Green Day and the Flat 7 Power Chord

Green Day often takes heat for their “simple songs.” However, despite this perceived simplicity, Billie Joe and co. have a few tricks up their sleeves. In this post we’ll look at Green Day’s secret weapon – the flat 7 chord – and see how they use it across several different songs.

I’ve always thought the idea that the number of chords in a song meant something is misguided. You hear the phrase “three-chord song” and you’re supposed to think what? That the songwriter is bad? Unsophisticated? Writing simple is hard and is as much of a stylistic indicator as anything else. The modern kings of the “three-chord” great song are Green Day. However, Green Day has a secret weapon that adds sophistication to their simple chord progressions. It’s their signature move: the flat VII chord.

The Theory Behind the Flat VII Chord

If you’re not a music theory geek, the next two paragraphs might scare you. But really, this isn’t rocket science and even with a basic understanding of music or guitar, you can understand it. Feel free to skip ahead two paragraphs.

In music-geek-theory-speak, the flat VII works like this:  First, note that I’m not talking about a 7 chord or a dominant 7 chord – I’m talking about a chord where the root is on the flat 7 of the scale – which is a note that is completely outside of the key. In a major key, the seventh note of the scale is one half-step below the root. In G major, it would be F#. The flat seven is F natural. If you’re considering things modally, then a major scale with a flat 7 is mixolydian – commonly used in funk and 80s music. A classic mixolydian melody is the main instrumental melody line in the Ghostbusters theme song by Ray Parker Jr. On the scale tones it goes 1-2-3-1-2-flat7-1-1-1-1-flat7-1. 

However, what Green Day is doing is not truly mixolydian because the flat 7 note never shows up in the melody – instead – it shows up in the chord progression as the Flat VII chord. Since you never hear Billie Joe sing the flat 7 note you could say these songs are in mixolydian, but I think it makes more sense to think of them as regular ol’ major but with a flat VII chord thrown in for character. Another way to say is it is that the chord is borrowed from mixolydian.

For non-music-theory-geeks: Think about the idea of the key or what chord is home-plate – it’s where you have a natural ending to a song. The flat VII chord is the chord one whole step below the home chord. If you’re playing guitar, it’s the chord two frets below the home chord. If you’re playing in G with 3-5-5 power chord as your home-chord, then 1-3-3 is the flat VII chord. The use of this chord really adds to Green Day’s distinctive sound. It’s interesting to music theory nerds because it’s not a typical chord to use in a major key.

Examples

Examples of Green Day using this chord are abundant and on just between Dookie and Insomniac (the classic era of Green Day doing its most Green Day-esque songwriting), the chord appears in each of the following songs:

  • Geek Stink Breath
  • Burnout
  • Panic Song
  • Tight Wad Hill
  • Walking Contradiction
  • Having a Blast
  • Chump
  • Longview
  • Eminius Sleepus
  • FOD

Burnout 

Let’s look at one of my favorites, “Burnout,” from 1994’s Dookie.

First, note that Green Day plays with their guitars tuned down one half-step to E flat. After the drum fill and first word, the song starts on F major, the key of the song. I’ve written out the verse chords in two ways below – first with chord names and second with chord numbers, which is how I prefer to think.

First Verse with Chords:

F                               B♭

I declare I don’t care no more,

F                                      B♭           E♭            F

I’m burning up and out and growing bored

E♭                                C

In my smoked-out boring room

First Verse with Chord Numbers:

I                                IV

I declare I don’t care no more,

I                                         IV         ♭VII       I

I’m burning up and out and growing bored

♭VII                               V

In my smoked-out boring room

Normally, the chords F, E♭, and B♭ will indicate the key of B♭, but that C chord at the end of the phrase (coupled with the melody itself) puts this song strongly in the key of F major. The E♭ chord is the flat VII chord. Here, Green Day’s use of the flat VII chord works as a bit of spice giving the song more edge and keeping the tonality just slightly ambiguous, making the dominant feel of the C major chord that much stronger (dominant in the sense of the V chord is called the dominant and signals tonality).  The chord also shows up in the chorus – on the “-ing” of the lyrics “burning out.” Notice that this chord allows Billie Joe to sing the second note of the key scale (the “re” of “do-re-mi”) over top of the flat VII chord, that major third of that chord.

F.O.D.

Now, if you’re not convinced how heavily Green Day leans on the flat VII chord, then take a look at “F.O.D.,” also from Dookie.


This song starts off with just acoustic guitar and vocals, with the verse mostly sitting on a G# power chord, but using the F# power chord as a contrast. Without a melody, this progression is totally ambiguous, but the melody puts it squarely in G#. The flat VII chord also shows up in the chorus as well, with the chorus chords as follows:

V                       ♭VII                  IV                           I

I’ve had this burning in my guts now for so long

V                     ♭VII             IV

My belly’s aching now to say…

or

D#                      F#                      C#                           G#

I’ve had this burning in my guts now for so long

D#                  F#                   C#

My belly’s aching now to say…

It then shows up again in the heavy part (“You’re just…a fuck….I can’t explain it ‘cuz I think you suck” – such poetry!) where the full band comes in as the last chord of the phrase. Again, the flat VII chord gives this song that strong Green Day-vibe.

Walking Contradiction

Let’s look at one last example.

In addition to the use of the flat VII chord, “Walking Contradiction” has the strange characteristic of starting at one tempo and then speeding up during the opening build. Not only do they do this on the record, but they do it live too. Maybe it’s a musical comment on the lyrical content, maybe not. Either way, it’s a strange move and I’m curious how they decided on doing this.

Another way to think of the flat VII chord in a major key is as a substitute to the dominant V chord. “Walking Contradiction” shows this use of the flat VII chord in this manner very well. The verse chords are as follows:

G#     C#       F#          G#

Do as I say, not as I do because

G#                     C#               F#            G#

The shit’s so deep you can’t run away

or

I           VI      ♭VII  I

Do as I say, not as I do because

I                        IV                ♭VII      I

The shit’s so deep you can’t run away

Now, you could take this chord progression and the same melody, but use a V chord instead of the flat VII. What you get is a pretty normal sounding punk song. However, if you use the flat VII instead, then it really becomes a Green Day song. The flat VII chord plays the dual rule of substituting for the dominant V chord and adding some color to a chord progression.

Next time you’ve got a song where the dominant V chord isn’t working or you want to add some color, take a cue from Green Day and use the flat VII chord.

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