(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

How Dave Grohl accidentally wrote a jazz song

Dave Grohl, by his own admission, is not a trained musician. He can’t read music, he learned to play the drums by hitting pillows in his room, and his philosophy in playing the guitar mostly incorporates his knowledge of rhythm, not melody. He knows chords and has an incredible ear for harmony and hooks, but put a score or a complicated set of chord voicings in front of him, and he’ll be the first one to tell you that he’s a lost cause.

It’s slightly bizarre, then, that what is arguably the Foo Fighters’ signature song actually has more to do with traditional jazz forms than hard pounding rock and roll. I am, of course, talking about ‘Everlong’, the unkillable second single from 1997’s The Colour and the Shape and perennial final encore at every Foo Fighters show. 

“Wait,” you’re probably saying, “That’s ridiculous! ‘Everlong’ sounds nothing like jazz!” And you’re right! It’s got everything a classic Foo Fighters song should have: thunderous drums, heavily distorted guitars, vocal hooks with a fair amount of vocal-shredding notes thrown in for good measure. It’s the platonic ideal of a Foo Fighters number. With that, it’s aggressively – almost parodically – alternative rock. But just under the surface lies a special progression that puts Dave Grohl in some unique songwriting company.

‘Everlong’ is composed in the key of D Major and was written initially while the band were recording the song ‘Monkey Wrench,’ which utilises a Drop-D guitar tuning. As he did on the song ‘Floaty’ from the band’s self-titled debut, Grohl began messing around with taking a chord shape and moving it across the fretboard. In this case, it was a power chord that would get new bass notes as it ascended and descended due to the detuned sixth string.

The first chord in ‘Everlong’ features the Drop-D bass note along with an F# and C# power chord, effectively voicing a D Major 7 chord. D Major 7 is the ideal base for jazz: if you’re playing in a major key in jazz, the I chord is usually voiced as a major 7th. But major sevenths aren’t uncommon in rock and roll either. Move up a full step to E Major 7, and you get the first chord in ‘Floaty’, along with the Grateful Dead’s ‘Eyes of the World’, while taken down to G Major 7, and you get the opening to Sonic Youth’s ‘Schizophrenia’. 

It was the last of which Grohl initially believed he was ripping off when he began composing the song. “In between takes, I was fooling around and I found that chord,” he once commented. “And I was doing it and I thought, ‘Oh, that sounds like Sonic Youth… ‘Schizophrenia’ sort of vibe.” But as he began moving the chord around, he began to stumble upon voices that were completely alien to traditional rock music.

Sonic Youth is actually a good comparison point here because the New York no-wave band were famous for tuning their guitars in intricate and completely unique ways. Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo often found chords and voicings that were impossible to play on standard guitars because of the atonal and chromatic tunings they experimented with (‘Kool Thing’ has a guitar tuned to all F# notes, while another favourite tuning from the band, consisting of G, D, and D#, can be herd on ‘Total Trash’, ‘Kill Yr Idols’ and many other songs from the band’s catalogue). Drop-D doesn’t quite fit into the truly bizarre mix of tunings that Sonic Youth used, but it’s a bridge to the wilder world of musical composition that Grohl would soon unwittingly find himself in.

Anyway, back to the music theory: after the D Major 7, the next chord is largely the same chord as before, except Grohl moves the bass note up to a B. In standard D Major chord progressions, B would be minor, but the voicing that Grohl uses has the notes B-F#-C#, which, when incorporated into the progression that he’s writing, would shake out to be a B chord without a specific major or minor voicing with an additional 2nd tone – the C#, relative to the B root note – plus the third of the chord removed, or Bsus2 if we’re writing it real book style.

OK, time out: obviously, Dave Grohl didn’t sit down with the intention to put a chord as jazzy and obscure as a Bsus2 in his song. That’s just the chord he stumbled on. It sounded good, had a unique tone, so he kept it. The same goes for the next chord, where he brings the shape down to the fifth fret and has the notes G-D-A, which is best articulated as a Gsus2 chord. 

The sus2’s in the verses chord progression are the secret sauce that makes ‘Everlong’ sound unlike any other rock song. Unless you’re Steely Dan, nobody is using a sus2 in rock music. It leaves chords open and unresolved, and it’s almost exclusively found in either classical music or jazz progressions for that reason. Major and Minor sevenths are usually the extent to which rock musicians are willing to experiment with chords and voicings, and if seconds are added, they’re generally in add9 chords, which still incorporate the third of the original chord. Taking away the third means you’ll have a nebulous chord voicing that requires a strong melodic throughline to prevent it from sounding too out of place.

But that’s precisely what Grohl does. The chorus of ‘Everlong’ ditches the extraneous voicings and goes for simple power chords: D major, B minor, A major, G major. I-vi-V-IV. But it’s the dichotomy of the solid chorus and the darker, less melodically certain verses that gives the song its emotional punch and driving power. It’s what composers do to add drama and colour to their works, and even if Grohl wasn’t explicitly going for that, he used the instincts of an old jazz pro to create the musical intensity of ‘Everlong’.