Play Less, Sound Better - With Only One Chord

What should you play when you're accompanying a vocalist/soloist and you're given the chords only?

How to create an accompaniment for your composition/song?

Answers to these questions require some experience in music, but in this article I'll give you one easy method that (60% of the time) works every time: The Sus2 Method.

Intro: Traditional Chords

Let's start with a chord progression, a very common I-V-vi-IV, which in C would be C - G - Am - F.

A beginner piano player would play it like this, using the root positions for all chords:
The beginner way of playing chords

A beginner guitarist might play this using the default shapes:
The default C - G - Am - F on guitar

These don't sound very interesting. The piano line is very mechanical and jumpy, and I'm not a big fan of the default guitar voicings for C and G.

A more advanced piano player would play something like this:
A more advanced way of playing subsequent chords

Here they are using different inversions of the chords to keep the movement minimal. They are also using symmetrical lines: as the bass goes up, the highest note goes down. This sounds more melodic and interesting than parallel movement.

This is still a bit boring, and playing like this requires experience in chord progression theory and inversions. We need something simpler!

The Sus2 Method

Take the sus2 chord of the tonic (Csus2 in this case), and play it over all the chords, moving only the bass note.
The Sus2 Method of playing C - G - Am - F

This creates new types of chords and voicings with each of the bass notes. The best thing about this method is that it works for all the scale notes, and not just the major but natural minor also!

Don't believe me? Let's check every combo.
Every note in C major/natural minor combined with a Csus2 chord

You'll get some delicious add9/add11/addWhatever sounds. For some extra flavor, try adding a B in there also. The cluster B - C - D works particularly well for the chords with an asterisk in the image above.

How about the guitar? The sus2 shape is easy on the high strings with a barre on e and b. Our C - G - Am - F would go like this:
The Sus2 Method on guitar: C - G - Am - F

As a guitarist, your life will be extra easy if you're playing in the key of A as you can use the open e and b as part of the sus2 chord. Every chord with just two fingers on frets, max!
Playing the guitar in A major. Can it be any easier?

Additional Tips

As with any tips use your own judgment when applying this method. Experiment and try what works and what doesn't. If you play the same sus2 shape all the time it will become boring. Mix it up with

  • rhythmic variation: syncopate or stretch chord changes, use upbeats
  • arpeggio: play notes one by one in a pattern, works especially well with guitar
  • mix in traditional chords, maybe three chords with a sus2, then a "normal" chord
To finish off, see me playing a chord progression with only the The Sus2 Method:


Recreated: Justin Timberlake's Justified - 3 Loops

We're back to recreating tracks but this time it's going to be a little different. I'll recreate three tracks from Justified (2002) by Justin Timberlake.

Why three tracks and not one full track? Well, Justified is packed with great tracks because it was mainly produced by the successful hip-hop/R&B producer duo Chad Hugo & Pharrell Williams a.k.a. The Neptunes. Other tracks featured more personnel but the ones I'm focusing on were written by Timberlake with The Neptunes and produced by the latter.

A lot of the tracks on Justified are also heavily loop-based so getting the loop down gives you like 80-90% of the whole track.

1. Señorita

We'll start with the first track from the album, Señorita. As the name implies it's somewhat latin style influenced. Tempo is 98 and the key is E♭ minor.
The main loop of Señorita

Listen to my recreation:

The main element is a jazzy electric piano riff. It starts on the dominant B♭7 with a descending melody from flat 9 (C♭). It resolves on a E♭m9 but quickly transitions into A♭13 just by changing the bass note. The ending chord G♭13 features a F♭ which brings some more excitement into the harmony progression.

The bass is where this gets interesting since it flips around the whole chord analysis. It's a sub bass sine-like sound in a supporting role, but the note choices are peculiar. During the B♭ chord the bass plays D♭ to E♭ which is the tonic. During the E♭m the bass plays B♭. This is all flipped around, what the hell? Further, while the keys play the 13 chords the bass shifts these a whole tone up, B♭ and A♭.

You could analyze the chords based on the bass notes but that would be unnecessary. Let's just take it as it is because ultimately it sounds great. This is one of those examples in music where it looks weird on paper but works fine in practice. I'd wager that if you mirrored the keys exactly in the bass the loop wouldn't work as well. The end result has a forward momentum because of this intentional harmonic mismatch. You want to hear it resolve but it never gets there.

