday seems to me more challenging more interesting. Yet maybe as you say I am not listening closely enough to today’s music. It is dangerous to make generalizations and there is the possibility of glorifying the past the older you get. And I am getting old.
    But we can’t forget The Beatles The Rolling Stones, Buffalo Springfield, Jefferson Airplane, Electric Light Orchestra, Harmonium.. I could go on but I am no doubt digging my own hole to say more.
    I love your posts Gary. You are a great writer and can simplify things and explain with clarity.
    I have commented on this site before but did not see other comments in the discussion thread, if we could call it that. Am I missing something? Maybe it will work for me this time.


    Nancy Dow

    • Hi Nancy:

      Your comment has got me thinking about another big difference between the music of the 70s and the music of today. Today, the producer seems to play a much stronger role in the final product of the recording group. These days, the producer is also being credited as the songwriter, and often performs (or programs) the actual music — a de facto group member. Back in the day of the groups you mention, there was a bit of a battle going on, where the groups would try to push the boundaries of what they thought their music should sound like, and then the producer would push back, trying to get the song to sound more acceptable to the target audience.

      In many cases, the producer today is responsible for getting the basic backing track written and ready for a topliner, whose main job is simply to get a melody working with that backing track. So my point is that the producers know what will sell, and because the backing track is created almost in a separate part of the process, the chance to push the boundaries by the artist doesn’t seem to be there. Harmonically, I find today’s music much more careful and basic, and the differing role of the producer might be to blame. I wonder if a record producer might weigh in on this.

      Thanks Nancy,

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