The drums play a beat which accents the final G♭13 with an open hihat. There also a couple of different shakers doing 16ths and a cowbell with triangle doing straight quarters. The hand clap joins in on the quarters from time to time. The percussion emphasis on quarters contrasts nicely with the other elements which are more rhythmically diverse.

2. Rock Your Body

The sixth track on the album, Rock Your Body, was a huge hit. This disco-funk style track was originally intended for Michael Jackson (along with some other tracks on Justified) which you can imagine by listening to the chorus. Tempo is 101 and the key is E minor.
The main loop of Rock Your Body

Here's my recreation:

There's a stabbing electic guitar or clav type sound playing the main chord progression G11 (F/G) - A11 (G/A) - Em. Note again the usage of non-scale notes (F) which makes it more interesting and provides forward momentum.

Supporting the stab is a piano+synth pad combo playing a sparser version of the chords. The synth pad has a longer attack so you'll hear it fade in on the longer notes.

A bell type sound is used as a transition between the bars 1-2 and 3-4 which is a nice little hook.

The bass lick brings to mind CHIC's Good Times or Queen's Another One Bites The Dust because of the similar 3-hits-on-quarters rhythm on the first bar.

The drums are played disco style, with some open hihats on offbeats and having some snare hits with the bass drum. Otherwise the bass drum is following the rhythm motif from the bass.

When you get past the somewhat exotic 11 chords this is a fairly simple loop overall. And it works.

3. Let's Take A Ride

There are more popular tracks on Justified I could have recreated but I chose Let's Take A Ride because it's one of my favorites. This R&B track plays at 90 BPM and its key is B♭ minor, I guess.
The main loop of Let's Take A Ride. Synth and Pad play during the chorus.

Here's the verse loop:

And the chorus loop with additional elements:

The main element is an acoustic guitar pattern played over 4 chords. For each chord the root is played with the third and seventh, with the 9 thrown in there as a melodic effect. There's a two bar pattern of minor 9 chord followed by major 9 chord one semitone up. Bars 1-2 start on F and bars 3-4 start a fourth up on B♭. Note again the usage of flat second (C♭).

The guitar is sweetened up with a phaser effect and some additional effects to widen/beef the sound.

The drums play a syncopated 16th beat with claps doubling the "rimmy" snare sound. There a reverb effect on the last snare/clap hit as a fill. A couple of shakers are again added to the mix.

The bass is a sub bass type sound and it doubles some of the bass drum hits. On bar 3 there's an interesting break in the bass drum which leaves room for a nice sub bass fill. The actual notes here were quite difficult to determine, I had to resort to the spectrogram on this one.

The verse loop is simply the guitar, bass and drums. In the chorus we have two additional elements.

First we have a short synth playing mainly B♭ which creates nice harmonies with the chords. It switches to a C on the B♭m chord. I love this hook, it sounds so great.

Then we also have a vintage sounding synth pad playing longer notes, staying strongly rooted on B♭. I really like the B♭5 on C♭maj9 harmony which results in a sharp 11.

Closing words

There you have it, 3 tracks deconstructed and recreated (or at least partially). I hope you enjoyed this and let me know if you have any suggestions for future recreations.


Recreated: Sade - Cherish The Day

Sade's album Love Deluxe was released in 1992. It features a bunch of mellow tracks including one of my favorites, Cherish the Day. I'm gonna recreate it, meaning every element except for the vocals.

The track was produced by Mike Pela with the band. The official video version is a bit different with some extra overdubs, but I'm going to focus on the album version. Listen to it below.

And here's my recreation:

General stuff

This 80 bpm track is somewhat minimal in its composition and arrangement. It has a programmed drum beat throughout with a static C minor bass riff and only four chords on the synth pads. The arrangement feels electronic especially towards the end with repeating loops but it's contrasted with a loosely phrased guitar and Sade's warm vocals.


A mellow synth pad plays four one bar length chords: Cm7, Dm7, Fm7 and Gm7. The shape is the same for all chords which brings to mind that this could have been done with sampling a single chord and playing it with different pitches. Or it's a synth patch with the chord built in. Maybe it was composed like that, jamming around with presets or a sample. Notice the A note in Dm7 which adds some excitement as we shift from dorian mode (Dm7/C) to natural minor (Fm7/C).

I don't recognize the original synth/patch so I tried matching the sound with a couple of different layered pads.

Synth pad chords
On top of the chords there's a clean electric guitar line with only two notes, C and D (three if you count the half bends to E♭). These go nicely with the chords, D being a ninth on top of Cm7 and the D to E♭ bends occur on on Fm7, sixth bending to seventh.

There's some reverb on it which makes it more floaty. The rhythm is loose at times and the following transcription is approximate.
The intro guitar lick
I spot some classic sounds in the drum track! There are hihats from the Roland TR-909 with clave and maracas from the TR-808. The clave has a nice long reverb. I don't recognize the kick and snare, but most likely they are from a period drum machine also. I reproduced them with something that sounded similar.
The drum pattern, a combo of 3 different drum machines (most likely)
There's very little variation on the drum loop throughout the track. The claves go on and off periodically and the hihats and maracas are muted during some fills.

As the first verse starts there's a short bass fill and the highs on the drum track are omitted briefly. See later for the bass transcription.

Verse 1

You're ruling the way that I move…
The first verse has just the drums and the pad. There's a drum fill in the middle which substitutes snare for an 808 clap, first hit dry and second with reverb.

At the end there's a subtle hint of the intro guitar riff, maybe just the effect track without the dry signal.

Chorus 1

I cherish the day, I won't go astray…
The chorus (or at least the part I interpret as the chorus) is short, only 4 bars. The chords change to Cm7 - Gm7 - Fm7 - Gm7 for one cycle.

After the four bars there's a verse, or a post-chorus, maybe? I don't know, the song structure is not that traditional. Anyway, during that bit the bass enters.

The bass line is a four bar loop in C minor pentatonic and every now and then there's a jazzy fill played higher up.
The bass line, starting with the fill
Before the next part there's a simple but genius drum fill with a pitched down snare, the normal snare and the reverberated clap on 2nd, 3rd and 4th beats respectively.

Post-chorus/pre-verse and the next verse

This is the same as the intro with the guitar. It sounds like they didn't bother varying the guitar lick and just used the same recording again.

The verse continues with the same stuff, but for the bass there's a break and the jazz fill before the next part.

The "Flute" Solo

The flute patch sounds like an FM synth and I found something that sounded very similar (with some tweaking of course) from the FM7 legacy bank for FM8.

The patch has legato activated portamento which means the pitch will slide between keys if you don't lift the previous key before pressing the next. This is clearly heard on the second phrase.
The flute solo
Melodically the solo clings to the note F which is wise because it works on top of each of the chords. The starting D on Cm7 creates an open and sustained feel. The C♯ before it is a nice ornamental leading tone which makes it sound jazzy.

Chorus 2

We move into the second chorus, but you'll only recognize it by the vocals, since the synth pad chords stay the same and won't play the variation from the first chorus.


I'm going to call the next bit the interlude because it's quite different from the rest of the track.

The synth pad takes its only break in this track for 4 bars, then plays a 3½ bar long Gm7 which creates a Cm11 feel because of the bass.

The drums have some reverberated snare hits on 4. Then there's an interesting fill with something that sounds like a time-stretched piece of a drum loop sample. This is very hard to reproduce without knowing what the source sound was but I took a hihat loop and mangled it to something that sounds similar with time stretching, pitch & frequency modulation and EQ. There's a tom fill also, with a tom sound that has some snare/timbale quality to it.

The next 4 bars substitute the normal snare with a lower pitched one, and finish of with a low snare - snare - reverb snare drum fill.

The bass plays the same loop, breaking on the final fill.

An electric guitar with wah-wah effect plays muted chops during the first half (with an subtle delay effect) and a short melody line on C minor pentatonic during the second.
The wah-wah guitar during the interlude

To the last chorus

You show me how deep love can be…
Again, I don't what the next part is since it's only a couple of vocal lines. A very short verse? Pre-chorus? Anyway, it's the basic loops again with a bass fill in the middle.

Then we move on to the last chorus and this time the chords change, again for 4 bars only like in the first chorus.


For the rest of the track the vocals repeat the main hook from the chorus.

In the outro we get something new and something old. The new thing is a 1 bar loop consisting of a low-pitched crash cymbal on 1 and a muted electric guitar pattern. This combo might be an actual sample, or it's just engineered to sound like one.

The old thing is 3 repeats of a part from the wah-wah guitar lick.

After this it's back to the intro guitar lick and a fade out.

Final words

I like this track. I don't know what's the magic here. It might be the sample-based composing and production combined with nineties electronic aesthetic and the beautiful vocals. While the production might sound a bit dated today it's still sophisticated, smooth and enjoyable.

I'd love to hear your comments and suggestions for next tracks to be recreated.


Tutorial: Creating That 80s Snare Sound

The 80s was all about that snare. Everything was big, flashy and pushed to the limit. I've done a decent amount of fat snare sounds for my retrowave project Jane 8 and here are the things I find essential:

1. Start with a solid sound

Find a decent sample. Use a sound with lots of body and character, or stack a couple of samples. If you start with a "real" acoustic snare you're going to need lots of extra processing. For extra authenticity use a sample from a vintage drum machine. In I'm Free I used a snare from Alesis HR-16B.

2. Shape it with an EQ

Proper EQ makes any sound. Take a reference track of your favorite snare sound and try to match your snare to it with only EQ. I also put in an exciter very often, just to get some extra shimmer in the treble. Don't overdo it though. Or do, this is the 80s we're talking about.

3. Give it some tail with a reverb

Reverb gives the snare staying power and lifts it to epic levels. Not just any reverb, it has to be a specific kind. You want to hear and feel it. Experiment with different reverb VSTs, their presets and impulses. Again for extra authenticity use an impulse from a vintage reverb unit. My absolute favorite is the Big Snare preset from Yamaha SPX990.

4. Finalize it with in-your-face compression

Compress the sound after your reverb so you'll get a very pronounced tail. If your reverb impulse is not already gated, use a gate here so you'll get a tight release also. As for the compression settings, just go wild and push it to the limit! You might want to route some of the dry signal through to retain a punchy attack.

My 80s snare essentials: EQ, exciter, reverb and compressor.


Recreated: Kenny Loggins - I'm Free (Heaven Helps the Man) (from Footloose)

What is Recreated? I will analyse and recreate a full track. No vocals, but everything else is transcribed and reproduced. I'll try to match the original sound. The result won't be 100% like the original (limited by my skills and the time spent on each element) but pretty close to it.

The first track I'm going to recreate is I'm Free (Heaven Helps the Man) by Kenny Loggins from the Footloose (1984) soundtrack. It was written by Loggins with Dean Pitchford, and produced by the legendary David Foster with Loggins.

If you haven't heard it or need to refresh your memory, listen to it below (or the music video version).

And here's my recreation, start playing and read on:

General stuff

BPM: 160.15 (about)
Key: C minor
Time signature: 4/4

As with any composition there are recurring motifs in this track. One of them is what I like to call the "Listen to me" rhythmic motif (referred to as LTM later):
"Listen to me" rhythmic motif
The name comes from the lyrics in the bridge where the motif is repeated. The motif starts on the upbeat of 4 and syncopates around the first beat.


Bass: The intro starts with a bass riff. It follows an extended LTM rhythm with natural minor VII resolving to I (B♭ to C).
Intro bass riff
The bass sound is enhanced with a subtly sweeping modulation effect that creates some nice harmonics. I managed to recreate something that sounds like this with an LFO modulated flanger send effect.
Achieving the bass effect with Guitar Rig's Electric Lady, depth modulated by an LFO.
I'm not sure if the bass is "real" or a synth. Considering that this is the early 80s, it might be real. Then again, it doesn't really matter since after the first bars the lower bass is doubled by another, definitely synth sounding bass.

After the drums enter the bass repeats the LTM pattern for each chord, and the bass drum mirrors this rhythm exactly.

Guitar (clean): After the solo bass riff we kick into action with a clean guitar stab. And we're talking about really clean, 80s style crisp attack with a lush reverb.
Clean guitar stab
The stab starts with an open B♭sus2 (B♭ - F - C) on beat 3 which slides (without attack) into an A♭5 on the upbeat of 4. The A♭5 might also be a separate instrument like a synth because it sounds a lot softer, but it flows so nicely with the first guitar stab that I tend to hear it as a single part.

The implied chords in the intro are A♭ - B♭ - Cm. This is your basic natural minor chord stuff (VI - VII - i), If you master these chords you can build every eurodance hit in the 90s, majority of trance tracks and every metalcore chorus.

Drums: Regarding the mixing, the hihats are very subdued (which makes it hard to analyze the exact pattern) but the snare, claps and toms are very pronounced, as was the trend back then. The tom sound is quite eccentric, even for an 80s production. It's got almost like a timbale sound, and they are mixed very wide: higher tom right, lower tom left (introduced later in the track).
Intro drum pattern. Note that the loop starts with the fill at beat 3.
Occasionally you'll hear something that sounds like sticks on top of the drums. This might be just the drummer hitting something in an odd angle and creating a spill, which is accentuated by the heavy processing. Another interesting thing is that there seems to be no other overheads: not a single crash or any other cymbal, only hihats.

Synth (mellow): There's a mellow lead synth playing the same riff twice in the intro. It revolves around G, jumping to F and B♭, giving the chords some flavor: A♭ becomes A♭maj7 and B♭ could be interpreted as Gm/B♭.
Intro synth lead
I recreated this lead with Arturia's Mini V2. Using a mainly square oscillator seems to give the proper timbre. Filter cutoff is quite low, with moderate emphasis. There's also a slight envelope to the filter so that it fades in and out nicely.

Synth (flutter): Before the verse kicks in there's an additional synth playing a B♭ with a slow attack. The fluttering effect is done by modulating the filter cutoff with a fast LFO. For this sound I just duplicated the mellow lead and modified it slightly. I gave it some automation to gradually open the filter.

1st verse

Looking into your eyes I know I'm right…
Bass: The verse has the same chords as the intro, but the bass riff and drums change slightly. The bass riff gets more dense, and has a fill C-B♭-G-A♭ at the end of the 4 bar loop.

Drums: The drums play a 2 bar loop of basic quarter beat where the bass drum is syncopated around 1st beat (continuing the LTM theme).

Guitar (clean): In addition to drums and bass(es), the only other accompaniment is a muted guitar with a steady B♭ on every upbeat. This flavors the perceived chords as A♭sus2 (or add9), B♭ (flavor doesn't change compared to intro) and Cm7.

1st bridge

We only get one chance…
(Also known as pre-chorus, I call it the bridge.) I've heard that a great bridge makes a great song. It might even be more important than the chorus. I'm Free delivers in this respect as the bridge is awesome.

Guitar (dist.): The first thing that really pops out is the distorted guitar, playing power chords in the first half and some nice riffs in the second half.
Distorted guitar in the bridge
The first half starts out with power chord hits A♭5 - B♭5 - E♭5 and then via E♭/G back to A♭5. We can think that we've shifted temporarily from C minor to its relative key E♭ major, giving us very basic chords: IV - V - I - IV. Bridge parts are usually built on subdominant and it fits here since A♭ is the subdominant of E♭.

The second half implied chords are Fm7 - E♭/G - A♭ - B♭ - Bdim7 (c: iv7 - III6 - VI - VII - ♮viio7), a nice ascending bass line. This is countered by a static quarter note stab - very quiet in the mix, an electric piano perhaps - with the notes B♭ and E♭. The guitar plays a riff around these same notes, switching the upper E♭ to D and F. This is a very common and powerful compositional device: static notes or an ostinato in one part and movement in another part.

If you look at the resulting chords in more detail, you'll notice that there's no C anywhere: Fm7 is actually F7sus4 and A♭ is A♭sus2.

The final bar is interesting as it contains a chord that's rarely used in pop music: the diminished seventh. No single part plays the whole chord: bass and guitar play B, the quiet stabber plays B and D (maybe also F, not sure), and vocal melody has an A♭. The usage of this chord here is also interesting because it's part of a cadence (B♭ - Bdim7) and as a dominant it wants to resolve to Cm, but instead is followed by Fm as the chorus starts. So we have a deceptive cadence!

1st chorus

Heaven helps the man who fights his fear…
One thing you'll probably notice in my recreation that the transition from the bridge to the chorus is kind of lame, or it's missing something. Well, it's missing the child choir yelling "I'm free!" which is the only fill or emphasis I can detect. There's no drum fill or even a crash on the first beat.

Chords in the chorus are Fm - D♭ - Fm - B♭m - C. You might notice that we're not in C minor anymore and you're right, the chorus is in F minor (f: i - VI - i - iv - V).

Drums: The drums in the chorus play a simple quarter beat until the last fill, which is only a single tom hit on the upbeat of one.

Bass: The bass plays solid eights, with a root-root-fifth-fifth pattern on the Fm. The fill on top of C major (which is doubled by the guitar) goes F - E - C - G - E which is just the chord arpeggiated with an F in front for some melodic suspension.
The chorus bassline
Synth (mellow): The mellow lead from the intro makes a comeback here and plays a F minor scale line from C down to F. This starts on the D♭ chord so the C gives it a maj7 flavor.

Synth (chords): There's a synth playing chords, mostly following the vocal melody. During the implied F minor chord the synth alternates between E♭ major and F minor triads, giving it a bit of suspension and release, or a minor 11 sound if you look at it as a whole.

Guitar (dist.): The distorted guitar plays some stabs of power chords and doubles the last riff on C, but there is something else happening during the F minor chord. This was the most difficult thing for me to figure out in this track. It sounds like muted notes, but I'm not entirely sure is this the guitar at all.
Guitar in the chorus. I'm sure of the power chords and the slides before them, but the short muted notes are a best guess.
While the transition to the chorus is a deceptive cadence, the exit from the chorus goes pretty smoothly ending on C major - with eight note stabs - and then shifting to C minor again. Well, not exactly since there's no C minor anywhere: the C based chord leading to the intro riff is ambiguous as it only contains the root and the seventh (C and B♭).

2nd verse

Before we get to the second verse there's a pre-verse (or a post-chorus) bit where the intro motif is repeated. This lasts only for a single repetition of the intro lead riff (as opposed to 2 times in the intro). The flutter fill doesn't appear here, or it's toned down. Instead there another cleaner swell sound playing B♭ and C together, which is played twice. I used my clean guitar sound for this, but it might be also done with the flutter synth by toning down the modulation and cutoff.
Running away will never make you free…
Synth (heaven): The second verse is similar to the first one but there's an additional synth playing question and answer with the vocals. This means that when Kenny's not singing there's something to fill in the space. Question and answer is a great tool in composition. You won't get too bored with one part if you only hear it occasionally and there's a forward momentum created with the interplay of two (or more) parts.
The "answer" synth in verse 2 playing the "sweet notes"
I named this part "heaven" because of the Synth Heaven preset in TAL U-No-62 which I used as a starting point for this sound. Also this is one of my favorite parts in the song and heavenly describes it well. Not a perfect sound match with the U-No-62, though: the original sound has a more electric piano type attack to it.

It sounds like the synth plays 8th notes because of a delay effect (which is set to 8th note time which doubles each quarter note). The dry sound is panned to the left and the delay right, creating a nice stereo effect.

The notes played are E♭ - D - B♭ - G (notes of E♭maj7 or III7, or III65 to be precise) on top of Cm, creating a Cm9 sound. These notes are something I like to call the sweet notes and I'll write a separate blog post about why they sound good on top of almost every chord.

2nd bridge

I wanna hold you now…
Drums: The latter half of the drums in the 2nd bridge are similar to the first, with slight variations in the first half.

Synth (e-piano): As with the 2nd verse, the 2nd bridge is also "sweetened" with a new element. This sound definitely has an electric piano type timbre, and I found the Stage E-Piano preset from FM8 quite suitable here.
Electric piano in the 2nd bridge.
The notes played are B♭ - D - E♭ (sweet notes again) which are repeated over all the chords expect the final bar, where the melody goes B♭ - A♭ - D, completing the diminished 7 on B. The repeated ostinato of intervals m6 down, m2 up, P5 up is very beautiful and effective.

The left hand plays bass notes, expect G on the E♭ major, and "stealing" A♭ in advance while the rest are only resolving E♭/G to A♭, which makes it sound a bit more interesting.

Guitar (dist.): The latter half doesn't have the higher riff as in the 1st bridge, which gives the e-piano more breathing room. Instead there seems to be only stabs of root notes on chord changes. There might be palm muted 8ths in between, but if there is, it's very subdued. The last B♭ to Bdim line is the same as before.

2nd chorus

The second chorus is the same as the first one, except for the very end. First time we had a short break on the C chord, now we're continuing full blast on to the guitar solo interlude.

Bass: Last bar plays 8th notes C - C - D - D - E - E - C - C.

Synth (chords): Last bar plays a long C major chord.

Interlude (guitar solo)

It's quite common for songs to follow the ABC pattern (or more like ABABCB), where A corresponds to the verse, B is the chorus and C is something else. The "C" or the interlude part of the song appears only once and is usually completely different from the rest of the other repeated elements. Some call this the bridge but I call it the interlude.

Interestingly, interludes quite often fall around the golden ratio (61.8%) point of the track. Here also the marker for the 3 minute 47 second track falls on 2:20 which is in the middle of the interlude.

Bass: The interlude in I'm Free doesn't follow any previous patterns we've seen. It hits every scale note except E♭ with transitional notes lasting 2 beats between longer chords. Steady 8ths play A♭ - (via B♭) - Cm - (B♭) - A♭ - (G) - Fm7 - (D) - Cm - Gm/B♭.

Drums: The drums continue a steady quarter beat, starting to hit some open hihats on the 4th upbeat.

Synth (effect): There's a funny little effect here during the long C minor chord. It kind of bubbles up, catches a breath, and then winds back down. There's a feedback delay effect (quarter triplet length) on it.

Synth (pad): If you had a string orchestra in this track it would play this line. It plays a scale up and down, from A♭ to E♭ and then back down to G.

Guitar (clean): Before we get to the solo, there's still one element in the background, the clean guitar playing chords. It a nice repeating pattern, playing short stabs of B♭ and C minor triads before landing on the chord proper, all on upbeats. Note the usage of Cm over A♭ creating a maj7 and A♭ on top of F bass creating a m7.
Chords in the interlude. Note that it starts just before the long Cm chord.
Guitar (dist./solo): And now for the interesting part, the actual solo. It's mainly built around the same riff we've seen in the 1st bridge: interplay of an inverted power chord E♭5 (B♭ and E♭) with B♭ and D. Did you notice these are sweet notes as well?
The guitar solo. The silent clusters in the latter half are just an effort to create a sliding sound/noise with MIDI guitar (doesn't sound good no matter how you try). Pitch bend range is 2 semitones up, 3.5 down.
The solo starts with a nice cross-rhythm where the repeated riff is 3 beats long, intertwining with the overall pulse of 4. When we get to the Cm chord an inverted C5 (G - C) is added to the riff, while a gradual crescendo is taking place.

On the second half there's an octave jump up, riffage around the same notes, and a finish with some bends on a Cm blues scale, finally landing on a high inverted C5.

3rd bridge

The end of the guitar solo transitions smoothly to the bridge which is yet again slightly different from the previous two. The first half has only bass and drums, the latter half has the e-piano riff from the 2nd bridge and the guitar.

Bass: The bass continues the solid 8ths pattern, only pausing in the crowd-pleasing clapping parts. The chord changes occur mostly on the upbeat of 4, same as before,

Drums: The claps enter! Everything else drops between the first two vocal lines, leaving only drums with claps accentuating the snare. This is what I love about the 80s: the snare sound is already fat, but apparently it's not big enough in certain places so you need to add some claps to make it huge.

Guitar (dist.): The distorted guitar seems to double the bassline with palm muting and accentuating the syncopated chord changes (LTM's first note).

Last chorus and fade out

The song ends with the chorus repeated 3 times and fading out during the third. There's nothing really different compared to the previous choruses apart from some drum fills and some bass variations during the last 1-2 bars of each repetition.
The bass at the end of the first of the last choruses.
The first variation is during the last B♭m and C chords. Instead of coming back down to B♭ on B♭m the last note is F and E - F - G - E is played on top of C, making it a C/E sound.

The second variation is on the next round, only modifying the last couple notes of the C chord. The bass plays C - C - D - D - E - C - C - low G during the last bar, breaking the pattern a bit.

Final words

Well, there you have it. In retrospect there's a lot going on in this track and the descriptions above just scratch the surface. Maybe I should have picked something simpler as the first track to fully recreate.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this analysis. I'd love to hear your comments on whether this is useful at all and which parts to focus more on the analysis.

Suggestions for tracks to analyse and recreate next are also welcome. I'll most likely recreate tracks that don't feature a lot of distorted guitars since they are a nuisance to recreate with MIDI/VSTs. The 80s, interesting production/sounds and an overall great track are things that will influence my track choices positively. Maybe something a bit simpler next.



How to analyze and transcribe a song perfectly

Transcribing a song thoroughly is hard and time-consuming. If you are only interested in the main melody and chords, the task becomes easier, but what if you need every part of the track for a perfect reconstruction?

Let's face it: most of the transcriptions out there are wrong. Take any track, look it up on a tab site and you'll find a variety of transcriptions. Some are very simple: chords only with no indication of rhythm, some are full reconstructions done with a software like Guitar Pro. The quality can be anything, and if you have any musical knowledge you'll notice who knows what they are doing and who is just guessing. (/rant)

If you're analyzing a popular song, you'll have a better chance finding a decent transcription. It's still a good idea to verify it yourself.

Here are the things that will help you analyze and listen to your track for that perfect transcription or recreation.

1. Use a good pair of speakers or headphones

Listening requires good equipment. Use high quality speakers, monitors or headphones that have a good resolution, meaning that you'll be able to distinguish between different parts in the mix better. Don't forget the rest of the chain either: you'll need a good amp or audio device also. If you're into music, you should have these things sorted out already.

2. Use your DAW/audio editor

Import the track in your DAW or use an audio editor (e.g. Audacity) where you can easily skip around, start and stop repeatedly, loop parts and apply effects.

You can analyze a song from your music player also but you'll get frustrated pretty fast if there are difficult parts that you need to listen over and over again.

3. Use a similar sound when transcribing a part

It makes sense to use the same instrument when you are figuring out a part in the song. If there's a piano, use a piano sound to play along. You could also try to tweak your sound to match the original with EQ and effects.

If you're working in a DAW, record or manually program your best guess of the part and start A/B comparing it with the original via muting and soloing. If your sound is similar to the original, you can hear the differences easily and iterate your guess.

If your goal is to recreate the whole track, transcribing and recreating can be done in this same step. You just need to figure out the tempo of the original to perfectly align with your DAW grid.

4. Use EQ/filters

If you're analyzing the bass, apply a low-pass filter. If you're analyzing the hihat, apply a high-pass filter. If you're analyzing the vocals, apply a band-pass filter or an EQ boost in the mid frequencies. Focus on the stuff you are listening to and try to filter out the other things.

Sometimes you'll need very sharp filters. One example is to isolate the bass drum from the snare drum. They can share a lot of frequencies so it might be difficult to tell if there is a bass drum under a certain snare hit or not. In this case, take a very sharp (high Q or resonance) filter and focus on the boom of the bass drum.
In iZotope's Ozone you can sweep frequencies with a narrow band easily by pressing down Alt while using mouse.

5. Use mid/side channels

Using different channels might work if you have hard panned elements. Listen to left and right separately. One extra trick is to use mid/side processing.

Middle and side channels are just a different way of encoding the usual two channels: left and right. The mid channel is the sum (L + R) and the side channel is the difference (L - R). If you think about this for a while, you'll notice that the mid channel amplifies sounds that are common between left and right (i.e. centered things) and the side channel amplifies sounds that are different (hard panned or stereo-effected things).

Fun fact: simple vocal removers (that usually don't work) use mid/side processing by reducing the middle channel. This works on the assumption that the vocals are centered, but is also reduces any other centered material in the mix.

Some parts that are difficult to analyze in the original mix might be very audible in the side channel.
In Ozone you can solo the mid/side channels separately

6. Use time stretching

If you have fast or difficult parts, slowing the whole thing down might make it easier to analyze. Be sure to use time stretching (which retains pitch but changes speed), not resampling (which alters both).

For a good result, you may need to tweak the time stretching parameters or the algorithm used. For example Ableton Live has different algorithms for drums (better transients), tones and complex material.

7. Use a spectrogram

Instead of using your ears it's sometimes better to use your eyes. If you struggle with identifying note pitches or the number of rhythmic hits, use a visual analyzer.
In a spectrogram (like Sonogram SG-1 here) you may see things like drum hits and melody lines more easily.
A spectrogram visualizes the frequency changes over time, so you might see things like melodies and drum rhythms more easily. Analyzing the picture requires a keen eye though: because most of the sounds have a timbre that spans a lot of ground frequency-wise (i.e. they are not composed of a single frequency component like a sine wave), you won't see a single line but many repeated lines.

A spectrogram may be useful where you need to compare relative pitches a few hits or bars apart. If they occupy the same horizontal line in the graph, they are the same note.

8. Apply your knowledge of music theory and different instruments

If you know at least something about music theory, analyzing songs becomes so much easier. Knowing basic things like keys (circle of fifths), chords, scales, common chord progressions (I - IV - V) etc. will help you immensely. Know the difference between a G sharp and an A flat.

With your musical knowledge you'll be able to "fill in the blanks" without analyzing every single note. You'll recognize some chords and melodies immediately. Transcribing becomes faster.

If you know how to play a specific instrument, you'll be better at analyzing it. Learn about different instruments: how they are usually played, what kind of sound do they produce, what is their range etc. Learning to play more than one instrument is never a bad idea.

Transcribing a song is a skill that improves by doing and practicing (no surprise). If you are a beginner, learn some theory basics and start with a simple song. Study the transcriptions made by others (remember that most of them are wrong, find the errors). Listen, sing along, play.